Saw Tooth Ridge | By: Joseph R Quinn | | Category: Short Story - Adventure Bookmark and Share

Saw Tooth Ridge


By J.R. Quinn

I hadn’t seen Don Moore for years. At least see him enough to talk to at length. Since his retirement, he had passed, occasionally, through the ER where we had worked together. Even then we did not talk much, often because I was too busy, but mostly because I’m poor at small talk. I would mention how well he looked and he would mention that he was working as a doc on cruise ships just for the travel and to keep his hand in medicine. I would say how great retirement must be and wish him well before I descended back into that pressure cooker.

But once we met at a retirement party for a mutual colleague. He mentioned that he had been working in Weaverville, a small logging and forest service town in Trinity County up in northern California.

“It’s a small emergency room. I cover 24 sometimes 48 hrs at a stretch and see maybe 20 or so patients a day. I get to sleep almost all night and nap during the day”. He said.

“I thought you’d retired from ER’s for good? “ I replied.

“Well I have now.” He said. “I’m really retired this time.”

“Yea, when I retire I’m retired. I’m done!” I said.

“Yea, well I always liked it, liked the patients, the interaction with my colleagues.” He said.

“Not me” I replied. “I like the medicine, the body of knowledge, and some of the patients. But I’m tired of listening to the problems of strangers especially when many are self inflicted. Then they expect me to solve them. When I quit I’m done.”

My wife, Marianne, interrupted before I could prolong the rant she had heard so often.

“We’ve been in Weaverville. It’s a pretty little town. We’ve stopped there on our way to hike the Canyon Creek Trail. Oh, that was a beautiful hike; we’d like to do another backpack in the Trinity Alps. We were thinking of hiking the Marble mountain trail this summer.” She said.

“I’ve hiked all over the Trinity wilderness.” Don said. “Of course, it’s been a number of years but there was one hike I always wanted to do but Lorraine just doesn’t want to hike anymore.” Lorraine was Don’s second wife.

“I always wanted to hike the Caribou Lakes trail and connect up over Saw Tooth ridge to Portuguese Camp and back down the Stuart fork ending at the Trinity Alps Resort. I’ve hiked the trails on both sides at separate times but I always wanted to hike all the way through. It’s a beautiful hike but a bit of a scramble over the ridge. But I think I’m still up to it.” Don said as he rubbed the short distinguished beard he had grown since I saw him last.

“Of course, I wouldn’t want to hike it alone.” He added.

I estimated Don’s age at 72. He looked lean and fit. I was about to turn 62 and the thought of puffing up and down switchbacks trying to keep up with him was embarrassing.

“Yea that sounds like a great hike.” I said avoiding commitment.

“Oh, that sounds wonderful!” my wife piped in

“When were you planning to go? We could schedule time in July.”

“Well I hadn’t really planned the hike but if you’re interested I could be prepared by July.” Don replied.

“That would be great.” She said not bothering to consult me as usual.

“How’s that sound to you, Joe?” Don asked.

“Oh yea sounds great, July.” I agreed.

It was only June. What hikes we’d done we prepared for or Marianne prepared for about 3 or 4 days ahead. I was always too busy with work or do it yourself projects that now bordered on major construction jobs to plan backpacks. When Marianne said it was time to go I loaded the equipment in the Subaru and drove to the trailhead. I complained when I struggled into the pack, my wife always weighted me down like a rented mule, and then walked on.

I didn’t anticipate Don’s meticulous planning. His e-mail updates arrived weekly.

“I’ve been using my Nordic Trac daily again and am planning a few day hikes to get in shape. I anticipate a total of four days and three nights on the trail. Hope you are still up for that.” His e-mails always implied concern for our readiness.

“Hiked to Loch Leven Lakes carrying a small pack. Plan to go again. Would you and Joe like to come?” He wrote.

“Made a list of everything we should take on the backpack. I included it as a attachment.”

“We should get together and go over the route. I have maps and several books on the trails. Let’s plan on dinner and I’ll share these with you.”

“This hike is a big deal for him. “ I mentioned to Marianne. I’m mostly concerned with going without a shower for three days.

“Me too?” she said. “ But dinner would be nice and Don‘s a nice man maybe just a bit compulsive like a lot of doctors.”

As usual Marianne handled all communications and about two weeks before D day we went to dinner with Don and Lorraine.

They lived in an older neighborhood in an adjoining town. I had been to their house once before for an offsite department meeting. As we meandered through the back road maze I noticed all the new housing then realized how long ago that had been. Don was older than I thought. Maybe his obsessive planning masked anxiety. I wondered now how much backpacking he had done recently. I knew I couldn’t raise the subject without risking offense.

The dinner was pleasant. We reminisced about colleagues and current events in our lives. But Don was especially intent on reviewing the details of the trip. He had a topographical map of the Trinity area. He pointed out the Caribou Lakes trail emphasizing that we would follow the new branch, camping the first night in Brown’s Meadows about 5-6 miles in. Lorraine praised the beauty of the place effusively. We would avoid the old Caribou Trail, which passed with multiple steep switchbacks up over a mountain with no suitable interim campsites or water.

“The old trail has been largely abandoned with good reason. Once you’re on it you have to go through. It’s steep and there’s no good place to spend the night.” Don said.

From Brown’s Meadow, he planned to reach the Caribou Lakes basin, camping there the second night.

“Lorraine and I overnighted there 25 years ago when we were living in sin. We skinny dipped in the upper lake on a hot afternoon. Cold but refreshing!” He explained.

“We’ll need a good night’s rest in order to tackle the scramble over Saw Tooth Ridge and reach Portuguese Camp before the heat of the afternoon sets in. There’s no water on that part of the trail. It’s precipitous and faces the south.”

This caught my attention. I peered closely at the map. The serpentine lines, indicating changing elevation, clustered.

“Saw Tooth Ridge, steep and exposed. “ I thought.

We had backpacked the Canyon Creek trail in the Trinities a few years before, a pleasant trek, easy compared to the high Sierras. I had anticipated that this hike would be similar. Now I wasn’t so sure. Don suggested a tune up hike up off I 80 to lakes in the local Sierras but neither Marianne nor I had the free time. But I vowed to myself to study the available trail guides for Caribou Basin particularly the descriptions of the climb over Saw Tooth ridge to the Stuart Fork trail connection.

Later I read the guide. Then, carefully, marked the trail with a black marker on the Don’s donated map. The guidebook described the remote trailhead 20.5 miles in on a dirt road passing along Coffee Creek to a Big Flat Campground.

Trip 13

Caribou Basin and Sawtooth Ridge

Distance: 9.6 miles one way to Caribou Lake

Change in Elevation: 3975 feet 414 feet per mile

The newer trail although 2 miles longer skirted Caribou Mountain and sounded like a gentle climb. The old trail over the mountain, the book confirmed, was difficult even for pack animals and hence seldom used. It described Brown’s Meadow as a sloped expanse of green pasture, bordered by alders. It offered good interim camping after an initial walk of 5-6 miles. The book expounded on the lush meadow redolent with the smell of Angelica, a flower I was eager to see. After all, how beautiful must a flower be to garner a name like Angelica? From this agreeable sounding place we would easily reach the Big Caribou, the largest natural lake in the Trinities, on the second day.

The Caribou Basin was frequently visited but if you explored you’d find a secluded place to pitch a tent. There you would find sparkling clear waters reflecting vertical white granite cliffs. At the south end of the lake lay deer cropped meadows punctuated by wildflowers. A virgin stream of crystalline snowmelt demarcated the landscape. On the third day, we planned to ascend along those meadows on the described vague steep trail to the cut atop Saw Tooth ridge, towering always above like the crenellated walls of a castle in ruins.

We met at Don’s house in early July. As we lugged our gear into Don’s large van, he handed me a computerized list.

“Just something I put together to be sure we had everything we’d need.” He said.

“Yea. Good idea!” I replied as I, slightly irritated, perused the listing of everything we had already packed.

“It’s not our first backpack.” I whispered to Marianne.

“But then he doesn’t know that.” She replied. “Besides, he’s a doctor! You’re all a little OCD.”

Then with Lorraine driving, we embarked for the Trinity Alps. We snaked the back roads to 99 north, connecting to interstate 5 into Redding and on out past Whiskeytown Reservoir towards Weaverville. Lorraine knew the quickest way. She was born and raised in Redding. She met Don as an operating room nurse when he practiced Surgery at Redding General. Don was married then, married for 25 years, with two sons. As we weaved along the shore of the Whiskytown Reservoir, they reminisced.

“Remember we used to sail here when we were living in sin.” Lorraine said.

“Yes, we’d ride out here on Sundays on my old Indian motorcycle. Of course, it was shiny and new then.” Don immediately qualified.

“You always looked, should I say, dashing; in that black leather pilot’s jacket you wore. “

Don referenced the onboard GPS system and we cut to a back road that crossed Clair Engle Lake. We reached the west shore and wended our way to its origin, a massive earthen dam. The lake was narrow with tentacles stretching into the feeding rivers. creeks and streams.

“I made reservations at a motel for tonight. I hope that s alright with you?” Don said. “It’s called Grey’s Gulch. Sounds interesting.”

“Sounds fine with us. “ We agreed.

Lorraine found the turnoff to the Grey Gulch Motel. I noted the sign riddled with bullet holes as we clawed up the gravel road past dilapidated cabins with rusted metal roofs. We stopped at the office.

“Must get its business from hunters and fisherman” I thought.

Woods different from most of California surrounded the place. There were more deciduous trees, a large leaf maple and full leaved oaks reminiscent of Vermont, my birthplace and home for most of my life.

“We’ll have to come here in the fall when the leaves turn” I said to Marianne.

“Autumn is the only time I still miss New England.” I said.

“Yes, every fall, Joe has to find some place out here where the leaves turn colors.” Marianne added.

We parked and entered the office. It was small and crammed with eclectic artifacts from rusted shovels to old signs and shabby stuffed animals. Don rang a bell and a pleasant man emerged from the living quarters.

“How you folks today?” he asked.

“We’re doing well.” Don answered. “We have reservations under Moore.”

“Moore, yes Donald Moore. One night, two rooms, two couples. Here it is.”

“Interesting place you have here.” Don said.

The proprietor was a man in his fifties wearing a flannel shirt, clean-shaven and amiable. “Yes I came here in the seventies to escape the rat race and stayed.” He replied.

“You folks here for the lake? Fishing’s good right now. There catching some big ones.”

“No we’re back packing the trail to Caribou Lakes. We are going to connect to the Stuart fork across Sawtooth Ridge. That is three of us. My wife will drive us to the trail head and pick us up at the end.” Don explained.

“Ambitious hike!” the proprietor said. “Big fires in that area now, bringing in firefighters from Arizona and New Mexico. I’d check with the Forest Service before hiking back there.”

