We're letting the fire die, because it's about midnight, and we've been up early - as we always are when we go camping. It was a beautiful day - lots of full sunshine, a surprise in this rainy May - and we've been marveling that we can see the stars even now. After Friday's night rainstorm, this day and night have been a joy and it seems like tempting fate to think tomorrow will be dry, too. It'll be cold tonight, though. And I wonder, is it clear in Portland, too? We're about 90 minutes away, in a pocket of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in WA that has no cell service.
Our group has two campsites, #22 and #25, next to each other on Paradise Creek. The creek flows into the Wind River just a little way downstream, and it is a lovely, rushing water sound in the background dark. During the day, it's a calendar-worthy vista of water, flowing over rocks and logs, downed trees and moss, wild and scenic. Louder than we think too; those having a normal conversation at the parked cars couldn't be heard earlier today by those just 30 feet away, near the creek.
Last night was the partying night, in the loud rain; tonight was a mellow evening of fireside chatting. We're gathering up flashlights and folding up chairs, turning in for the night. I head into my tent; John went to bed an hour earlier. Me and K are the others to now turn in at site #22, where John's snoozing already; MC, ML, B, H and the Pup head back to walk to site #25.
I've taken off my shoes, and I've turned on the tent heater (after about 20 tries, and on my last one, it ignites!) just to take off the chill while I get into bed.
I've just taken off my gloves and folded back the sleeping bag when I hear B and H come back to our site. They're looking for the Pup; she is 17 years old (not an exaggeration; this ol' girl is a 17 year old dog - complete with some of the dulled senses you'd expect at that age).
H has had the Pup since she was a 7-year-old girl. At 23, the Pup is H's constant companion, and B is her partner and fellow 'mom' to the Pup. This is a fine old dog that's easy to love, even in her sore old age; one of those dogs who is either ready to come back next as a human, or who sacrificed well in her previous life and was rewarded this go-round.
I think, should I go help? Nah, they'll find her. They'll be fine. Then in tandem I hear H say, "Do you hear that?" as I do indeed hear it.
It: the sound of a howling, screaming dog in the distance. "It's her!" screams H.
H takes off, calling the Pup's name, and B is behind her. I keep my flashlight around my neck, step out of the tent, put my shoes on, and don't bother to wake John. I leave the tent heater on. I think, that damn dog has gotten her leg broken in the bracken and downed trees, the moss, ferns and tangled roots in this campground. And B and H are going to be too upset to handle it - I better get out there and offer a steady hand.
I am running after B. She is running after H. B is yelling, "If you can still hear her, it's ok, then she's still alive!" and "Wait for me! Stop! Stop! Just wait! H, let me get to you!"
H is silent. And fast - because I hear her bellow from well ahead of B and I: "I see her!"
I hear the Pup still howling. B and I arrive at a long, large log on the riverbank. It looks dry and wide. B turns to me, without a flashlight. She's been relying on my small light from behind her. She says, "You have a light, you go first."
I step onto the log, and I remember no more sounds. I know H is in the river, in front of me. But I don't hear her, the Pup, the rushing water, or anything else.
My left foot slips and drops into the water to my knee, and I would tell you it was cold but I didn't feel it. It was a shock, it was a slap, and what had been thoughts (if you can even call them thoughts) of, "I have to get to H and keep her from doing something stupid," became a sole fixation on the threat of hypothermia.
I pull my foot up onto the log, I say "fuck," and I drop to a crawl. I turn back to B and deeply threaten her, "You stay here. You fucking stay right here and I'm getting H."
I put the small flashlight in my teeth and crawl to the end of the log. I shine it, I see H up to her armpits in water, up against a second downed log. Flashlight: back into my mouth.
I hop into the water; it's moving fast, though only knee-deep. But each step takes me deeper. Sometime around when my waist slipped under the water line, I feel my shoe come off. My thoughts are ten times faster than it takes for you to read them, but they were: "Fuck, I have to reach down, I have to get that shoe. Wait, no, I don't! This is no joke. Shoe be damned."
I take the next step and the water gives me a jolt. I don't know if both feet come off the rocky riverbed; I think they do. My sweatpants and long underwear start getting pulled off; the rush of water gripping the cotton. I am facing the downed log and holding on, having dipped about to my armpits. My heart stopped with the jolt, the tug. It seems to get darker around me. I am against the log - this is the same log H is up against. I move my grip on it when the tug relents, to right myself. Which means my left side faces upriver, my right side is against the log, both feet are on the ground, and my face is now on H. I've forgotten about the lost shoe and I don't feel my clothing.
