Error: I'm afraid this is the first I've heard of a "comments" flavoured Blosxom. Try dropping the "/+comments" bit from the end of the URL.

Thu, 31 Jan 2008

No Bridge

I like to sleep outdoors on the ground in the woods during the winter. Most people accustomed to Tempur-Pedic® plafondized comfort in fossil fuel powered thermostasis are at a loss to understand my attraction to this apparent insanity. It's cold out there. Surely you'd die.

I don't see it as insanity. Quite the contrary. Properly done, overnights in the winter woods have numerous advantages, and only one relatively minor disadvantage, easily compensated for and already mentioned: no Fahrenheit degrees. But there are also no bugs, no kids, no computers, no cell phones, no TV, and no wives – beneficial absences that aren't so easily attained within the bounds of 70 degree F civilization.

What's more, it's God awful beautiful out there. The frigid air and 0x000000 black sky of the winter wilderness set off the single-pixel stars in an acutely painful glory. To stand there alone on the snow in no degrees, wearing only one's skivvies, pissing on an icy rock by the glaring light of the full moon – to be actually out there – not behind Thermopane but out there – is life fully lived.

In northeastern Lycoming County, Pennsylvania, there is a wide and easy woodland trail that loops through PA State Forest Lands, land that had formerly belonged to the Central Pennsylvania Lumber Co. The trail is called The Old Loggers Path (OLP), as it threads its way through several of the old lumber towns – now all ghost towns – using abandoned logging roads and rail beds. The last serious clearcut logging ended in the 1930s. The trail officially begins and ends in a ghost town called Masten, Pennsylvania, which was once an unincorporated village in McNett Township. The last resident moved out of Masten in 1941.

I like the absolute solitude of the frigid winter woods; it makes me feel alive. Still, the suburbanite's instinctive fear of freezing to death has sound basis. In winter you really can die if you are alone and suffer some misfortune. As a hedge against such danger, my winter hiking buddy, Doug, tends to join me on most trips that stray far from road and cellular coverage. Doug is a mountaineer with three decades experience. Knock on wood, I haven't yet needed his wilderness EMT training, but there have been some close calls. This story is about one of them.

About a year ago, Doug and I decided to take a leisurely walk around the OLP, a trail that for some time both of us had wanted to explore. Since the loop is just shy of 30 miles, our leisurely pace and the limits of winter daylight implied a three day, two night excursion, perfect for a long weekend.

The trailhead in Masten is several miles of dirt road away from civilization. When we arrived, just about dawn on a Friday morning, there was a light snow falling and the woods looked magical. This place is about as remote as things get in the Keystone State. The metropolis of Masten comprises a roughly graded parking lot, two wooden signs, a stone chimney, and not much else. Amusingly, MapQuest can give you precise directions to Masten, along with links to Jobs in Masten, New Homes, Insurance, Restaurants, even flights to Masten. Hmmmm...

We like to rough it, but we are also gear freaks. No Alexander Supertramps are we. Sheathed in ridiculously expensive, non-cotton, high tech fabrics that were no-doubt manufactured in some carbon belching sweatshop factory, and shouldering ultralight precision fitted rucksacks stuffed with survival essentials recently liberated from their mail order boxes, we set off on our long winter weekend wilderness escape from modernity. We were heading clockwise around the loop. The plan was to do about 12 miles each of the first two days, then a short 6 miles the last day. We had a map and compass, we had GPS, the old rail beds are wide, easy to follow and marked with orange blazes.

Did I say we had a map? Our map, courtesy of DCNR, showed the trail clearly as a bright red dashed line. Maps are a comfort for the detail oriented. You can always know exactly where you are. They also contextualize you. They give your trek purpose. They can also give you unheeded warnings that look pretty obvious in hindsight, like the 14 point Helvetica NO BRIDGE at mile 16.84, which, for our clockwise circuit, was roughly ten miles in.

A pretty effective way to die when it's cold outdoors is to get soaking wet. Wet clothing is bad at keeping you warm. Really bad. Wet cotton is especially bad. Each year, a few people freeze to death when they get wet and go hypothermic. People in T-shirts and jeans have been killed in temperatures as warm as +55 degrees F. To help avoid this fate, on our winter treks we wear long johns made of high-tech, moisture wicking fabrics, and we encase ourselves in a breathable but waterproof shell of clouroflourocarbons. Regardless, wet is wet, and high-tech fabrics can kill you as easily as cotton when sufficiently moist.