“Fires! We’ll check” Don said.

“Fairly widespread.” The man continued as he ran our credit cards. He then gave out our keys and directed us to our rooms in an adjacent building.

“Any good restaurants around? “Don asked.

“Martha’s, just up at the crossroads near the Forest Service Headquarters is real good. Tell her Vince at Grey’s Gulch sent you and you’ll get a discount.”

“Thanks, we’ll do that.” Don replied.

Our rooms were side by side in a rundown building raised on blocks. The room was clean and decorated in the same eclectic style; old posters and rustic paintings with a patchwork quilt covering the bed. We deposited our gear, took showers, climbed back into the van and drove to Martha’s.

The countryside grew more remote, rural crowded by wilderness. The few houses varied between shacks and manufactured housing with worn log trucks and rusted heavy equipment strewn across yards gone to seed. We found Martha’s at the junction. It too was rustic, sided with rough wavy edged boards grayed by weather. A few locals sat smoking and laughing over beer. A pleasant middle aged lady greeted us.” Four for dinner?” she asked. “Would you like to eat inside or out?”

“Outside sounds great!” Don answered. “Sound OK to everyone.”

“Works for us.” I replied.

We followed Martha across a wooden deck down wide stairs to a ring of high tables and high cocktail chairs surrounding a mammoth cedar. A manicured lawn punctuated by bright-multicolored flowerbeds surrounded the circle itself.

“What a pretty spot! You never expect this where everything else is so wild.” Marianne said. We all agreed that this was a pleasant surprise.

“There may be a delay tonight folks. We’re expecting a Forest Service bus full of firefighters from New Mexico. There’s been a big fire up in the Caribou Basin and they’re bringing in help.”

“Caribou Basin, we were planning to hike in that area tomorrow.” Don said.

“I’d check with the Forest Service first. A lot of back country trails are closed.”

“I sure hope not. We’ve been planning this hike for months, years in my case.” Don said.

“Well, just check in at the Forest Service in the morning .You might be fine. They been up there fighting the fire all week and the smoke has died down. Can I take your drink order now, folks?” Martha said.

“I’ll spring for a pitcher of beer if that‘s ok with everyone.” I offered.

“Sound’s good to me! How about you, Lorraine?” Don replied.

“Do you have any local wines?” Marianne interjected. “I saw a sign for a vineyard on our way up the lake.”

“We do have two wineries now in the area. Would you like to try a glass?”

“Oh yes! Do they have a Pinot Greis. We’re so close to Oregon. I love Oregon Pinot Greis.”

“No, they do bottle a good dry Riesling, though” Martha responded.

“Riesling, I love that too. I like all wines. I’ll have a glass of that.” Marianne said.

“Beer for the rest?” Martha asked.

“Beer for the rest.” Don said.

Children were playing about the great central cedar. A girl, about 10, pushed a robust 2-year-old boy in a stroller about the paved circle containing the tables. A youngster, approximately 12, whirled through on a BMX bike at times attempting a wheelie. A five-year-old girl who looked like the happy baby in the stroller rumbled a big wheel plastic bike across the pavers.

Martha brought the wine and a pitcher of pale ale.

Ever curious and eager to socialize, Marianne asked about the children.

“Are they your children, Martha?”

“The baby in the stroller and the little girl on the Big Wheel are my grandchildren.”

“And the other two?”

“They live with me. Their parents live up the road. Both are heavy into meth and whatever else they can get. The kids, of course, get neglected. The older girl came one winter just to get warm and her brother followed along. I just let them stay. What are you going to do? They’re just kids.” Martha explained.

“That’s wonderful of you.” Marianne said.

“Like I said what are you going to do?” Martha replied. “My husband and I want to sell this place and move up to Oregon. I don’t know what will happen to them then.”

“Drugs, a big problem up here?” Don asked.

“They’re everywhere up here.” Martha said. “Can I take your order now, folks? Maybe we can get it in before the buses come in.”

As we waited for our food, two converted school buses, old and dull gray, creaked into the restaurant’s parking lot. About forty swarthy young men and some women trooped out and up onto the wooden deck. They arrayed themselves around the picnic tables and the over worked staff scurried about with pitchers and utensils.

As darkness descended, the haze and odor of smoke grew distinct and pungent.

“You better check with the Forest Service and see if your trail is open tomorrow.” Lorraine reminded.

“We will, of course. We have to get our permits anyway.” Don said.

Eventually, our food came and we ate. The children played on, for now, oblivious, to their disordered world.


We returned to the comfortable old cabins and slept well. It rained intermittently during the night, unusual in July in most of California. But the Trinities were different. More like western Oregon with deciduous trees, big leaf maple and oak mixed with the pines and firs. In the morning I opened the door to a light rain tatting on the leafs of the trees dug into the nearby bank.

“Morning, getting some rain.” A man in a tie-dye tee shirt greeted me as I stood in the doorway.

“Yes, should put a damper on the fires.” I replied as I studied the speaker’s scraggily red beard and explosion of thick red hair. He walked with his back arched and moved his legs from the hips. His voice was friendly almost jovial but halting like his gait.

“Maybe a stroke or cerebral palsy.” The clinician in me diagnosed.”

“We’re backpacking up in the Caribou Lakes basin but we heard the trail was closed by the fires.” I said.

“Just up there yesterday. “ He offered. His entire body twisted as he talked and his arms waved as though he played a guitar. “Can only go up the old Caribou trail over the mountain, a real ball buster. The lower trail is closed by the forest service. They set up a firefighter’s base camp there so you can’t even sneak through.”

“Too bad! That’s the way we were planning to go. My friend planned to stay in the meadow tonight, camp at the lakes tomorrow and scramble over Saw tooth Ridge the following day.” I said.

“Scramble, that’s the word.” He struggled to say. “I tried to climb that ridge, couldn’t even find the trail, still buried in snow, gave up after I slid down one snow bank.”

“My friend has his heart set on doing the ridge and connecting to the Stuart Fork trail. His wife will pick us up at the other end.” I explained.

His face contorted. “Well that’ll be tough.” Then he waved his arms and twisted his face into a sardonic grin. “But you can try like those old pioneers and with that 49’ er spirit you’ll make it.”

“Sounds like more effort than it’s worth.” I said.

“Beautiful up there and won’t be anybody around because of the fires. Just need that old 49’er determination that’s all.” He said over his shoulder as he lurched on down the driveway.

Don appeared waling down from the office.

“Morning!” Don said. “Sleep well? Up for some breakfast?”

“Yes.” We replied. “Very well, rained some during the night, Should damp down the fires.” I commented.

“Yes, looks as though it could rain this morning. Might get wet on the trail, you’re prepared for that I suppose?” Don inquired.

“Yea, we got that covered.” I replied. “Its not the first time we’ve backpacked.” I thought again.

“Morning!” Lorraine sang as she exited the cabin.

“Morning!” Marianne replied.

“We thought we’d go into the town for breakfast. I called a friend we’d worked with at Redding and she’s going to meet us. We haven’t seen her for years.” Lorraine said.

We loaded the van and drove down the gravel road to the small town on the main part of the lake. It was early. The town was empty. It consisted of a few houses of variable vintage , a general store and a log sided motel with a chain saw carved grizzly bear erect and clawing the air out front. Its parking lot was deserted. We drove past and stopped at a small restaurant across from the store. It too looked closed but soon a heavy woman lumbered along a path from an adjacent house.

“Looking for breakfast, folks?” she asked.

“Sure are!” Don responded.

She unlocked the door and we entered and sat around a large worn wooden table while the woman fired up the griddle. Someone had mysteriously already made the coffee and we all poured a cup.

The sky above the town darkened and rumbled. Then a slash of white lightening ripped down across its gray expanse. Immediately thunder like an unexpected gunshot shook the building.

“Close.” Don said.

“Real close.” I replied. “I haven’t seen lightening like that since I left the east. “

“I was talking to a guy outside the motel that had just hiked up to Caribou lakes and said the Saw Tooth ridge trail was buried in snow.” I continued.

“Yes I talked to him in the office, thought he might have been into his cups.” Don said.

“Really, I can usually smell alcohol. I thought he had cerebral palsy or maybe a stroke.” I said.







“Maybe, “Don responded. “But I don’t think he was very reliable.”

“Between the forest fires and the thunderstorms, this hike is not starting out well.” I said.

“Well, we’ll stop at the ranger station to check out conditions and then decide.” Don said.

I sensed in his voice how determined he was to do this backpack just as planned.

A group of middle aged over weight men gathered at two of the tables behind us. Some wore ball caps and tee shirts emblazoned with American flags or eagles clutching arrows. Some were dressed in camouflage. All eyed us with varying degrees of suspicion as I imagined they did every stranger. I sensed they were give em hell red, white and blue citizens and they weren’t sure we were. The Iraq war had just begun and my reserve officer son was serving a tour. I thought how much I wished these militia types were sent in his place. Then again some of them were probably remnants of Vietnam. ///

Just as our food was served a thin almost emaciated women entered.

“Agnes!” Lorraine exclaimed as the two women hugged.

“Don, you remember Agnes we worked as scrub nurses together when you were at Redding General.”

“Of course,” Don replied. “How have you been Agnes?”

“Oh I’m doing well, Don, but I’ve struggled with arthritis. I had to have a shoulder and a hip replacement but I’m still working.” Agnes said.

“At Redding” Don inquired.

“Yes, I fly to Redding stay over and work several shifts then fly back here to the lake.” Agnes replied. “But Jim and I would like to sell everything her and move to Salt Lake. We’re LDS you know”

“Yes I remember.” Don said.

Agnes, this is Marianne and Joe. Joe worked with me in the ER. We’re going to back pack to Caribou lakes.” Don continued.

Agnes acknowledged the introduction then caught the eye of the group behind us.

“Hi Bill!” She said addressing the man sitting at the head of the table. “How are you?”

“Good, Agnes, just about to convene our morning meeting of our Patriotic Americans for Freedom organization.” A man with fierce eyes behind dark rimmed glasses replied.

“Bill, this is Dr. Don Moore and his wife Lorraine and their friends Marianne and Joe from Sacramento.” Agnes said. “I worked with Don and Lorraine at Redding General several years ago.”

Bill acknowledged us with a nod and a look tinged with wariness.

“Bill, here, can fix anything. Can’t you, Bill?”

“Just about, People up here lay down in the road in front of my truck to get me to fix their washer or microwave or whatever. “Bill explained.

“You and Jim almost finished your construction on that lot next to my house?” Bill asked with a note of irritation.

“Just about, Bill.” Agnes replied.

“We, Jim and I want to sell our lakeside land and retire in Salt Lake closer to the LDS church.” She looked at Marianne and me as she mentioned the land sale.

“It seems the Mormons migrate back home when they retire.” I thought.

