Davis L. Bigelow
“Ooooooh!” Glen moaned. His body was shivering uncontrollably. He tried to open his mouth to speak, but his tongue was an overstuffed sausage and his jaw was unresponsive. The waterlogged hiker fought to move his head, his arms, his legs, straining unsuccessfully against seized joints. He was a partially thawed Christmas turkey that had been rushed through the defrost phase of its existence by immersion in running water – except the water hadn’t melted his unyielding flesh, it had immobilised it! The small man’s mind reeled on the brink of oblivion. “Get up Glen!”
Finally, the determined Scotsman moved. He rose unsteadily to his knees, a disoriented tightrope walker without a safety net to catch him if he fell. Glen’s head lolled about atop his shoulders like a disjointed bobble-head figurine. “I haff ta mae a far.” He slurred. Glen’s brain was barely working but somehow he remembered that slurred speech was a sign of advanced hypothermia. Death was gently wrapping him in her lifeless embrace, lulling him to relax in her welcoming arms, coaxing him to sleep in silence. “No!” he muttered, resisting the inevitable. “I haff ta mae a far!”
From his kneeling position, Glen could see a small nest of deadfall on the riverbank. The clutch of smashed branches and shredded bark appeared to have been washed there by a spring flood and then left to parch in the summer sun. The nest of limbs was far enough from any trees or other flammable materials to do the job Glen required. The determined Scot eyed the potential fuel for the lifesaving bonfire he and Stan required if they were to remain alive. He tried to grin, but his face was senseless. “If I can just get a fire going.” Glen thought through his haze of hypothermia. He took a deep breath. Then, with superhuman effort, the soggy Scotsman abandoned the travois and crawled towards the deadfall.
Bruised knees drug in the dirt. Gloved hands clawed forward. Inch by inch Glen closed the distance between himself and the nest of deadfall. Soon, he was keeling again, sitting on his heels and digging out his match container and fire starter kit.
Beside the shivering hiker lay his soggy gloves. Glen puffed a few warm breaths on his unresponsive fingers and went to work on the lid of the watertight match container. Finally Glen had a dry match ready and a wax-impregnated cotton ball squished into a thin patty. He placed the ball under a few thins sticks and struck the match.
A tiny yellow ball of fire erupted from the tip of the thin wood, sending a miniature ball of heat past Glen’s downturned face. The smell of sulphur briefly filled his nostrils and then was gone. Anticipation flooded the small man. “Cuuu-mmmon!” He shivered, his jaw chattering like a steel wheel over gravel. Between his senseless fingers, the match quivered and nearly went out. Then the wax ignited. A growing flame licked hungrily at bits of fractured fuel above it. “Cuuu-mmmon!” Glen slurred again, trying to will the fire into being. He pushed a few tiny branches over the fragile flame, and the pile began to burn. Then, like an injection of morphine to a trembling addict, heat took over Glen McPherson’s world, overwhelming him, wrapping him, filling him with indescribable relief.
Before the blaze, like an albino shaman in a fictitious nether world, Glen McPherson began to strip, shedding his wet clothing and exposing his numb skin to the growing warmth. When the goose-bumped man was down to just his underwear, and his skin had finally dried, he pulled his waterlogged boots back on and headed for Stan.
The litter rested on the dirt some twenty feet from the fire, its lower shredded tips of green wood still protruding over the swirling stream of Skull Creek. Big C lay motionless between the long poles. “Stan?” Glen crawled up to the big man and shook him.
Stan Calderbank’s eyes fluttered open. Glen grinned from ear to ear. “You’re alive!” Stan grunted, his voice barely audible above the rushing creek. Glen could feel the fire’s heat on his bare back, but he was still shivering. “I have to get you closer to the fire.”
With that, Glen crawled to the head of the litter and began dragging his big friend across the weed-punctuated dirt. In another minute, both men were basking in the intense heat.