The concept many people have of winter survival was formed by the story To Build a Fire. The protagonist of that story was wandering around in relative comfort at 50 below.

"And then it happened. At a place where there were no signs, where the soft, unbroken snow seemed to advertise solidity beneath, the man broke through. It was not deep. He wetted himself half-way to the knees before he floundered out to the firm crust.

"He wetted himself halfway to the knees." That doesn't sound too terrible. Basically just wet feet. Towel off and move on, right? Perhaps not. The man in To Build a Fire dies from this simple misstep. Not that the Jack London is a winter survival authority. His experience in Alaska was brief and hardly distinguishing. There are those that claim he plagiarized much of his work. But whatever the source, on this one point of cold weather survival he was spot on. Don't get wet.

I'm hardly a survival expert either (although my buddy Doug actually is), and can only dream of being as successful an author as Jack London. Still, London and I do both share knowledge of this basic fact, which explains my feelings of bitter disappointment in reaction to what I saw when we arrived at "NO BRIDGE".

Any other season, Spring, Summer, or Fall, I might have been enthralled by such a beautiful forest glen at the conflux of Yellow Dog Run and Pleasant Stream. But on this particular Winter afternoon, with the temperature already at zero and promising to be ten below by midnight, the orange trail blaze on the other side of Pleasant Stream, a shallow brook not 20 feet wide at that location, might as well have been on the other side of the Valles Marineris on Mars. The icy water in the stream wasn't very deep. Maybe it would just wet us halfway to the knees should we try to ford on foot. Wet us halfway to the knees. In winter, it represented an uncrossable gulf.

We stood there shaking our heads, Doug and I, looking at this barrier. We were silent for quite a while. At first all I could do was to close my eyes and hope it would not be there when I opened them. It always was. Finally Doug spoke.

"Guess we camp here. We can walk back to the car in the morning," he said.

"Guess so," I replied.

When faced with a hiking or climbing conundrum, Doug and I always begin by affirming our readiness to give up and turn around right then and there. We want no interpersonal tension with respect to these sorts of decisions. We can't have a situation where one of us wants to continue and the other says no. We are roped together, figuratively, if not literally. But just because we begin with a verbal surrender doesn't mean we have officially run up the white flag. Our brains keep exploring the problem till it's behind us, one way or the other.

After establishing our baseline expectation by affirming defeat, one of us will usually tease at the decision, while the other holds the line. Typically it's me that teases, as it was in this case. I looked downstream.

"'No Bridge,' no shit," I said. "It only gets wider after they join. Man, that looks deep down below. It's not so bad here. We could wade barefoot, or with just socks. I have extra socks."

"I don't. And no," said Doug.

"Yeah, we'd slip. Or cut a foot on something. This sucks. Hey, look at that log across. Could we shimmy across on that? That water sure looks cold."

"The log's too low. And no," said Doug.

"No harm in looking," I said, walking toward the log, but it was obvious that it wouldn't do. No question that it was strong enough, but it really was too low. You couldn't straddle it without dangling your feet into the water. And parts of it were getting splashed. It had a thick coat of ice and snow.

"Guess not," I said. Then, after a pause. "What about upstream? It looks like the creek braids out. Maybe we can find a ford if we hike upstream."

Of course, I meant upstream on Pleasant Stream, the one blocking our path. But this direction was away from the junction of the two creeks and up the Pleasant Stream gorge, the walls of which steepened quickly away from the junction. Unless we found a braid soon, the gorge would become too steep and narrow to permit much progress.

There seemed to be a big upstream island plainly reachable by a few rock hops across a thin braid run. The island was thickly covered in brush. You couldn't tell how big it was or what lay on the other side. The braid was very thin. The main, uncrossable flow of the creek was still over there someplace.

"I'm going to check out this island. What do you think?" I asked as I dropped my pack.

"Go," said Doug, dropping his pack as well. "I'll go back up the trail a ways to see if there's a side trail up the gorge."