“ You’re backpacking up in the Basin? Aren’t you concerned about the forest fires?” Agnes asked as she turned her attention to Don.

“Some,” Don said. “But we’ll check at the ranger station after we leave here.”

This rain should put a damper on the fires I think” Don added as he watched a burst of rain prance across the asphalt on the road outside.

Agnes embraced a large manila envelope, which she carefully laid on the table.

“I like to show you pictures of my family if I could “she said.

Oh! We’d love to see them. Lorraine said.

Agnes slipped a framed picture out of the envelope.

“This is my son. “ she said. “He is a sergeant in the CHP.”

A burly blond crew cut officer smiled from the framed 8 by 10. I imagined it had been borrowed from its place of honor on Agnes’s mantle.

“And this is my daughter with my grandson” she said as she revealed a large glossy displaying an attractive dark haired young woman holding a strapping 2 year old that I envisioned in a CHP uniform in twenty or so years.

“You have a beautiful family. It’s been so nice to see you again.” Lorraine said. “You need to come and see us in Auburn, sometime.” She added.

“Yes my Orthopedist’s in Sacramento. I’ll have to stop in when I have my next appointment. I have this arthritis and need to get my right hip replaced soon.”

“Yes, we look forward to seeing you Agnes.” Don interrupted glancing at his watch. ” It looks like the rain’s let up and we need to get out on the trail.”

“You do know about the fires, don’t you” Agnes responded as she looked directly at me.

“Oh we’re aware of the trail closures. We’re headed up to the ranger station now to check everything out.” Don said.

We left the diner and Agnes and drove to the forest service station near the restaurant of the night before. Above, moisture burdened clouds darkened. Intermittently, they burst, unleashing a blast of rain drumming down upon the metal of the van. The rain rejuvenated like a baptism. It flushed away the brown dust of a torrid desiccated California July. It brightened the green, resurrecting the spirit.

We parked. Don, Lorraine and Marianne went inside while I remained under the walkway roof to savor fresh clean air and raindrops pattering against the big leafed maples. I studied the topographical map in the display discerning the details of the trail to Caribou Basin. I followed the dashed line from Big Flat Campground across the South Fork of the Salmon River to the split of the old and new Caribou trails. I retraced the ladder of switchbacks endlessly up 8118 feet to the top of Caribou Peak.

“ More a trial than a trail!” I thought.

The new trail, which Don planned to take, climbed gradually around the mountainside leading to an interim campsite at a place called Brown’s meadow. The guidebook described the meadow as sloped and lush with wildflowers strewn among granite outcroppings with an alder crowded stream at its border. Between the book and Don’s description, I imagined it a reclaimed Eden. The next day from the meadow we would steadily ascend along a wide trail carved along the side of the mountain ending in the Basin. As we climbed, the splendor of the lakes, surrounding peaks and the Salmon River canyon would unfold before us. It sounded glorious.

I went inside. Don was talking to the ranger, a tall blond woman in a Smokey the bear hat and standard gray uniform.

She was on the radio conversing with fire crews. It appeared the lower Caribou trail was closed. Firefighters were stationed in Brown’s Meadow attending to hot spots. The rain had dampened the fires but she couldn’t be certain if they would open the trail.

Don was agitated. He was ill prepared for any variation to his meticulous plan. We gathered outside near the station entrance.

“I’m told the lower trail, the one through Brown’s meadow is closed but could open soon. The fires are all but out with this rain. As you know, I counted on taking that trail. It’s a beautiful hike. Brown’s meadow is only 6 miles in and a great place to stay overnight. I was looking forward to camping there.”

“Oh, you’ll love Brown’s meadow! It’s so beautiful!” Lorraine added.

“Yes, yes, beautiful.” Don continued. “If we find the lower trail closed, we’ll have to climb up over Caribou Mountain. I’ve never done that but I understand it’s steep and difficult with no water or place to camp. We’d be forced to do at least nine miles, up a mountainside with full pack.”

“And we’re getting a late start for that.” I added.

“Don, why don’t you just hike the Stuart Fork Trail to Portuguese Camp and come back out. I could pick you up at the resort in 3 days just like we planned.” Lorraine suggested.

“Yes,” Don hesitated. “We could do that.”

“Its your call Don, you know the hike. I‘ve never hiked here before.” I said.

“Why don’t we do that? We’d be able to avoid the whole fire thing and still have a nice backpack.” Marianne encouraged

Doctors as a rule are determined. They see things through. They set objectives and persist to their accomplishment. It’s in their personality. It is one of those characteristics that carry them through college, medical school, internship, and residency on into an arduous practice. They are dogged perhaps to the point of stubbornness. They persevere to the end whatever that may be.

Don looked at me. I could see he wanted to complete the hike he had so carefully planned. I knew Marianne and I could deal with whatever route we ended up taking. I assumed Don, even at his age, could too.

“It’s your call, Don, you know the hike. I don’t.” I repeated.

“Let’s go!” He said. “With this rain, they’ll probably open the lower trail. If not we can just plead ignorance and take it anyway.”

The rain had ceased and mist drifted through the trees, as we climbed back in the van and set off. We soon left the blacktop and turned onto the dirt and gravel of Coffee Creek Road, an old forest service track riddled with potholes and rocks, rough even in the smooth riding van. Bulldozers had hacked out washout repairs from the overhanging hillside. Speeding log trucks squeezed through heedlessly like bulls past matadors. The narrow road often hovered precariously above the white slashing creek, which dove and plummeted headlong through boulder clefts and downed trees.

“Beautiful stream!” I said. “Surprised to see it so high in July.”

We passed a variety of ramshackle cabins with heavy equipment rusted in disrepair strewn about. It reminded me of the children at the restaurant the night before, neglected by their meth addict parents. We passed a small but intriguing dude ranch built right up against the road.

“That might be an interesting place to stay sometime.” Marianne said.

“Yes, interesting.” Lorraine agreed.

The road smoothed, widened and left the creek. We beheld a valley of pastures and meadows against a mountain backdrop unfolding to our right. A prosperous appearing ranch sat surrounded neatly by well-maintained fence in the center of the largest of them.

A large sign at the gate welcomed guests to the Broken Tree Ranch.

“Now that would be a very nice place to stay.” Lorraine said.

“Yes!” Marianne agreed. “Why don’t we? We have our credit cards.”

Just beyond the luxury dude ranch, a large dark wooden sign carved in yellow painted letters proclaimed the entrance to Big Flat Camp Ground. Lorraine turned the van onto its gravel road. The campground was deserted, in July, the height of the camping season. Only a few forest service trucks sat empty and waiting in the lot.

‘No one here.” I said. “Must be the fires. There are a lot of nice sites.”

There was little underbrush. The sites were large, clean and defined by soaring old growth Douglas fir and Ponderosa pines.

We disembarked, pulling our heavy packs from the back of the van. rain and the breakfast meeting had delayed our departure, it was around one o’clock; a later start than planned. But Don had intended to cover only 6 miles to the much praised Brown’s Meadow. We would easily make that in about 4-5 hours, just in time for supper.

Don had an older external framed pack. I lifted it so he could access the straps. It was heavy but perfectly balanced as expected. Our packs matched, near new and internally framed.

Don kissed Lorraine goodbye while emphasizing the meeting in four days at the lodge at the entrance to Stuart Fork trail.

“I’ll be at my friend, Joyce’s, over in Anderson and out of cell phone range, I bet. But I will be at the lodge to greet you when you arrive. Be careful!” She said.

We set off through the vacant campground, passing the sign to the trailhead now with a fire service notice of the fire danger posted below. All trace of rain vanished. The sun shone bright and warm like a blanket over the peak of Caribou Mountain, looming directly south. But a short walk in, the path ran abruptly against the briskly flowing north fork of the Salmon River. It was about 20 feet wide with neither log nor bridge or even a shallow ford. The trail appeared to plunge into the river without hesitation. We briefly paced up and down the bank but finding no alternative we walked directly across what we believed to be the most shallow point thus beginning the hike with soaked shoes. Immediately upon crossing a well traveled trail appeared. Well packed and largely free of mule waste with the bite of its associated flies the trail rose in a pleasant ascent above the river through small shaded groves of fir and alder. Marianne led, I followed and Don was in the rear. He wore a brown kaki hiking outfit with a soft circular brimmed hat. The military like pants had breakaway leggings that could be removed leaving cooler hiking shorts. Don had thought of everything but I never could visualize him in hiking shorts. A large dark granite peak called Preacher’s Point loomed in the east, seeming to move as we moved. Marianne had opened a gap. I lagged back hiking at Don‘s pace. Though the trail here was not difficult, he already labored a bit. We had joked about being left in the dust by a 70 year old man. But this was not to be.

Marianne and I paused in the shade of a poplar grove just off the trail. The sun now shone brightly dominating the few threatening clouds left above the dark mountain. We watched as Don paced the trail methodically already some distance behind. He approached breathing audibly.

“How are you doing, Don?” I asked.

“Doing OK! Just taking it slow and steady.” He replied as he leaned over to catch his breath.

“You just go on and I’ll catch up once I adjust to the climb.” He added.

Marianne and I caught each other’s eye and moved back out onto the path. We slowed our pace but still opened distance from Don.

“I thought he was in better shape.” I said.

“He’ll probably adjust as we get into the hike.” She replied.

“Besides, we’re only doing 6 miles to Brown’s Meadow today and he’ll be able to rest there.”

“Yea, I suppose, but I ‘m not sure he’s up to this hike. I mean I thought he’d done more backpacking recently.”

“Yea, I thought he’d leave us in the dust.” Marianne responded.

“He’ll probably do better as we go on. We’re only doing 5-6 miles today.” She repeated.

We proceeded even more slowly while Don made a surge and caught up.

“How are you doing, Don.” Marianne asked.

“Oh I’m getting there, a bit slow but steady.” He replied between breaths.

“Don’t wait for me. I’ll be along.”

We continued our steady ascent soon reaching a small clearing where trails

converged. A red tape blocked our path. A large pine, recently downed lay diagonally to the left. A plastic covered notice had been nailed to the trunk. The fire service had closed the lower Caribou trail, our intended route to Brown’s meadow.

Don approached. “Bad news, Don! The lower trail is closed.”

Don eased his pack off and leaned it against the downed tree. Perspiration flowed across his face dripping from his small white goatee. Already he looked fatigued. He drank from his water bottle and read the notice.

The old Caribou Trail diverged to our left. It was open.

“Looks like we’ll have to climb over the mountain on the old trail.” I said.

“Or turn back.” Marianne added.

“Let’s just go on through. “ Don asserted.

“We could say we didn’t see the sign if the fire service stops us.” Marianne said.

“It says it’s a felony punishable by a fine and possible jail time to ignore the notice.” I said. “I still have to work and I need my medical license.”

“It’s your call, Don. You up for the old trail or we could turn back to the campground and call Lorraine.”

