Sahalie Lake in the Indian Heaven Wilderness
The Indian Heaven Wilderness is nothing like the other wildernesses in the Gifford-Pinchot. It’s flat, isolated, and its protected forests are pockmarked with meadows and lakes. For all of the northwest’s human history, it had been a premiere hunting and foraging land for diverse tribes for nine thousand years.
In the afternoon, we find Eric’s camp pitched on the small Sahalie Lake; the only campsite on the entire lake. Later, Eric returns to camp. Like us, he had spent hours among huckleberries.
After setting camp, Eric and Tim leave to swim in a nearby lake, and I try my tenkara rod on Sahalie Lake, just to practice the cast, as a flyfishing dayhiker told me there were no fish in this lake.
To my surprise, a fish takes my fly almost immediately, and by the time Tim and Eric return, I have three eight-inch trout, ready for Tim to fillet.
All my regrets about carrying too few luxuries to share with my backpacking buddies on previous trips vanished. Sure, Eric and Tim always shared their fine meals and heavy-to-pack wine with me. Sure, Tim would let me sit in his camp chair. But now, I have provided our sustenance — fresh, beautiful fish.
And that’s not all. To shed my habit of having nothing to share at the campfire, to finally break the binds of my ultralight packing, I had packed a freezer bag and a wooden cheese board. While Eric and Tim prepared the fire, I place grapes, figs, a blue cheese from Rogue River, almonds and Brebirousse d’Argental, my favorite subtle sheepmilk cheese from France. I also place Jamon Serrano and a lovely Breseola – my twin passions in food – on the cheese board.
As I serve the cheese board, I realize it’s getting cold outside, and so I grab my water filter and baselayers and head down to the lake to change and draw up water from the lake. This time, instead of wearing my ultralight sandals, I am using true, stable, comfortable camp shoes; much more appropriate for the cooler weather.
I walk along the hard-packed sand of Sahalie Lake and suddenly find myself on the ground — my foot had broken through the crusty veneer of hard-packed sand into a foot of mud. I stand up and place my left foot on the ground; and instantly know there is something seriously, nightmarishly wrong. It is like there is no foot attached to the leg—just the pain of a meaty stump of flesh.
With my other foot and my hands, I get myself onto the ground and yell out for Tim and Eric, who are joyfully preparing dinner. At first, they don’t comprehend my scream and joke back. I yell again and they come rushing to the lake. They place me between them and hobble me back to camp.
I am laying on the ground at camp, and I make my plea — we need to get out of here as fast as possible, before dark.
Tim throws the three fillets in the fire, then douses it; Tim and Eric are making calculations, and then we go for it. Tim asks me to climb on his back. We make it about twenty feet – unbearable foot pain for me, Tim out of breath.
Let’s try placing me between them, they suggest. We make it, just barely, out of the huckleberry thickets and onto the trail. About 75 feet. “This isn’t going to work,” Tim says. “Yeah,” says Eric. I’m thinking, we hardly even tried. But I’m not thinking straight. We wouldn’t have made it another 75 feet.
They place me back at the center of the camp, between the three tents and the fireplace. In a flurry of short requests, I get Tim to hand me anything I can conceive of needing: 35 advil tablets, glasses, contact solution, contact case, a Clif Bar and a pack of olives. I place everything in the pocket of my midlayer. But within minutes, I’ll forget that this moment of clarity, and will have no recollection of where my emergency supplies went.
We all know that rain is expected tonight, so we’re going to get out of here before that.
Tim and Eric are working together to make sure I’m warm, suggesting I make the move to my tent.
“I just can’t do it,” I say. “I can’t make it over that lip.” The idea of moving myself into my tent is an impossibility. “I need to stay here.”
Tim and Eric start finding layers for me, helping me with a baselayer top, an extra shirt, my jacket.
Tim pulls out his emergency blanket. The one he just bought. “Let’s get this around him first,” he says.
The one layer I refuse is my bottom baselayer—my longjohns —there is no way I would be able to get my foot through them. That means I’ll have to weather this evening’s dropping temperatures until we find a way out of here, before tonight’s rain starts.