We split up. Fording the shallow stream braid was easy, but the going on the island was not. The brush was very thick and full of briers. I found some deer paths to follow at first, crawling and squeezing my way, but then it thickened till forward progress was impossible. I retreated, crossed over to the main shore, walked upstream on the steepening walls of the gorge. then returned to the island above where I judged the thicket ended. Progress was easier here. Soon I found myself at the upstream end. The stream was laked-up above the island. The edges had begun to freeze, but most was open water. It was as wide as a city street, shore to shore, and apparently bottomless. The walls of the chasm rose steeply out of the black water, climbing 1000 feet to the top of the plateau. There'd be no crossing above the island.

Reaching the island, the stream washed over a gravel bar, then made a sharp right turn before plunging its whole volume through a narrow channel. The black water of the laked-up stream, after resting peacefully, now exploded into a frothy, blue and white and iridescent green serpent, like one of those Chinese New Year dragons, ten feet thick. It slithered along the far side of the island making an awful dragon roar, finally escaping at the downstream end, force temporarily spent, to spread and gurgle through the summertime "no bridge ford".

It still looked hopeless. I managed to hop out to the gravel bar, but this vantage point just made things look worse. I could practically touch the other shore. An easy biscuit toss, Aubrey would say. But it could have been a million miles. The frigid water zoomed by, totally oblivious to me. So much water. How could that much water be liquid at this temperature. In the fall, I might have reached down to touch the cold liquid, but here, I kept my mittens on. I knew how cold the water was, I knew how cold the air was. The winter calculus. I wasn't willing to get so much as one finger-joint wet.

I made my way back to where we had dropped packs and waited for Doug, giving a double blast on my safety whistle to alert him I was OK and let him know I had returned. After a while, he returned, just a little out of breath.

"There's no side trail," he said. "If we can't cross here, we need to walk back to Masten. Did you find anything up the island?"

"No. But it's a pretty spot up there. You might as well come look at the scenery before we go. It's not far. I wish I had a canoe. We could easily cross with a boat."

Doug followed me up to the head of the island. I hopped out on the gravel bar and pointed at the far shore, over the beast snaking through the channel.

"So close, and yet so far," I said.

He smiled and shook his head. But then, suddenly, something caught his eye.

"What about that?" he said, and began making his way down along the far side of the island.

I saw immediately where he was heading. I tree had fallen part way across the channel. At first glance it looked impassible, sloshing half submerged, with a profusion of branches poking down into the torrent. It didn't reach all the way across, and it was a death-trap strainer, which was why my eye I had dismissed it with horror. But as I moved closer now and forced myself to reconsider it, I could see that I had missed a significant feature. There was a second tree, somewhat higher and parallel to the first. The two trunks were firmly locked in place, frozen into the island, about 3 feet apart, with the upper trunk upstream a few feet. They started low, but sloped upward and ended well up in the air. Doug pointed to the lower log, then the upper.

"Foot-rest, butt-rest," he said.

He was right. There was just the right spacing and just enough clearance in the branches to sit on the upper log, with your feet on the lower log – and slide out over the channel. But then what?

I didn't have much time to ponder that question. Without another word, Doug sat on the upper tree, settled his feet on the lower, and daintily butt hopped out over the roaring channel. When he reached the limit of the upper log, he stood, and jumped onto the far shore. Simple as that.

I was stunned. Doug started yelling something to me, but at first I couldn't make out what he was saying, I was so taken aback by what had transpired. It was like he had suddenly been transported to another world, passing through the light. It was like he had died and was communicating to me via a spirit medium. What is that strange GorTex clad ghost on the other side of Styx? I wonder what mysteries lay over there in his world. There was no way I could join him.

Doug is good at stream crossings, but that's not the half of it. I'm abysmally bad at stream crossings. I have a bad eye, and consequently dodgy depth perception in the 5-10 foot range. This minor handicap is normally irrelevant, but slows my progress considerably in crossing streams. It takes me a while to judge exactly how far to hop to reach the next rock, or, in this case, how far to hop from a tree branch to shore over the channel of blue-green ice water zooming underneath.

Eventually I returned to my senses.

"I need to make sure I can get to the trail from here," Doug shouted over the roar of the water.

This time I gave him a thumbs up in assent. He smiled and disappeared into the brush. I stood there dumbly staring at the two logs till his return.

"It's OK," he yelled. "Go get the packs and hand them to me. I can't come back."

That was plain. There was no way for him to safely reverse the process and hop from solid shore to the slick log. But could I do what he had to join him, I wondered?