“I’ve never done the old trail but I understand it’s steep. Sure you don’t want to go the way we planned?”

“I don’t want to get stopped by the fire service.” I said. “It’s not worth the risk.”

“Then I guess it’s the old trail.” Don said.

“Well, it’s 2 o’clock already, we better get started and its 3 miles more than we planned.”

We shouldered our packs and proceeded up onto the old Caribou Trail, beginning the ascent of the steep Caribou Mountain.

“Maybe it should be renamed for Don if he makes it to the top.” I thought as I watched him laboriously climb the first of a seeming endless series of rising switchbacks.

As we ascended, the switchbacks shortened and slanted steeper. Marianne and I hiked slowly and paused on the turns until we were certain Don was following. The trail gradually deserted the leafy underbrush of the lower elevations for the needles and cones of the higher. Great snow-white boulders and outcroppings were strewn throughout the forest. Cubes, blocks and loaves of alabaster granite speckled with shimmering quartz particles defined the trail. The sun moved across the southern sky eroding time away. Our pace and the uncertain distance to the lakes weighed on me more than our packs. With the elevation the air cooled. On our left a sheer unmarred ascent of rock marked an adjacent unnamed mountain. Across its smooth face of gray spread a black scar. Its rock face rose a thousand feet to a black jagged volcanic top. It mysteriously drew my eyes as if it contained a force beyond geological magnificence. It was a ancient isolated presence that no man had likely ever scaled. Finally we passed through a notch in a granite cliff opening onto the top of the Caribou Mountain. But Don was not behind.

We swung off our packs enjoying that lightness and relief of shedding a burden. I sat on a chair-like boulder and squirted filtered water into the back of my mouth. The backside of the mountain slanted gradually through the forest then dropped suddenly off the edge of a canyon. Smoke and mist roiled from its obscured depths like a smoldering volcano.

“You should go back and carry Don’s pack for him.” Marianne said.

“I’m sure he’s just behind us. He’ll be here any minute.” I replied as I leaned forward to relieve creeping fatigue.

“It’s getting late and we have no idea how much further the lakes are. We will have to go on and set up camp before dark. You need to go back down and bring his pack up for him.” She insisted.

Knowing she was right, I reluctantly regained my feet. I passed through the rock out cropping which marked the entrance to the trail hoping he was not too far behind. I found him about a fifty or so yards down the switchbacks leaning against a granite shelf. His eyes were glazed and he seemed momentarily oblivious to my presence.

“How are you feeling, Don?”

“Oh, tired, I guess. I didn’t plan on this steep route. Thought we’d be in Brown’s meadow, camped by now.”

“Why don’t I take your pack the rest of the way? The top’s only a short distance now and the trail’s all down hill from there.”

He hesitated. “ There was a time when I would have refused but you know now I think I’ll let you carry it.” He replied.

I lifted the perfectly balanced but heavy pack off his back. I struggled into it and told Don to lead the way. As he turned to go I noted the pack’s outline in the sweat that saturated his hiking shirt.

When we reached the top the sun crouched upon the horizon. Through the smoke emanating from the chasm it painted a garish band of scarlet sunset below shades of deepening blue. It would be dark soon, sooner than we expected.

“Don, why don’t you rest here awhile and Joe and I will go on and set up camp while we still can see.” Marianne directed.

“Sounds like a plan. Sorry to be so slow.” He said in a voice still breathless from the climb.

“Not a problem! The trail should be easy from here and we can’t be much more than a mile from the basin.” I responded.

“I’ll be along shortly once I catch my breath.” He added as we set out towards the forest below.

The trail did prove wide and well traveled especially beyond the junction with the lower Caribou trail. A pink ribbon and warning notice in black bold print closed the lower trail at that end. The residue of smoke and haze hastened the sunset and dimmed the remaining light as we approached Snow Slide Lake, the first of the chain of lakes which constitutes the Caribou Basin. We entered the first of many trails accessing the shore. A large rectangular block of granite like the altar of a medieval cathedral crowned an embankment perched 20 feet above the water. It had obviously served as the centerpiece of many a past encampment. We would go no further.

We could easily see the main trail from that site. Hopefully, Don was not far behind. The sun disappeared from the western sky like a final curtain but fortunately a full moon rose in the southeast. A sheer expanse of alabaster granite ascended like the plume of a launched missile along the east shore of the water, accentuated in the moon glow. It ascended a thousand unblemished feet above the burnished surface of the lake. A geometric shadow of its crenellated top, drafted by moonlight, cast across the placid water. A shimmering rivulet without evident source rushed out from the mid point of the far side and plunged down the face.

“It’s for scenes such as this that you endure these hikes.” I thought as we opened our packs.

Suddenly, unseen steps cracked through the dark woods . We both peered keenly into the evergreen depths hoping it was Don. But only an elegant doe, hoping for a handout, stretched herself tentatively into the moonlight. She was the only life to be noted in an area of many heavily used campsites. We were there alone.

Just as I was about to return for Don, he appeared along the trail.

“We found a good site over here, Don.” I called.

He approached. “Yes this will certainly do.” He said as he shed his pack.

We lit our gas lantern. We were all exhausted. Don needed help erecting his tent. He fumbled with the stakes and tie downs. He was confused with fatigue. It also had taken a toll on me as I felt reluctant to help. But together we assembled the interconnected flexible poles and threaded them through the tent loops. We popped it up and staked it to the ground. Don struggled to bend and squat. His tent and sleeping mat were new.

“He hasn’t backpacked in a long time.” I thought.

We cooked our meal silently by gas lamp in the light of the moon and bedded down.

“We’re a day ahead of schedule so I guess we can rest up here tomorrow.” I said.

“You’ll get no argument from me.” Don replied.

“We can explore the area. Do some fishing and maybe take a cold dip in the lake.” I added.

“Sounds good!” Don replied as he contorted himself down into his small tent.

Marianne and I took a couple of ibuprofen before we snuggled into our sleeping bags. The night was warm and I left my bag unzipped. The stars projected a halo in spirals as they do at altitudes away from civilized light. The Milky Way spread in bas-relief across the night sky, revealing details not seen in the blurring lights of the valley. Soon we were all asleep.

Sunrise steadily climbed the Snow Slide precipice revealing additional rivulets flowing like streams of tears down the rock face. The rush of cascading water sounded constantly in the background . I rose early. Marianne slept on. Don snored in his tent. Sunlight engraved the pond‘s surface with gold. I made coffee and leaned against the table like boulder scanning the scene from the elevation of the site. I could see other lakes in the basin just beyond the jumble of boulders damming the pond’s outlet. Lofty crevices of melting snow fed Snow Slid Lake which overflowed to the lower Caribou. The upper Caribou pooled highest also releasing waters to the lower Caribou and on to carve the abyss seen from the peak of Caribou Mountain. Smoke and mist still clouded the canyon’s depths. Mountain ridges filed in diminishing silhouettes against the western horizon. Don awoke then Marianne. We prepared breakfast while savoring the setting, another pleasure of backpacking.

“Guess I’ll try fishing the lower Caribou since we picked up an extra day.” I said.

‘Think I’ll just hang out and recuperate here this morning.” Don replied. “Wish I’d brought something to read though. “

“I have a Jack London book in my pack.” I rummaged through the pockets and handed him a copy of ‘Love of Life’.

“I picked it up when I visited Jack London State park in the Sonoma valley”.

“You want to go explore the other lakes.” I asked Marianne.

“Sure, I’ll read my book while you try to catch fish. He never catches anything.” She told Don.

We traced a meandering path through the firs and across great spreads of pure white ledge sparkling in morning light with flecks of quartz. We traversed the ledges until we stood above a small clear lake fed by a stream curving down from Snow Slide . The stream pooled behind a cluster of rocks and logs before it spilled in a long cascading flow into the Little Caribou. I walked down a long incline of solid stone to the shore. Marianne stayed high, reading and absorbing the scenery.

The Lake in reality more a pond covered about thirty acres. Bare rock cliffs and stacks of white boulders some with peculiar black stains embraced the shore up at the abrupt outlet, a knife edge of water dropping off into the canyon of ubiquitous mist. To traverse the surrounding cliffs to peer over that edge was too dangerous.

I cast my lure a few times out into the depths. It was pointless. No fish would bite at that time.

“Fishing like much in life is timing.” I thought and disassembled my gear and climbed back up to Marianne.

“No luck” She asked.

“No luck as usual.” I replied.

As we worked our way back we passed several well used campsites nestled into the trees above the lake.

“This place must be popular with the locals.” I said.

“It’s sure empty now.” Marianne responded.

The sun was high in the southeast sky, nearly noon and getting hot. Don had been lying in his tent reading Jack London.

“Catch anything?”

“No but it is sure a beautiful place.” I said.

“Sure is. You can see why I wanted to do this hike. But I wanted to camp at Big Caribou lake.” Don replied. The change of plans still disturbed him.

“We could go on up to the big lake this afternoon and scout the trail over the ridge. The guy at the motel said it was buried in snow.”

“Yea, let’s do that.” Don replied.

The sun shifted 15 degrees to the southwest, one o’clock as we walked up the path to the upper lake. Don paused often, bent stiffly down and studied flowers and plants. The lowlands of California bake brown and desiccated in July but the mountainsides bloom irrigated by summer snow melt. We passed the sprightly red paint brush, clusters of small white starflowers and green exuberant swamp cabbage. Don recognized them all by official name. He held them gently between his fingers then took pictures with his expensive camera.

“We’re you a Botany major in college?” I asked.

“No, I took botany but its just an interest of mine.”

Shortly, we arrived at the Big Caribou Lake which stretched out below dark gray and brown stratified ledges different from the predominant white granite. It covered about 75 acres making it the largest natural lake in the Trinity Alps. One tiny island, spiked with a few stunted spruce squatted about 50 yards from shore. Three young firefighters had hiked up from their base camp at Brown’s Meadow to swim and clean up in the lake.

“How’s the water?” Don inquired as we approached one toweling off on the slab granite shore.

“Cold!” he replied looking surprised to see anyone in the area. “Cold but it feels good to get clean.”

“I’ll bet. Got the fire under control?” Don continued.

“Yea, just hitting hot spots now. We expect to break camp in the meadow down below anytime now.” He replied. He was tall maybe 6feet 2 but all of his height was the incredible length of his stilt like legs.

I hung back having little to say while Don continued his jovial conversation with the other firefighters as they changed to dry clothes.

Shortly, we proceeded on to the stream that fed the lake. It flowed from the thick snow pack still choking the crevice leading to the passage across Saw Tooth Ridge.

The mountainsides spread from the snow like the wings of a great bird. The stream flowed like a tail feathered by a green pasture close cropped and manicured by night deer. Above the snow, spires, pinnacles and turrets of ancient granite darkly vulcanized capped the ridge. One opening, only, like a break between spiked teeth allowed access to the opposite side.