Glen helped Stan out of his boots, socks and shirt, but removing the big man’s pants was not an option. “I’m going to use an emergency blanket to help warm us.” Glen said, pulling the scuffed, dripping Mylar from his fanny pack. As Glen held it up, the blanket’s reflective surface bounced heat onto their pale hypothermic bodies. Glen gazed down at Stan and chuckled.
“It’s just that you look like a small Beluga whale in a giant reflector oven.”
“Ow!” Stan said, beginning to feel deliverance from the icy grip of a watery grave. “Don’t make… me laugh.”
“Sorry.” Glen offered, but continued a silent smile. The small man propped up the Mylar with a branch and then scuttled off. He laid out their clothing to dry before employing his own reflective blanket. With the immediate crisis passed and the sun finally beginning to burn off the fog, Glen collapsed beside his friend. “Too bad we didn’t think to bring a pot and some hot chocolate.”
“You could… go back across?”
Glen McPherson eyed his big friend, tilting his head a little to one side before responding. “I would,” he finally said, a smirk on his face, “but my boots are still wet.”
Nearly an hour passed in unspoken silence. Radiant heat from the bonfire began to force the chill from their bones, and finally, the men had to retreat a little from the blaze. “It feels good to be warm again!” Glen said. Stan nodded, but managed to add a smile to the exchange before his face again resumed a slack expression. The big man was warm, but his pains hadn’t been washed away.
For the next hour, Glen held piece after piece of wet clothing between himself and the fire, waiting until each began to steam before selecting the next one. The sun finally poked through the fog to add its warmth, but the enormous bed of crimson coals did the majority of the work. Soon, the dark stains of water in the fabric gave way and the clothing’s colour grew lighter.
“Good thing I listened to you.” Glen said, rubbing at his empty stomach. “If we hadn’t brought the water filter, we’d be in more trouble than we already are.” Stan nodded and Glen crawled to the creek to get a much-needed drink.
The battered Scotsman sat on the bank of Skull Creek, right leg out over the raging rapids, the water purifier’s intake hose dangling into the current over his bare foot, his hands methodically pumping. Glen’s nervous gaze slowly swept the distant tree line. They were at least a hundred feet downstream from their previous night‘s campsite. He shook his head. “I still can’t believe we’re alive!”
Goose bumps swarmed Glen’s muscled chest and then disappeared into the sunlight. He continued to pump. His left ankle throbbed mercilessly and the battered hiker stared down at it. The blue and purple skin looked like some dismal Vincent Van Goth painting, created on a day when the master painter was unusually downcast and dejected. Glen shuddered. “Heavenly Father?” His prayer came out as a whisper, swallowed by the sounds of the surging stream. “Thank thee for helping me and Stan to get across this river.” The small man’s eyes took in the bonfire, and he continued to speak. “Thank thee for preparing that pile of wood and twigs so I could start a fire so easily.” Unbidden tears rose and began to weep out onto his ruddy cheeks. It was painfully obvious that the two men were alive only by the grace of God.
Five minutes passed before Glen McPherson was crawling again, carrying a pump water pouch toward his big friend.
“Hey Big C?” Glen sounded a little more upbeat. Stan’s eyes met his. “I think I can still pull you without my crutch.” A look of curiosity flickered across the big man’s face, but he remained resigned to listen. If I lean on the front support of the travois, I should be able to make it work.
Stan nodded his understanding. His breathing was shallow. His face was drawn. After a pregnant pause, he spoke. “Are the clothes… dry enough?”
“I think so.”
“Then… let’s go.”
Glen scuttled in the glow of the coals, relishing in the final minutes of heat. He dressed first and then worked on Stan. With the Mylar blankets again gathered into his fanny pack, the water drank and the pump refastened to the litter, the small man took up his position of draft horse.