Shaking off my consternation, I went back for the packs. It did me some good to tote the 40 lb packs up along the shore, over the stream braid, and across the island. The exercise began to clear my brain of misty doubt. I started to focus on the problem. "Just one step at a time," I thought. "What one man can do, another can do."

When I had the two packs piled by the fallen trees, Doug shouted again, "Climb out with them and try to hand them to me." Somehow he sensed my self-doubt and added, charitably, "Take your time."

Dropping a pack in the river would be bad. A sleeping bag would be lost for sure. Not of the persuasion to permit a Brokeback Mountain solution to a shortage of bedrolls, sharing one sleeping bag between us at 10 below would make for a very difficult overnight. Depending on the pack lost, possibly the tent would be lost too, which could pose its own challenges should it start to snow again.

Of course, bodily falling in the river would likely be much worse. If I was "lucky" I would be swept through the channel and spit out below the island. I might then slosh over to shore and avoid a slow death from hypothermia if only I could get into dry clothes PDQ and warm myself somehow, perhaps by building a fire. On the other hand, if I was unlucky, I'd be pinned underwater by one of the strainer branches and die with near-instant certainty.

With these grave thoughts on my mind, I lifted the first pack and determinedly inched my way up and onto the log. Weeks later, when Doug and I recalled these events, we wondered why neither of us thought to take a photo of the spot. We both had cameras. I don't know for sure why Doug didn't snap a photo of the memorable tableau, but I definitely do know why I did not: I was so mentally focused on the serious business I was undertaking that my mind had no room for anything else.

All my senses were cranked up to full sensitivity. I tested every foot placement a half dozen times before committing my weight to it. I felt, I looked, I listened. If I could have tasted and sniffed the footholds, I would have. Each hand motion on the pack was rehearsed in my mind before I made them. A few times I backed up to my previous position and tried an alternative move forward to see if I liked it better. This was like rock climbing, but horizontal instead of vertical.

I led first with my body, pack behind, but eventually I had to switch the pack around my hips and to my front side in order to hand it to Doug's outstretched hands. This was my own pack, with its familiar heft and rigging, practically part of my body. The switch, back to front, went smoothly. A few more moves further out and, yes, Doug's hand was on a strap. The pack was over. I scooted back carefully, breathing again. I could do this.

The second pack was Doug's. Like a chess player reciting a trusted opening, I made exactly the same sequence of moves to lift his pack, climb up on the branch, and move out with its weight behind me. Then I twisted my far arm backward to grab and switch the pack to the front of me. When I reached around for the horizontal webbing across the pack's back pocket, I found – no webbing. Doug's pack has two vertical pockets, vertical webbing in the middle, but no horizontal webbing. My hand closed on air; rashly, my body had committed to bearing weight from a grip that did not occur. My balance was disrupted and I reeled, center of mass not a millimeter from the back of my heels.

There are those that wonder if everything is pre determined by fate, or rather, maybe we have some say in our fates. Others claim we cannot control our fate unless things are deterministic. Yet others like to dream of a random element in everything, God playing dice with our lives at every critical juncture.

I still don't know the true answer to those puzzling questions, but when I teetered on the brink of falling into that frigid water, the dynamics of my physical world stopped. The static moment seemed to drag on for hours, weeks, centuries. I had ample time to calculate all the forces acting on me: my weight, the pack's weight, pressure from the wind, a spiderweb dangling a leaf against me from one of the branches, the earth's magnetic field acting on the fillings of my teeth, photonic pressure from the weak sunlight, gravitational influences from faraway comets, the flapping of a butterfly wing back in the Jurassic. I summed these in one immense three dimensional vector integral and waited for my fate to be decided.

Maybe there was a special term in the sum that made all the difference. Maybe it was God's dice roll; maybe it was the telekinetic force of my psychic will. What ever the terms, the final sum was in the positive halfspace. I did not fall. I did not drop the pack. I recovered my balance. After another millenia passed, I moved the pack solidly on my second try. I hopped over to the far shore and was standing next to Doug.

Doug later told me that he could see in my eyes that some sort of critical point had been decided when I reached back for the webbing on his pack and "paused" briefly. He wasn't sure what had happened, but he knew instinctively to hold his breath and remain totally motionless till I figured it out.