“I can see why the guy at the motel couldn’t find the trail.” Marianne said.

“Yea, it looks like it’s buried under the snow. Sure a lot of snow for July.” I said.

“It seems as though you could just cross the meadow and walk up along the edge of the snow and cross over to that point just below the pass. What do you think, Don?”

“Well, sure whatever.” He replied as he studied a patch of vegetation trailside.

We retuned slowly to camp. Don paused periodically to study a plant or a flower that caught his interest. The afternoon grew hot. This was not the high sierra. We were about five to six thousand feet above the sea.

I decided on a swim both to cool myself and wash away the sweat. Snow Slide Lake had no beach. Immediately off shore, it was deep. I stripped to my shorts and with a grimace of determination plunged into the shock of cold water. I swam out towards a protruding stone ledge near the middle of the lake. You could peer deeply through the clear water to the distant bottom. Great logs and boulders of all shapes, sizes and times rested at random in the undisturbed depths. A moment of primal, irrational fear seized me as I passed over those ancient and isolated depths. I swam quickly on out to the exposed rock and mounted a shelf just beneath the surface. Marianne had changed to her swimsuit and stood on the rock bank hesitating. She liked to ease into cold water but the depth prevented that.

“Come on! Don’t be a wuss. Jump in.”

It was about four o’clock, the hottest part of the day. She surprised me, yielded to the heat and plunged in. Don stayed above on the high bank taking pictures.

Marianne joined me on the rock. From there, silhouettes of distant mountains aligned themselves out to the west into the declining sun above the Pacific Ocean. This lake, this view, this place was ours alone in the most populated state in the nation simply by putting a few supplies in an elaborate bag and walking a few miles into the wild. It is the unique luxury of some healthy effort.

“Despite sham, deceit and violence, this planet is a place of unbelievable beauty for those with the will to experience it.” I thought as I gazed to the horizon.

Cold water is seductive. While refreshing even exhilarating, it leeches heat from the body, subtly steals your life force away. Warm blood departs the surface and retreats to core organs. You are comfortable as hypothermia sets upon you. When you exit the water warm blood from the core cools at the surface in the cold white skin the chill seeps deeply and spreads like a poison. Beautiful wild places can kill you even if you are careful. We left the water. Now the previously oppressive heat felt wonderful.

“How’s the water?” Don asked.

“Very cold!” Marianne replied. “But it’s nice to feel clean.”

We dressed, set up our camp stove and cooked. We ate sitting on the block of granite admiring the crystal lake and the hazy red sunset

We talked some about our families and our lives as darkness approached. Don’s father had been a minister and as he said walked the walk as well as talked the talk. He had ostensibly retired from the hectic emergency room where we had worked together. He said then that he wanted to selectively work on cruise ships. But low pay and variable working conditions drove him back into the ER. He admitted that he had only recently come to a settlement from his long past divorce from a 25 year marriage with two children.

“She’s been living with a silicon valley millionaire for years now. She didn’t need the alimony.“ He disclosed. I didn’t probe further. I recalled some old advice from an unremembered source. “Two things can ruin a life, bad health and a bad marriage.”

Marianne mentioned her father had been an engineer at Bell labs in New Jersey during the early days of the silicon chip. He was brilliant in some ways and bordering on insane in others. As she talked I recalled his frequent unpredictable rants at FDR and Teddy Kennedy. His father had a successful brick making company and was married to a retired European opera diva. They lived a privileged life in an Ohioan mansion before the depression. Ostensibly the New Deal wiped out their fortune initiating their fall from the realm of the Roosevelt’s and the Kennedy’s, the American plutocracy.

I had been adopted into a family of nine Irish Catholics. However, my father died when I was nine leaving me alone with my mother, a woman in her fifties with an eighth grade education and rigid ways. The rest of the family escaped the economically depressed town in southern Vermont for work elsewhere or married quickly. I knew nothing of my birth mother nor the identity of my father. Thus I felt myself someone without a history and largely on my own and separate my whole life.

The moon rose full again, filling the night sky and highlighting the shimmering whiteness of the cliffs and boulders. We rolled into our tents, slipped down into the sleeping bags. Warmed by our own body heat, we slept.

We awoke later than planned, with the sun already high in the southeastern sky. Today, we planned to ascend the ridge, navigate the maze of myriad switchbacks denoted on the map and overnight at a place called Portuguese Camp, all in all about 5-6 miles.

We ate breakfast, broke camp and shouldered our packs. We retraced our path to the end of upper Caribou Lake and entered the meadow created by the feeder stream from the snow pack. We followed a narrow worn path until it disappeared into the massive granite ledges and out croppings. We gradually dispersed each searching for the trail to the notch in the ridge, seen clearly from below. A young fire fighter on a day hike passed below than ascended to an apparent ledge on the west side of the mountain. With only his ever present fire pack much smaller than our full camp packs, he disappeared above us. . He scrambled up the steep pitch without trouble and I heard him hollering from the summit, just to hear an echo.

Marianne came up behind as I tried to discern the trace of a consistent trail. As we meandered about the outcroppings interspersed with lush grass and colorful wildflowers, the terrain steepened dramatically.

“ Reminds me of Switzerland here.” I said as I turned to appreciate the view.

“Its beautiful but I hate it when the trail isn’t well marked.” She said. “Maybe we should turn back. The guy at the motel was right the trail’s probably buried under the snow.”
“The firefighter didn’t have an trouble getting up there. I think he found a path along the ledge up there.”

I’m just going to climb up to those boulders. I’ll bet there’s a trail leading over to the area above the snow and just below the pass.”

“Joe this is stupid! There is no trail! You’re just a stubborn doctor and don’t know when to quit.” She shouted.

“I’ll just climb up past those rocks and check it out. “

I struggled up to the boulders. I forced myself onto the top of the biggest and found no trail. I could see Don and Marianne wandering below. We had all in various ways climbed two thirds the distance to the top. By grappling with small trees and edging along previous bushwhacked or animal traces, I converged onto Marianne’s and Don’s path. Don paused every few steps now. The sun was high and hot, staring at us directly from the notch in Saw Tooth Ridge.

Marianne called from just below “We need to turn back. This is stupid. Lorraine would not want you up here, Don.” She yelled. Don didn’t reply. He caught his breath and resumed his ascent. He was now closer to the top than I.

“We’re almost there. “ I said. “It easier now going up than back down. We can make it from here now “

I continued to climb and reached the last push before the opening. The trail was now evident but nearly vertical. I stepped into footholds kicked into soft spots in the dirt and crawled by hand, foot and will. With a final explosion clawing the ground, grasping at trees tenuously rooted, I pulled myself to the top. My breathing was labored and my heart thumped against my chest.

I climbed onto a stack of massive black granite blocks. It felt precarious. Don was resting in a clump of spruce below the crest. Marianne passed him.

“This is stupid!” We should’ve turn back.” She uttered as she proceeded to the top.

From my perch, the valley spread out to the north, the windward side of the slope. The snow pack settled in the crevice between the two wings. Tall healthy evergreens fenced the steeps. The crystal stream alternately pitched then slid evasively through patches of deep green pasture. Red, blue and yellow wildflowers accented the shaded alabaster outcroppings and beyond at the base spread lovely Caribou Lake and the distant ethereal view.

To the south, the lee of the ridge, the sun beat relentlessly on an arid precipice. From the pinnacle, I peered down the treacherous incline covered in loose slices of black and burnt red shale. A few stunted spruce clung like condemned to the cliff sides and sparse narrow ledges. Don and Marianne were now just below the summit. Fear like lightening suddenly struck me. I felt unsteady, in the grip of an unanticipated vertigo. I squatted then sat on the edge of the rock. I closed my eyes until the waviness in my head cleared. I reopened them to the hellish landscape still there. Sunlight scoured the shale, scrapes of thorny brush and stunted spruce. One side of the ridge was paradise, the other hell, Switzerland and Mars.

Marianne was now just below me crawling the last few feet towards the tight gap leading to the trace along the ridge. The faint path appeared more the work of wildlife than men. Don was still a few yards below catching his breath before struggling the last to the top.

“Marianne, you don’t want to come up here. You don’t want to see this.” I said as I peered down the steep barren slope.

She looked up. “Is it really bad?”

“It’s bad.”

“I told you we should have turned back.” She whined as she made the divide between two equally steep and treacherous descents.

We assembled on the ridge, relieved ourselves of the burden of the packs and sank exhausted on convenient granite seats.

“This is not good.” I said to Don. He didn’t reply but stared vacantly still breathing rapidly.

Marianne sat a few yards away pulling out food and mixing lemonade packets into our water bottles.

“This is bad.” I said as I peered down the precipitous drop.

“This is bad.” I repeated to no one but myself.

“Sit down and eat some lunch. You’ll feel better.” She said.

We were straddling a ridge of black igneous rock. To the south, loose shale perfidiously covered our pathway, which dove precipitously for the first fifty yards There a small ledge jutted from a jumble of fallen rock marking the beginning of a more passable descent. The sun beat without relent on the entire shade less ridge.

Don sat aside the slender trail drinking water.

“Don!” I reiterated. “This is not good. The trail is like an expert ski slope without the snow. It is not good.”

He gazed up at me. His eyes were glazed and expressionless. The depth of our misjudgments finally penetrated. My agitation grew. I returned to Marianne.

“This is bad!” I repeated. “BAD!”

“Sit down and eat something.” She repeated.

“I’m not hungry.”

“Then at least sit and drink.” She insisted.

I squirted a little water from the filter bottle into my mouth but did not sit. We needed to get off this ridge. I walked out on a small black prominence to better assess a line of descent. Layers of eroded stone configured in tiny steps gave way easily to much pressure. I laid on my belly looking carefully over the edge. In the distance, Sapphire and Emerald Lakes, nestled in the cleft of a steep canyon, tantalized with the appearance of cool clear water

I surveyed the trail or what passed for it. “If Marianne and I just get down to that ledge.” I thought. “Then I could return and take Don’s pack and help him down.

I felt angry, angry at Don for underestimating the trail and over estimating his capacity and angry at myself for not better judging our entire situation. But mostly I was angry at myself for not knowing when to quit.

I returned to Don and told him that we should start down. He was taking pictures of the small lakes well below in the distance. He said OK but made no move to leave. Marianne and I twisted into our packs.

“Follow behind me and test your steps. These rocks are unstable.” I said.

“How about Don?”

Sensing that I could do nothing further for Don then, I said. “He’ll be coming. We’ll blaze the trail for him. Just be careful.