Eric and Tim are talking. Tim says. “Eric, I hate to do this to you, but I think you need to be the one to hike out and look for a cell signal as you are the only one that knows that route. I’m going to go in the other direction and look for a doctor.” Tim is referring to the campsites near the larger nearby lake, Blue Lake, where he believes at least two groups are camping.
As Eric prepares to head out, I hear Tim whispering to him. “So, a couple things you need to tell them. There are no external injuries. And, he’s in a state of shock.”
“Eric, Tim…Jane can wait until tomorrow to hear about this,” I say. “It won’t help anyone for my family to know.”
Then, both Tim and Eric are gone, and an overwhelming quiet creeps into camp. In this quiet, my mind races through the past twenty years of walking. How many times was I half a mile away from a road, and made some decision to jump from one rock to the next, or to slide myself through a tight space, all these little movements – safe, slow, deliberate movements, all of which could have produced this same result?
And then, what about Cuba —-the day I walked into the mangroves without water on a hot day, and then stumbled in the uneven accumulated mass of leaves, bunched up on the shoreline? What if what happened here, happened there? What was the difference? In Cuba, I was by myself, and nobody even knew which city I was near. If this happened in Cuba, how would I call for help? And if not in Cuba, what about the many days I slipped out off the road, only a quarter mile or half a mile from civilization?
Then, Tim’s voice. “I have some good news. I didn’t find a doctor, but I found a physical therapist. And, he specializes in feet and ankles.”
Hans, a physical therapist from Portland, leans in, evaluating my ankle, guessing at my injury and whispering words like tibia, fibula, ankle socket and ligaments. He finds a log and scoots it under my ankle, asking Tim about ibuprofen and giving us both advice about what to do when the pain hits. “He’s in shock now,” he explains to Tim. “but once that wears off, the pain is going to set in.”
Tim’s brand new first-aid kit has only a small amount of ibuprofen, and although I have an enormous amount in my pocket, I have no recollection of it. Tim’s first-aid kit has more tylenol, and he sets a plan to dole it out to me in increments. “I can give him the maximum dosage until we run out.”
Did I forget to mention that Tim was an army medic in the National Guard?
Hans’ backpacking partner, Tom, comes into camp next. It’s dark now, and he wears a headlamp, and carries a bright yellow emergency beacon. “We can set this thing off,” he says. “Gives them our exact location.”
Tom places the beacon down on the ground, pushing a button on the contraption. Tim would later tell me, “the mood changed after we hit that button, and I credit it for helping you not continue into shock.”
Hans and Tom, who are backpacking with Tom’s Boyscount Troop, leave our camp, and Tim goes off into the woods to look for firewood. Time passes in the dark, and then a flurry of activity again. Tim, Eric, Hans and Tom are all at camp again. “So, there’s some bad news,” Tim explains. “Jane knows you are injured. So, there’s some good news. There is a rescue team. They’re on their way.”
Eric explains, “I was able to text my wife from about a mile and a half away. She was able to communicate with the Skamania County sheriff, and of course all the wives were talking.”
I lie there on the ground, while the four of them tell stories, possibly under the pretense that I am in shock and not listening. Hans tells the other three a scene from a movie, Alpha, in which the prehistoric protagonist breaks his leg in a deep wilderness, self-splints and hikes out to safety. The survival stories get more and more gruesome.
“Hey guys,” I say. “Can you tell me perverted bird names instead.”
“Boisterous Bushtit!” Tim shouts, changing the subject while tending the fire.
Sometime later, Eric and Tim have news. “So…some bad news. The sheriff was considering taking a Blackhawk helicopter rescue, but it’s too dark. They considered coming in tonight, but the sheriff thinks its too dangerous, and you’re stable enough. We’re going to have to stay overnight.”
Weirdly, I am prepared for it, and after Hans and Tom leave, Eric and Tim make a plan for the next day. Eric will carry his pack to his car early the next morning and Tim will break down the camp. Eric will return to camp, meet Tim and carry my gear down the plateau – a day of backpacking, times three.
“If it starts raining tonight, we can always cut the bottom out of your tent and place it on top of you,” Tim says. Yes, I think, genius.
I know that sleep will not come tonight, and my mind wanders through all of the times in my life I hadn’t prepared for the possibility of an accident. Why did I walk there? Why did I jump across that? Years ago, why did I playfight with my son on top of a log while backpacking with him as a duo? How would either of us have navigated an injury? I race through twenty years of potential accidents.