With the light still in my mouth, I grab H. (Her hand? Her arm? I don't remember.) She looks at me, and I don't know if she says anything. I think she does, but my brain, which had only been able to process two single things -- get to H, don't get hypothermia -- has now let go of the first, and is planning the next single action alongside the thought don't get hypothermia. It comes upon me; when it does, the sound around me comes rushing back too, like in a film's special effect. The next step was decided. I had to shout it because the sound of the water was now fully upon me, and it seemed unrealistically loud.
I shout at H: "We have to get up onto those rocks! Now! See them? We're going to get up on there! Go!" I turn her away from me, and up she goes; from chest deep water to a dry rock bed in the middle of the creek. Three small steps. I come behind her, and I use my hands like a child crawling up stairs. I use all four limbs to take those three steps. As soon as I don't feel water pulling around me, I do some pulling of my own - pulling drenched bottoms up over my bare ass, which is hanging out in the night air.
Standing together on the rocks, I have total clarity. I have no past beyond the last four minutes, and I have no future. I am the physical manifestation of every single lesson on hypothermia ever taught to me as a child growing up in Montana (and there were many). I continue to know only two things: don't get hypothermia, and now, get back across the river. I left the tent heater on. Ee need to get back there. We need to do it now.
I think H and I exchange verbally. Do we say hi? Does she say thank you? Something might be said and then she points to a black-wet, vicious root ball that is probably 3.5 feet wide with water rushing over part of it - a few wispy, tiny whitewater ruffles in the water.
"I saw her. I saw the Pup, right there." I look and I see nothing. The first thoughts come. I think, "I can't tear H away from here. She is going to want to look for that dog, and we're going to die if we don't get dry right fucking now."
So I say, "We can come back. We can come back and look all night. But we HAVE to get dry. We HAVE to get back to other side and we have to get out of these wet clothes. We'll come back." I am lying to her and I know it. I need to get her safe.
She stares at me, pale, in shock. She says, with no hysteria and with total confidence, "She drowned. She drowned." And I say, "She did." Then we hug. She is like a bird. She is like a little girl, with her narrow shoulders and slight frame; I must be entirely blocking her from B's view across the water, with her slim hips hidden by my bulk. She has no shoes on and bold, striped socks. I, at least, have one Champion sneaker left.
Just as before, now on the rocks and out of the water, the focus on the next step is absolute. We DO have to get back; we DO have to get dry. I feel an internal clock, counting down to our deaths, as if we'll fall down dead in 90, 89, 88, 87... This clock is ticking to instant death because I know it's wrong that I feel no cold, I am not shivering, my socked foot has no pain. The clock reminds me what's waiting down the line if I don't keep going.
H says, "I can't think." I say, "You don't have to. You just have to do what I say." (I may have said, "You don't have to do. You just have to follow me.")
I look back the way we came and it flashes: the tug. The water's control over me for the splittest of split seconds. The only moment of fear I've had so far in this was the tug of that water, against that log, in the blank and indifferent way only nature can tug at you. That was the moment I could have been in serious trouble, because nature has no heart and no awareness if she destroys you.
I know we can't risk that crossing. I look across the bank. I think I see B, but she didn't have a flashlight, did she? In my memory, though, she is a dim light across the bank. And further upstream, on the same, home side of the river, is a floodlight.
It looks like a floodlight but I realize it is the very bright headlamp of K, who went to bed at the same time as me, must have heard us take off, and came down to the bank.
I forget B; she has stayed where I told her to. I shout instead, "K, is that you?" I see the headlamp move. K shouts at me, and I can't hear. I yell, "I can't hear you!" She yells back. Nothing. I cup my hands around my mouth, "I can't hear you! I need you to tell me where it is shallow on that side!"
She yells, and it's a bit clearer, but I can't hear well over the water. I think K is telling me to come across where she is standing. I shout, "Is it shallow?" The tone of her voice is affirmative and reassuring; I can't hear the words but I follow that tone. It's shallow directly across from here, here, further up the rock outcropping. If it was deep water, her tone would have been negative, angry, a warning. The headlamp would be moving elsewhere.
So I grip H by the hand and we begin to walk. I feel wholly steady and sure; the water never reaches much past my knees in depth. Right at the bank, B and K are there. The bank, and their feet, are higher than my head; it's a mud-cut bank six feet high, but there's another large downed tree trunk here. I guide H in front of me, and say, "You guys have to pull her up." She is obedient and pliable; she tries once and falls back down. There is a large tree root one step up from us, and I shout at H to use it. K and B pull on her arms and I push hard with both hands on her rear, getting her up to the log and onto ground.