We eased from the ridge along the side of the black rock nose using its worn steps as unreliable handholds. In places the shale rolled like ball bearings beneath our feet. I paused at a small notch below the end of the nose. It dropped abruptly about four feet and I decided to traverse a short distance to the left to a more gradual decline. We sidled along the switchback returning to the right arriving below the four-foot drop. Stones chattered ahead of us. Some gained momentum and careened off the ledge below bounding from there, ceaselessly, into oblivion.

We were about halfway to that tiny ledge and the end of the steepest portion of the trail. Here we had to sit and slide down through a short narrow passage to the next likely switch back.

“I hope Don doesn’t try to step down that.” Marianne said.

I looked back up. Don had realized that we had started down without him and using both hiking poles left the ridge. He traversed quickly back and forth like a skier.

“Look at him go!” Marianne said. “He’s doing better than we are.”

“Yea!” I replied. “He doesn’t seem to be having any trouble.”

“Since we’re going down, his wind won’t be a problem.” I thought. We continued across and back over loose rock that had gathered at the base of the steeps of the ridge. Several times it gave way beneath our feet sending pieces slipping away to gather momentum to launch and land somewhere on the long slope below.

We reached the small ledge, more an eminence of granite emerging like a gray breeching whale from the detritus of rockslides. It was solid and horizontal like a landing on an endless staircase. We removed our packs to rest and wait for Don. It was just after 2o’clock, later than planned. Marianne and I had negotiated the sheer portion of the summit but endless switchbacks lay like a coiled snake below us.

“At least we can walk now but we got a long way to go to reach Portuguese Camp. “ I said.

We’ll be lucky to get there before dark.” Marianne replied. “And it’s getting even hotter now.”

“But it’s all definitely down hill.” I said. “It won’t be as hard on Don.”

We looked up. Don’s head bobbed above the four-foot shelf we had bypassed. He moved quickly. Occasionally a small shower of stones shuddered over the shelf coming to rest at our feet. We shifted off the ledge away from his descent and stood below the black nose. The uncertain footing required sidestepping with no quick adjustments.

“This is going to be a long hot trek to the bottom.” I thought as I looked over the sea of slanting stones still to be crossed laid like shingles across a steep pitched roof .

We could no longer see Don’s head above the shelf but the ridge continued to shed small but increasing showers of rock. Then pebbles turned to stone, which then turned to rocks like bowling balls which rolled and bounced down towards us.

“Rockslide!” I uttered. “Watch out!”

Immobilized on the unstable slant, we could only stand and wait. A head sized rock careened off the ledge towards me. Fathoming its path. I raised my right foot as it passed beneath and crashed across and down into the void below.

“That was close!” I said. “If it had caught me square, I’d be rolling down with it.”

The slide ceased. Amidst relief more rocks fell. Suddenly a body, Don’s body, flopped off the shelf and landed with a thud on his backpack. Carrying debris, he deposited head down in a flaccid heap above the granite outcrop.

“Oh no Don!” Marianne cried.

“He’s dead.” I muttered.

I moved up to his side. He was unconscious with his head down slope. Blood flowed from several slashes across his baldhead. I grabbed the frame of his pack and pulled him around.

Marianne crouched frozen below, her head in her hands.

“Marianne, I need help. I can’t move him on this slope alone.”

“I can’t” she cried. “I can’t. He’s dead.”

“You have to help me! Now!”

She came up to us. “His cell phone! We need to call.”

His left leg was horribly twisted. The foot pointed backwards.

“His hip is dislocated.” I thought. “I need to reduce it, quickly. I took the lower leg. It was limp and rotated easily to its normal position. It was fractured not dislocated.

Don moaned.

“He’s not dead. Yet.” I thought.

Using his pack frame, I slid him off the slope to the small step like ridge.

As I cut away the pack straps, I thought “I bet Don has had this pack forever.”.

“The cell phone!” Marianne insisted.

I passed the pack up to Marianne. Don was reviving. First he groaned as I repositioned his broken leg. Then in a faint distant voice, he asked. “What happened?”

“You’ve had an accident, Don.”

“What? Where are we?”

I gazed across the silent canyon, at the river, thousands of feet below, nothing, only an angry sun burning in a hard and empty sky.

“Don, you don’t want to know.” I said.

“I can’t make a connection.” Marianne said.

“Great!” I said. “We’re in some serious trouble now.” I thought.

“I told you we should of turned back.” She insisted. I didn’t reply.

“Where are the backpacking towels?” I asked. “I have to stop the bleeding.”

“They’re in the front of your pack.

She returned to our packs slipping across the shale strewn incline and handed me the small yellow towels and an elastic wrap. I applied them to the long scalp lacerations and wrapped them tight. Blood spread through them immediately. I applied pressure and Don moaned.

“I need to go for help.” I said.

“I can’t stay here with Don.” Marianne said. “I’ll go.”

“All right. There should be people in the meadow at the base. It’s supposed to be the most popular trail up here. Maybe you can make a cell phone connection from there.”

“Take two water bottles and both hiking poles and here take this bear whistle.” I added. “Without the pack you should be able to reach the meadow in an hour.”

I watched from the small rock ledge as she set off. Using both poles she danced across the slope and over the shale, which fell away chattering with her every step. She soon disappeared from view.

“She’s really moving. She should reach the meadow soon.”

I turned my attention back to Don. My medical training kicked in. I began my exam. The absorbent towels and elastic wrap had stanched the bleeding. I felt his pulse. It was weak and occasionally irregular.

“He may be bleeding internally.” I thought. “And there’s nothing I can do about it.”

I pressed the back of his neck. He moaned.

“Great!” I thought. “His neck may be fractured and I moved him down to this ledge. What choice did I have?”

“Don, grip my fingers.” I demanded. “Move your right foot.”

He squeezed firmly and raised and lowered his right leg.

“He’s not paralyzed, at least.”

“I compressed his chest all over. When I reached the lower left, he yipped.

“ He’s broken his ribs in the lower left chest right over his spleen. It’s probably ruptured and he’ll likely bleed to death right here on this mountain side.” I thought. I had dealt with these situations my entire long career in Emergency Rooms. With staff, equipment and consultants, you could always do something. But here, I was alone, exposed to the sun 5000 thousand feet up on a barren mountainside with an injured old man There was nothing I could do but witness his death.

I scanned the vacant horizon, the shrill of a hawk the only sound. my eyes released the tears of futility.

“Oh Don!” I cried.

“I sure could use a drink of water.” Don said.

I hesitated. He was a trauma victim and shouldn’t be given anything by mouth.

“Sure, Don.” I replied and squirted water from the filter bottle into his mouth.

“That sure tasted good.” He said. “Do you think I could have a bit more?”

He raised his head without pain and I squirted another sip into his mouth.

In his confusion he grabbed the elastic wrap and bloody towels and yanked them from the cuts.

“Oh, no!” I muttered. I replaced the bandage. “Don, You have some nasty scalp lacerations. I said as I brushed away some of the embedded gravel from the cuts. “ You need to leave this wrap in place.”

“Ok.” He said as he reached up and removed them again. “Whatever you say.”

“Where are we again?” he asked. “I sure liked that water.”

I gave him another sip and placed the towels against the lacerations which only oozed now.

“Are you having much pain, Don?”

“Oh not much, but I could use something under that left leg. It hurts a bit.”

“I’m sorry, Don. I think your hip is fractured.”

“Fractured? Ok if you say so but could you just raise it a bit?” He reached down and rubbed his hip.

He rested in a trough behind the lip of the ledge. It slanted about 30 degrees across the slope. I sat on the incline above the ledge, a difficult seat to hold. I worried that he would slide out of this chute and down the incline.

“Don, I’m going to have to move you further up this ledge.”

“Ok, if you think that’s necessary. You know what’s best.”

“Yea, if I knew what’s best, we wouldn’t be here.” I mumbled to myself.

“Why do we always know what’s best when it’s too late. Live and learn if you live long enough.”

“What that? What did you say?”

“I going to move you now. I’m sorry it’s going to hurt.” I said.


I positioned myself at his head and slide my arms beneath his. I joined hands across his chest, supported his head and neck on my forearms and lifted him to a nearly level place above the trough. He groaned.

“Sorry, Don.” I said.

He was heavier than I expected. Next, working my way around him on the narrow ledge I straightened his fractured leg, elevating it on his pack. Rocks from the ledge gave way beneath my feet. Those smaller and loose, I hurled off in frustration. They crashed off the stone piles of the slope, bounding and rebounding until they smashed through a stand of spruce far below. As they disappeared I wondered if Marianne had reached the meadow.

“I sure could use more of that water if you could spare it.” Don requested again.

“Sure, Don.” I squirted more water into his mouth than took a drink myself. For the first time since the fall, I realized my own thirst. The sun was high and relentless as it tracked deeper to the west. Suddenly, Don bolted up and vomited. From reflex I turned his head to the side to prevent aspiration.

“I sure hope his neck isn’t broken.” I thought. Briefly, he sputtered coughed then sank back and dozed off.

I took his pulse again. It was unchanged, neither strong nor weak. He did not labor to breath. His fingernail beds refilled with blood on release of pressure, a sign of acceptable circulation.

“He might survive if we can just get off this ridge. Marianne must have reached some help by now” I thought.

It was nearly four o’clock, hotter now, the hottest part of a California summer day. I removed the tent from Don’s pack. I arced the pole over his head fixing it into large rocks then attached the covering giving him shelter from the sun. Then I managed to maneuver him on top of his open orange sleeping bag.

“A red tent and an orange bag, we shouldn’t be hard to spot on an open slope.” I thought.

Then, in the distance, I heard the buzz of a plane engine. I scanned the sky

“A spotter plane!” I thought. “Sent to locate us for rescue personnel.”

The engine noise grew louder then slowly faded until it was gone. Across the wide sky I detected no sign of the plane itself.

“Probably, a forest service plane making a pass over the burn area. No one knows we’re here.” I thought. “Marianne could have fallen. Even a badly twisted ankle could be fatal up here with no one around.”

“Sure could use some more of that water.” Don revived.

“It’s making you sick, Don.”

“Ok if you say so, but it sure tastes good.”

“All right, Don,” I relented and squirted the last of the bottle into his mouth.

“We’re out of water, Don.” I said. “I’ll have to go up and over to the snow pack for more.”

He didn’t reply but blurted water and vomit again. I was clear there was nothing further to be done for him here. He needed rescue. He needed a hospital. I was exposed and desiccating on this miniscule step of horizontal space. To scramble back and forth up and over the ridge for water from the snow pack risked tumbling rocks down on Don. It was nearing 5 o’clock and the sun was dropping to the west. No help appeared forthcoming. I could only speculate pointlessly on Marianne’s fate. Firefighters, I recalled, were camped at Brown’s Meadow on the trail we were forced to bypass. It would double the chance of aid if I crossed the ridge to reach them.

But I would have to abandon Don, leave him alone and injured, perhaps fatally, on this barren mountainside.