Without his crutch, Glen balanced on one leg and then bent down and hoisted the head of the travois into the alpine air. Gravity swung the front support into a vertical position and Glen let the litter’s weight settle onto it. Pushing downward on the front cross bar with both hands, the determined Scot shuffled his right foot forward a little and then simultaneously lifted and pulled forward. The travois slid ahead nearly a foot. “It looks like this is going to work.” He called out. Behind him, Stan smiled with relief. “Looks like we have about five hundred yards to go!”
Stan’s thoughts were both bitter and sweet as he watched the river slowly retreat. “I’m glad to be rid of you!” He thought as he eyed the raging, glaciated waters of Skull Creek churn relentlessly by. Raw memories of his helplessness in the churning river haunted his thoughts. In spite of the ordeals of the past several days he had never faced certain death before. But today he had. The terror he felt in the river had eclipsed everything. In that prolonged moment of distress, his life had paraded before him. The big man had experienced a rush of gratitude for good deeds done and a rush of regret for things left undone. How Glen had pulled him to safety he didn’t know. “Truly, it was a miracle.” While Glen had been drying their clothes and boots, the big man had offered a silent, but sincere prayer of his own. God had given his life back to him and Stan knew it. “God gave life back to us both!”
For several minutes, Glen struggled forward across the relatively level riverbank. His intense blue eyes fixed the top of Wynyard Hill. “You’re almost there!” he muttered under his breath. “You can do this.” In spite of the self-fabricated, psych up success speech, Glen McPherson knew the truth. Pulling his large friend up this final grade would be tough – perhaps even the toughest test of the week. The small man stopped to rest and to catch his breath. The water he had consumed was already feeling used up and his empty stomach housed no fresh power for the small man’s abused muscles.
“Hey Big C, you’d better get your good foot against the bottom crossbar for this hill.”
“I can’t leave you now, so close to the truck and all!” A vision of Stan sliding off the travois played across the stage of Glen’s mind. In spite of their sombre situation, he grinned. “Of course, if you did slide off, it would be so much easier for me!”
Stan smirked and shook his head. “You’d like that… wouldn’t you?”
The men were silent for a few seconds as the brief moment of humour was absorbed into the fleeing fog that still clung to the tallest tree tops of Wynyard Hill. Finally Glen spoke. “Not really.” He said. “We’ve come this far. No point in quitting now!”
Stan’s smile faded, and two tiny rivulets ran down his cheeks. In the past five days, his tenacious friend had saved his life more times than he could count. His debt to Glen McPherson was too large to ever repay. Stan stared absently off into space. “I would have done the same for him though!” Fresh tears spilled over the big man’s lower eyelids. With a large hand, Stan wiped at his face and then pressed the foot of his god leg against the lower bar of the travois. Hope filled his heart and the big man’s mind found the face of his devoted wife. “I’ll be home soon Alida!” He took a shallow breath and let it out slowly. “I’ll be home soon and things will be better between us.”
Well over an hour of puffing, panting, sweating and straining passed before Glen spied the truck. The exterior, of the sought after vehicle, was covered in rain-splattered dust. The ebony paint bore the haunted look of ten thousand chicken pox scars, but the struggling hiker didn’t care. All that mattered was the fact that they were nearly saved!
Ten additional minutes saw Stan laying quietly on the inclined travois atop the grassy knoll that marked the highest point of Wynyard Hill. Glen knelt at his head, panting hard while fumbling in his fanny pack for the precious truck key. As battered hands and knees crawled for the ignition an unspoken thought ran through the minds of both hikers. Neither man however, dared give the dour thought a voice. “I just hope the truck starts.”
As Glen McPherson plunged the key into the door lock and turned, four hairy feet approached the bank of Skull Creek and came to a halt. Five hundred yards below the oblivious hikers, twin beady eyes scrutinized the embers of the dying bonfire before finally gazing upwards at Wynyard Hill. “Where are those human’s now?” The bruin paused for only a brief moment longer, sniffing at the moist alpine air. Then silver-tipped hair felt the icy sting of Skull Creek as the grizzly boldly stepped into the water.