"You need to pull me up now!" I step on the same root, and now understand why H couldn't do it; it limply falls away from me. The arm pull fails in the same way my foot fails on the root. I reach up again, and K grabs my hand; I give a hop and throw my right leg up and around the downed tree. (I realize within the next ten or fifteen minutes that I do not have the core/ab strength to do this in a normal state; the memory of this allows me understand the power of adrenaline.)
Now I crawl off the log with K as a guide. Hard ground. The home side of the water.
H is sobbing in B's arms and I start a vicious round of yelling; I still see the clock counting down in my mind, and I don't have a sense of how far we are from the tent. It turns out we are quite close, even if it feels far. We arrive with a little more rushing, pushing and yelling from me. Outside the tent, I strip down to bare feet, underwear and a camisole. I tell K to help H get all her clothes off. I go into the tent and wake up John, giving him the barest description of events as I take off my undies and put on dry sweats and socks. I realize H still isn't in the tent and run out; she is in her underwear, camisole and socks. K is pulling off the third pair of socks (H likes layers), and I ask, "Where is B?"
K replies, "She went to look for the Pup more." I yell, "Jesus Christ!" and hustle H into the tent. "Off! Underwear off!" I hand her dry jeans. She is sobbing and shaking, and then I yell, "Take that camisole off!" I give her a big hoodie, I sit her down, and I put fuzzy socks on her feet, which I've saved for her, having taken the lesser socks. She shakes and I realize I'm still wearing a wet camisole.
I toss it out of the tent, put on a dry shirt, and my coat, and step outside with my other pair of shoes on (I almost brought only one pair on this trip). I say to K, "We have to go find B. But we need to find her fast, so we have to get MC and ML."
We clip down to site #25. K is worried about my toes and the cold, and I tell her it's good for me to keep moving, and I feel fine, I'm not cold. I wake MC up from outside his tent. I hear ML from her tent, totally awake, having heard B and H leave earlier for the Pup. "Em?"
I walk over, "Yes." She says, from inside, "Is the Pup OK?"
"No. She's gone."
"What? Oh my god, oh my god... we have to get her... we have to go..."
"No! She's dead. She drowned. She's gone. And I was in the water, and so was H, and now B is gone and you have to come help look for her."
The four of us take off, and start shouting for B. I remember the sound of the river as we looked, and shouting at ML: "Stop yelling! She can't hear anything! Just shine your flashlights!"
We shine our lights together in frenzied loops, and ML shouts, "There's a light by the river!"
We guide that little light up to us, and it's B. I want to scold her, but I think I send her into the tent to comfort H. The sound of their sobs far exceeds the sound of the whirring tent heater.
John joins those of us not directly bereaved around the fire coals - myself, K, ML and MC. We stir them up. We put a log on there. And we stand. Everyone together, in my earshot and eyesight, dry. No more mental countdown clocks blazing in my mind.
Epilogue: We stayed up, rebuilt the fire, and talked for the next couple hours or so, until nearly 3 AM. I experienced the downhill side of an adrenaline rush, nearly puked, cried some. I slept badly and woke up in a panic numerous times.
MC and ML and John and K allowed me to say the same things over and over, allowed me play out some of the things that didn't go wrong that could have, allowed me to be scared after the fact, let me cry, said it was OK if I puked, and didn't call me crazy for feeling awful about my actions.
H and B have just begun their grieving, and they sat on the riverbank to say goodbye the next morning. It was not a serene and meditative goodbye; it turned out to be a vicious and wrenching and gruesome goodbye. A single paw was visible from the backside of the dark-wet root ball in the river and John fought them over an attempt to retrieve the corpse of the Pup.
They relented on that plan, and instead sent her to doggie heaven from the bank with prayers and tears and communion, but with no physical closure. Instead of cremation, the water will slowly return the Pup to the earth throughout this high-water spring, as part of the fish, the bugs, the sandy riverbed beneath the rocks, as part of the water droplets that flow from Paradise Creek to the Wind River to the mighty Columbia River, and then under the great bridge at Astoria, and into the Pacific Ocean.
There is probably more to say, and I may say it here on the blog to some degree... but for now, thanks for reading this, and when we see each other, I won't have to tell the story from scratch. If you're interested in talking about it, we can and we will, but I am grateful this weekend to not have to tell it again by voice.
Please pardon any grammatical errors and/or cliched writing. Thank you.