“He doesn’t need my help to die.” I thought. “It would be unforgivable not to try to get help from the firefighters”

Don suddenly raised up and pointed. “Trim the sails!” he shouted. “a storm is brewing.” He then broke into some sort of seaman’s chantey.

“Don, I need to go for water.” I said.

“Ok,” he agreed. “we could sure use more of that.”

Before I departed, I placed him completely within his orange sleeping bag and positioned him in a smooth shallow depression just above the ridge. He was harder to move. As I strained, he yelped in pain. I replaced the red tent for shade then placed small boulders at his sides to block any movement that might set him rolling off the ledge. It was unlikely with his injuries that he would shift.

I hooked two filter bottles into my belt alongside my multitool, stuffed an emergency blanket pack in my pocket and found Don’s small LED flashlight. Sunset would soon be approaching. I had to move quickly to reach the trail down to Brown’s Meadow.

“I hope they’re still in the meadow. With the fire out they may have broke camp.” I thought. “If I have to go all the way out, Don’s chances are slim.”

Ascending the slope above Don could release an avalanche of rock down upon him. I adjusted to the left toward the black nose like prominence and climbed immediately reaching its face. It was nearly vertical but covered in small outcrops and footholds.

I began my ascent. “Three point technique.” I reminded myself. “Two hands, one foot, two feet one hand.” I repeated. “Test each handhold, each footfall.”

I was now erect on its face. I looked down to Don well below. His red tent and orange sleeping bag stood out like a beacon in the desert. The rocks placed as barriers to movement reminded me of grave markers.

The handholds often gave way. Desiccated rocks disintegrated in my grasp. Glancing down, a wave of panic washed through me. I saw myself pitching from this cliff to topple endlessly across and down this infernal ridge. A crop of sharp and snarled Manzanita brush grew just of the side of the nose. Weighing a few scratches against a plunge into the abyss, I took a few sidesteps and lunged into its midst. They snapped and clawed beneath but I kicked my way through and to my surprise found firm flat footing. Once I stood within, unexpectedly, a pathway through appeared. It led directly to the top of the ridge and joined the trail to the notch opening to the south slope.

On attaining the passageway, I paused, and once again, beheld the spires of spruce, the unsullied stream falling from the snow pack to rush among white granite arching from the ground like solidified sea waves. Below, lay green pastures and the placid Great Caribou Lake.

“It’s amazing how a small change of direction and water can transform a landscape.” I thought.

But dusk began to dim this view of paradise. I started down. I slid quickly through the dirt at the top and down to the snow. I filled my filter bottles from a spigot of clear snowmelt and drank.

“ Pure water at its origin! God, it didn’t realize how dry I was!” I thought as I felt its cool moisture restore my energy.

I peered down the expanse of snow filled crevasse, which spread unbroken almost to the bottom.

“I’ll bet I could slide down the snow straight to the meadow.” I thought. “I’ll just sit and dig in my heels to control my speed.”

I climbed atop adjacent boulders and stepped out onto the snow. It was at least 10 feet thick and solid. I sat and immediately began to slide, more rapidly than expected. To brake my speed, I dug my heels in but without penetration. I accelerated. I had no control and couldn’t stop. At this speed, I would drop off the edge at the bottom smashing against exposed rocks. I was still near the snow’s margin. I reached out, hooked a sharp edge of rock, tearing my palm but breaking my freefall.

I hugged the granite, relieved, as blood oozed from my hand.

Another dumb idea!” I thought. “It’s a wonder we ever survive ourselves. “

I clambered up off the snow pack and over boulders, weaving back and forth across bare ledge and quickly reached the meadow. We had avoided the meadow going up, thinking it was wet and boggy. It proved firm and dry.

“It would have been so much easier to have gone this way.” I thought. “What a waste of time and energy the climb up had been.”

I crossed the grass, occasionally leaping the stream as it wandered into my path. I began to holler, hoping that some firefighters had decided to overnight at the lake. No one responded, no other sound not even an echo. I was alone. I realized again the depth of my isolation. Not a soul in the entire universe knew where I was.

I found the trail back to our campsite. The last of sunlight was deserting more rapidly than anticipated. It was growing dark without a full moon rising. I switched on Don’s small flashlight and focused on the trail. Without the sun, it was growing cold. I wore only a tee shirt and hiking shorts. I thought I would reach the firefighters quickly and wanted to travel light.. It was about 5 miles to Brown’s Meadow.

“Perhaps I should have taken a backpack.” I thought.

I briefly lost the trail and diverged towards the lakeshore where I had fished the day before. Using the residual glow of the great alabaster face above Snow Slide Lake as a beacon, I reoriented and found our recent campsite.

As I approached the table rock at its center, the flashlight dimmed than faded. The batteries were dying and my hope of finding the trail to rescue with them.

“When is something going to go right?” I hissed.

I stood alone in the dark with only enough residual luminescence to discern the lake. I heard the crack of steps from the thick surrounding forest. I grabbed a rock and tensed. The cracking of twigs and branches grew louder. Something or somebody came closer.

“Who’s there?” I shouted as the beggar doe from the night before broke into the clearing a few feet away.

“Get out of here!” I yelled and launched the rock randomly into the woods. The frightened deer bolted back into forest blackness.

I leaned against the rock as a chill set in. I flicked the flashlight on. It was brighter now.

“I can stay here and shiver.” I thought. “Or feel my way along the trail using the light sparingly.”

I knew the direction and I thought I could see the cut of the path through the trees. The great alabaster cliff would be my point of reference and the southwestern full moon would soon be rising.

“If I can reach the pink barrier ribbon that marks the entrance to the lower Caribou trail, I know I can make the firefighters camp tonight.”

I switched on the light, started up the trail, and then turned it off. The pathway felt wide and open and I made my way around the first turn. From here I knew it was a gradual ascent to the junction of the old and new trails. The gap in the tree line outlined against the night sky served as my guide. My eyes acclimated to the dark. Intermittently, I used the flashlight to check my position. It would dim more quickly now. It was not going to last but I hoped that soon the moon would rise.

But as I climbed I veered off course and began tripping through underbrush and fallen branches. I looked back at the alabaster cliff. It fluoresced as if with internal light. But even with the cliff as my guide I couldn’t find my way. Then the flashlight failed completely.

I staggered about through tangled brush and downfalls. I peered up ahead at the tall tree line hoping to delineate the gap marking the passage. To the west, the night sky was blank with no outline of forest against it. I knew this must be the rim of the smoke filled crevasse, visible from the old trail. I was closer than I realized to that abyss. In the dark, stars, alone, demarcated sky from canyon. I had lost my way and still an insufficient moon.

Suddenly, the night came alive. A blizzard of small bats whirled about my head sweeping insects from the surrounding air. In the early moon glow, a haze of ephemeral shadows darted across my face. I recoiled against a massive tree trunk, shielding my face with my arms. But as near as they flew they neither touched nor landed.

“If only I could maneuver through the night as well.” I thought.

I crouched against the base of an enormous fir, away from the chilling airflow off Saw Tooth ridge. I pulled my shirt over my knees then stretched the collar up over my face. Foolishly, I never remembered the emergency blanket pack stuffed into my back pocket. With my breath and body heat for warmth, I waited for a brighter moon. I dozed off.

I aroused to iridescent moonlight casting crisp silhouettes through the woods. The moon was now almost overhead. I could distinguish clearings and openings in the tree line. The bats had evaporated. I thought I could find the trail now. Besides, movement would allay the cold and warm me. Again, I kicked through the snarled dead branches and clawing underbrush to an area where I could walk unencumbered. I resumed my graduated climb towards a clearing ahead. I felt that I should be near the beginning of the lower Caribou trail, but I had only found an open area of shear rock. It glowed in the moonlight and I walked up to an abrupt end, the edge of a sheer drop to rocks in the river bed.

I looked back to the great alabaster rock fall shining above Snow Slide Lake.

“I could return to the lake, find the path and start over.” I thought.

I turned away from the ledge and reentered the dense forest. Straddling to cross a recent tree fall I tumbled into a trench.. Pain sliced through my left ankle.

“Great!” I cursed. “All I need to do is break my leg. No one knows I’m here and

I‘m not even on a trail.”

The pain subsided. I struggled out of the trough then sagged against another large fir.

I massaged the residual pain from the ankle. “Its OK.” I concluded.

Once again I stretched my shirt out over my knees and tugged the collar over my face, forming my cocoon. Futility cascaded over me. I was not going to find my way in the night. Now, Don’s fate was solely his own as was mine. He would live or die that night unaccompanied. There was nothing I could do.

I contemplated returning to the ridge. I could see the glowing snow pack below the top and I thought I could find my way back along the open lakeshore. But it was pointless. Marianne’s fate was unknown. I was of no use to Don sitting on the ledge and I did not want to watch him die. At least I could find help at dawn. Crouched at the base of giant tree, I awaited sufficient light to find my way. Resignation conveys a certain relief. I fell asleep.

When I awoke, It was dark still but the moon was full and bright above me. Stiffly, I stood and made my way back to Snow Slide Lake and the block of stone in the center of our campsite. I stared across the water, shimmering in moonlight. The beggar doe peeked from behind underbrush, hovering between fear and want.

I could wait no longer. I set out again to find Brown’s Meadow with, hopefully, its encamped fire fighters. With moonlight behind, the track was visible. Shortly the sun rose. I walked easily now, soon passing the place where I had spent the night. It was but a few feet from the pathway, the forest service barrier ribbon and posted warning.

“Life is filled with near misses.” I thought.

I ascended gradually then the trail flattened, becoming an easy walkway along the edge of the canyon. Sunlight brightened the billowing mist from the river. I paused and looked back at Saw Tooth Ridge. I beheld, in pristine sunlight, a panorama; the lakes, the green spires of misty forest, the fierce crest of Saw Tooth Ridge with its apron of snow.

“ Don is alive.” I thought.

Suddenly above the ridgeline a great red helicopter beat the air. It hovered, twisting about an axis above Don’s location.

“Marianne had gotten through. Don would be taken off the mountainside.”

The copter dropped over the ridge, out of sight. I proceeded on down the trail warmed by the morning sun.

Marianne danced deftly upon migrating rocks and sliding stones. Propelled by adrenaline near panic and assisted by double hiking poles, she moved quickly down the treacherous ridge side driven by gravity and necessity. She saw no trail. Few hikers had walked here. The sun was high and hot but she was oblivious to all but rescue. She didn’t stop even to try for a cell phone connection. She knew the battery was dead. Don had left it on. She didn’t tell her husband.

“There’ll be help at the bottom, at Portuguese Camp. Someone there will have a working cell phone.” She thought. “I just need to get there quickly.”

She scanned the mountainside for a trail. Plunging down the pitch, she felt as if the mountain would give way with every step. She needed that trail. Ahead she saw a collection of small boulders seemingly arranged. She rapidly reached them. Rocks continuously rolled beneath her feet. The vision of Don’s body pitching from the ridge flashed in her mind.