Into the night, I listen to Tim trodding off into the woods, looking for firewood. Late into the night, he keeps the fire bright. Later he’ll explain how chilling it felt to be in an almost pitch-black forest, looking for firewood, but that he knew the psychological effects of keeping the fire lit.
Tim’s fire would also prove key for Eric, whose nighttime hikes to communicate with the sheriff meant his own stumble landed him in a puddle.
Eric would later write, “I remember standing in the pitch-dark meadow for about 30 minutes, responding to a long series of texts. There was a back-and-forth with the sheriff about Erik’s condition and position. While that was happening they received the emergency beacon information from the organization that manages those devices, and it matched what I was saying.”
Eric would begin to worry about bears or cougars while texting with the sheriff and our wives.
“At one point my headlamp died, causing a moment of panic, but then I realized a few minutes later that I had a phone in my hand, and a battery charger in my pocket with at least two days of charge. So I would have to navigate back to camp using my phone. Along the way I slipped once and landed on my ass in a large mud puddle. Luckily, my phone landed a few feet away on dry land.”
“I was worried more about cougars than anything else, because someone had been killed by one up by Mt. Hood a few weeks earlier. I banged my water jug a lot as I hiked to avoid surprises. The biggest wild animal danger is getting accidentally positioned between a mommy bear and her cubs, or encountering a hungry cougar. Usually bears and cougars will avoid people, if they hear us coming. The incident on Mt. Hood involved a nearly starving animal, with some other issues. In the case of Indian Heaven, there was so much food everywhere that it seemed unlikely that anybody would be hungry.”
Just three weeks ago, Hurricane Dorian slammed through the Northern Bahamas, where many of my friends live. At this time, we haven’t accounted for all of them yet. While almost all of them lost their homes or livelihoods, a few have yet to surface and remain on missing persons lists. I race through their lives, their plights, imagining their rescues. The perspective gets me through the night.
“Erik,” Eric whispers. “Look at that sunrise.” He’s packing up to descend. As I watch him leave, I wonder if I would have made the same decisions as these two. Could I have kept a clear head if Eric or Tim we’re injured? How lucky have I been to have them with me! How lucky they found Hans and Tom!
Only when daylight appears does a feeling of despair overcome me. Where are the rescuers?
Tim leaves camp to talk with Hans and Tom, and in the silence, four Canada Jays descend from the trees, pecking their way through camp. One teeters along, coming up to me, delirious in my sleeping bag. It appears to calculate whether I’m a threat, and then walks right past me, jumping over my injured leg. This bird, with its cold, black eyes and the way it just looks at me, reminds me just how immobile I am. If I was here alone, could I have been killed by a pack of hungry Canada Jays?
Then, I hear a voice. “Erik! Erik!”
“I’m here! I’m here!”
A woman in a bright red jacket, Lauren Dawkins, appears out of the thickets. “I bet you’re wondering where we’ve been!” Behind her were ten men, dressed in the same red jackets, emblazoned with a patch: Volcano Rescue Team, emerging out of the wilderness.
It is the most thankful moment of my life.
As Lauren splints my leg, a man explains, “We were ready to get you last night, but the Sheriff wouldn’t let us!”
They have a gadget with them. A massive fat tire that they have yet to test in a rescue. This is how I’m going to leave the Indian Heaven Wilderness. In a one-wheeled stretcher.
As I’m hoisted on the basket, the rain begins to let loose, and the team navigates the stretcher three-and-a-half miles down the slopes. The team is excited — their new wheel allows them to speed down the plateau—in constant communication, they share each piece of information about the trail ahead, navigating the mud, the thick branches, the steep parts. Constantly, rescuers are either holding the stretcher or breaking from it; the result is that there are always enough hands. We are at the trailhead in record time. There is a flurry of activity there — the sheriff, the rangers, the ambulance.
By the luck of skilled backpacking buddies, who made all the right decisions, and the luck of finding Hans and Tom, and the Volcano Mountain Rescue team’s perfect rescue, I am able to dream about being on the road again.
But what if just one piece from my successful rescue was missing? What would I do then? And what will you do, when it happens to you?