“Too fast!” She thought.

She leaped atop the large flat center block. She paused and surveyed the slope. Immediately, at her feet, appeared a clear bend in a hairpin switchback. Peering down the incline the entire trail emerged from the brown homogeny like the solution of a puzzle.

“The switchbacks! I’ll be off this god forsaken ridge before long.” She thought.

She took a drink of water. “I hope Don is alive. I told them not to climb that ridge. “Stubborn doctors!” She muttered.

She jumped off the rock and onto the path. It felt good to move unencumbered, no sliding shale, no rocks loosening beneath your steps.

“I’ll be in that meadow in no time now. There has to be hikers there. The resort is just a few miles away.” She moved on refreshed by water and renewed hope.

But the switchbacks were eternal. The rule of thumb is the more turns, the steeper the climb and the guidebook noted 85 switchbacks up the side of Saw Tooth Ridge. Even the path itself pitched sharply. Going down one foot was always above the other. As Marianne descended more and more Manzanita crowded the trail.

“There has to be hikers at Portuguese Camp. There has to be help there.” She said urging herself on as she walked as fast as she could back and forth across the laddered trail. It took a full hour and a half more of tortured walking to leave the ridge trail and arrive at the Portuguese Camp. The day was hotter still but the sun was slowly vacating the cloudless sky.

A clear stream flowing from Emerald and Sapphire Lakes bordered the small meadow known as Portuguese Camp. Spruce, fir and a few large leafed deciduous shrubs ringed the deer cropped grass. Backpackers had placed at least twelve brightly colored tents strategically among the trees. Tents, Marianne found, tents, but no people.

“Is anyone here.” She hollered. “I need help. Anyone!” No one answered. She approached the stream. She blew violently on the bear whistle her husband pulled from the pack.

“Here,” He said. “This should help you find someone.”

“Maybe someone’s fishing.” She thought. But no one stood beside the briskly flowing water. She filled her filter bottle and eagerly drank. Cool water soothed her dry throat.

Anyone! Is anyone here!” yelling and blowing the whistle “I need some help.”

“Anyone.” She repeated in a fading voice on the verge of tears. “Is there anyone here who can help me.”

No one responded.

“They must all be up at the lakes you could see from the ridge.” She murmured. She sat briefly on a log seat in one of the vacant campsites. She knew there was another campsite on the river about halfway to the resort.

“It’s probably only 3miles away. It will be dark soon and I’m not equipped for a night in the woods.” She thought. “I better get going.”

She left Portuguese Camp and once again embarked on the trail along the Stuart Fork. The path was level almost smooth, a welcome relief from the perilous ridge. She made good time.

“This would have been a great hike if only.” She thought.

She continued swiftly through open forest with the accompanying stream a short distance to her left.

“I got to get some help before Don dies.” She muttered to herself repeatedly. “Before he dies. Before he dies.”

The trail descended and she reached the next common campsite in about an hour and a half. It was empty not even a tent. No one. The sun was about to set.

“Can’t anything go right?” She exclaimed. “Anything at all!”

“There has to be someone on this trail.” She screamed.

“Someone! Anyone!” She shouted to the heavens cupping her hands around her mouth like a megaphone. She blew the bear whistle. Even the shrill of that sound aroused no response. Dusk approached like a predator.

“There are bears in these woods.” She muttered. “Bears!” She blew the whistle, vigorously, and charged on.

Now the trail narrowed and undulated. It zigged and zagged around boulders and great trees and tree falls. It crossed and recrossed shallows in the stream. Fording flowing water had always made her anxious. Her feet were wet. They ached. She blew the whistle. Her body numbed and she marched on now in near darkness.

On she proceeded up and down, back and forth, determined to find help. Aided at first by the residue of sunset then by the early glow of a rising moon, she followed the trail. Random rocks caught her aching blistered feet but on she walked.

In the interval between the lost sun and the reluctant moon a shadow flashed through the density of the woods. Something crushed leaves and snapped branches.

“A bear!” She thought as she screeched the whistle. The black velvet figure slid like an apparition across her path then crashed into the forest.

“I’ve never been in the woods alone.” She realized for the first time.

She began to sing a made up song, one a child would sing in the dark.

“Oh bear! I mean you no harm. Please don’t eat me. I’m just walking through your forest. Please just go away.” She sang from fear to no particular melody.

The bear moved on through the underbrush, snapping twigs and rattling branches as it went. Marianne continued along the darkening pathway. The soreness in her feet seeped like a toxin up her legs. She felt blisters bulging larger with every step.

“I’m getting close.” She told herself trying to obliterate the increasing pain. “Close!”

And as the last of light faded and her distress threatened to prevail, the trail opened. Voices and music were heard ahead. A woman walking two large fluffy dogs approached in the twilight. Clear of heavy woods there was light.

“Oh, thank God!” Marianne uttered. “I need help. Do you have a cell phone?”

“What’s wrong? The woman asked. She was dressed in a two-piece bathing suit and barely controlled her massive but friendly animals.

“We were hiking over Saw Tooth Ridge, my husband and a friend and our friend fell off the ridge. And he’s badly hurt. Do you have a phone?” she implored.

“Sorry no, no I don’t. But there’s a camp ground just a little down the trail, I’m sure someone there will have one.

“Thank you.” Marianne replied as she left the scantily dressed woman and her dogs.

“Good luck!” the woman called after her.

Her pain, replaced by hope, subsided and she raced to the campground.

“Country music boomed from a well lit gathering near the entrance.

” She shouted above the music as she entered the light.

“Does anyone here have a cell phone. My friend has fallen up on the ridge and needs help badly.

Several thin women and overweight men gathered about a crackling fire focused now on this stranger.

“A cell phone? Anyone have a cell phone?” a thin blond woman sitting in a lawn chair holding a beer bottle by its neck announced. “Ray, you have a cell phone. Don’t you?

“Yea, but it belongs to my work. I can’t take it home.” A large man with a full beard and ample belly responded.

“Ray! The lady needs help. Her friend is hurt. Take her down to the resort in your truck.” She commanded.

“Oh, sure honey!” the big bearded man replied.

“You want something to drink, Hon? You look like you been threw the wringer.” The woman added.

“No, thank you. My husband and our friend need the paramedics.” Marianne said.

“Sure, Hon. Ray”

“I’m fixing” Ray replied. “My truck’s right here, lady.”

Marianne winced as she pushed off and pulled herself up into a double cab Dodge Ram raised high on an elevated suspension. The truck was silver gray and spotless unlike the driver. Ray backed onto the dirt road shifted and roared forward.

“The Trinity Alps Resort is just a couple of miles down the road. We’ll be there in a few minutes.” Ray said as he downshifted through the gears.

“I really appreciate this. I’ve been walking since Don fell about 2 o’clock. Actually since 9 o’clock when we started up the ridge.” Marianne replied unconsciously rubbing her legs.

“What happened?”

“I don’t know exactly. Don was behind us coming off the top of the ridge and all of sudden rocks rolled down and he came flying over a ledge. He was unconscious. Maybe he’s even dead now. My husband stayed up there with him. He’s an ER doctor. “Marianne explained.

“How old is Don?” Ray asked.

“He’s 79.”

“Seventy nine!”

“Yea, I told them both that they were stupid to be climbing that ridge. But they wouldn’t listen. Stubborn doctors!”

“Don a doctor too! That ridge is gnarly. A kid, Boy Scout died up there a few years ago, dehydration or something. Hope your husband has plenty of water.” Ray continued as they entered the resort.

Trinity Alps Resort was built in the thirties, a random series of ramshackle wooden cabins sitting on a bay of the reservoir and strung out along a gravel and dirt road with a large general store at the hub.

Ray stopped with a abrupt slid of the tires in front of a large slab sided cabin with a rustic sign marked RESORT MANAGER.

“These folks will help you.” He announced.

“Oh I hope so. I don’t have my wallet or credit card or anything.” Marianne said, chewing at her fingertips.

Ray stared at her quizzically. “I think they’ll help you anyway. But I’ll stay here just in case.”

Marianne knocked on the door. A woman about forty with honey blond hair answered.

“What’s the matter, dear?” She asked noting the distress on Marianne’s face.

“We were backpacking, my husband and a friend. And our friend, his name is Don, he’s a doctor, fell over the ridge. He’s hurt terribly. I hope he isn’t dead. I’ve been hiking since 2 o’clock to get help. I couldn’t find anyone on the trail. I had to walk all the way here. Could you, Please help us. I don’t have my wallet or credit card or anything.”

“Of course, we’ll help.” The woman said. “Come on in, let me get you something to drink and we’ll call the sheriff and rescue people.”

“Marianne looked down to Ray waiting faithfully in his truck,”

“Thank you!” she said.

Ray smiled and waved. “Good luck!” he said as he tuned his truck around and drove away.



I continued along the trail. It was wide and pleasant. Despite my night in the forest, I felt refreshed or relieved. Don had been taken off the mountain. Marianne had gotten help. I thought how much easier this hike would have been if we only could have taken this lower Caribou trail, if we had not climbed the ridge as Marianne had pleaded, if we had listened to the warnings of the strange man at the motel.

I reached the firefighters encampment in about an hour. They contacted their base by satellite phone. To my relief, Don was alive, flown out over the mountains and forest in a basket suspended from the helicopter to the regional trauma center. One of the young firefighters accompanied me back to the Big Flat campground where Marianne, driven by the wife of the resort manager, met me. She could barely walk. Later, I saw the confluence of purple blisters covering the soles of her feet. Now without the anesthesia of adrenaline, she suffered with every step.

Don had fractured his left hip, cracked a rib or two and of course sustained the scalp lacerations but fortunately no other injuries. About a week after surgery, he was moved to a rehabilitation facility near his home. When I visited he was in good spirits. He showed me the X Rays of his hip. Dense metal rods bridged the jagged gaps between the breaks. The long cuts across his scalp, crammed originally with dirt and particles of stone healed completely, free of infection.

Mercifully, the concussion obliterated nearly all memory of the fall and its aftermath.

“I remember crossing the slope trying to catch up then nothing but waking up in the night, seeing the moon and stars above me. I thought is this what it’s like to die. It’s not too bad, not bad at all.” He said.

“In the morning, the helicopter and paramedics arrived. They splinted my hip and one I recognized from the local ED jammed in an IV. They flew me off the mountain in the basket. That was quite a ride.” He added.

“Did you have much pain?” I asked.

“No, no only when they moved the hip. I didn’t have much pain at all.”

“I’m sorry this happened.” I said. “I guess we should never have climbed that ridge.”

“But as Lorraine said most 79 year olds break their hips slipping in the bathtub. But you have one hell of a story to tell about yours.”


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