Lost on the Mountain
In the morning, I plied the waters off Harpswell Neck in my sea kayak, catching the sea breeze and basking in the sparkling sun. After lunch, I packed up and turned my little car northward, heading toward the Greatest Mountain - Katahdin.
Inland, the temperature reached eighty-five degrees - scorching for the first day of Memorial Day weekend. But when I reached the park, a carefully lettered message at the check-in warned that the second half of the trail to Chimney Pond was covered with three to five feet of snow.Hikers were urged not to proceed without snowshoes.
Snowshoes? I saw two pairs inside the ranger's camp, but the ranger had disappeared. Turning back was not an option. I started up the trail at a fast clip.
The drizzle stopped and I peeled off my outer layer. The air was turning crisp, clear, clean. I arrived at Halfway Rock and detoured to the viewpoint at Basin Pond to survey the mountain. Lots of snow in the great gullies, but only patches in the woods. Perhaps I could get through.
One thing gnawed at the back of my mind, though. Roaring Brook drains both the South and North basins, a large swath of the mountain. The gathered water can flood the trail, sometimes so badly that it is impossible to cross. Chimney to Roaring Brook hikers have been turned back; hikers en route to the pond haven't been able to get there. Would I be stymied so close to my destination?
As I had feared, the trail disappeared into frothing, frigid swirls. I unbuckled the waistband on my pack, so if I were to fall I wouldn't be trapped. Then I waded in, bracing myself against the current, grabbing a tree trunk as it became available, then lunging for the far bank and safety. Except for the squelching, the rest was easy.
The ranger grinned at my unexpected arrival. I unloaded my pack, setting purposely frivolous foods - corn chips, white wine, and succulent purple grapes - on the table. We swapped news as the light faded in the basin.
By ten I was ready for sleep. I went to the outhouse and paused on the way back, glancing up at the familiar silhouette of granite - the Knife Edge, Baxter Peak, Hamlin Ridge. A light floated up there in the darkness, bobbing up and down, back and forth - a light where no light should be. Someone had come over the mountain, gotten caught in the storm, and was looking for the shortest way down. I shined my flashlight up. The other light winked back S-O-S, S-O-S.
I called to the ranger. "You're not going to like this," I warned, "but there's someone up there."
"They're by the First Cathedral, just getting into the snow," he said. "They'll lose the trail."
He thought for a moment. When there was an emergency, I noticed, he slowed down when others might rush.
"It's not my crisis," he'd say. "I have to arrive with everything I need - first-aid kit, clothing, food, water. Once I'm there I won't be able to rest or catch my breath. I have to be ready for whatever I find. Running up there without supplies, getting exhausted as well - I'd just make the situation worse."
He turned back to the cabin. "You stay by the radio," he said, "and I'll go get them."
I sat at the big desk in the small office. I didn't know it then, but we were tuned to different channels. In no time the ranger's light emerged from the dark and met the other light. He was fast.
The two lights bobbed together. I pictured him giving out clothes, reassuring the hiker - or maybe more than one. The two lights descended into the cover of the woods. I expected a message on the radio, but it was silent.
Moments later I heard a screech, subsumed by a quickening rumble. An avalanche? A rock slide? Ice careening off Pamola cliffs? The noise seemed to roll from the east side of the basin. I rushed from the building, but between the wind and the echoes, it was impossible to tell what had happened. I ducked into the office and sat alone with my fears.
Eventually boots thumped on the porch and the door swung wide. In tramped the ranger, followed by two sodden, cold hikers. The woman talked nonstop, happy to be saved. The man was quiet, cautious, hiding their secret. The ranger and I made cocoa, dried clothes by the woodstove, got them to eat. By midnight they were cheerful and ready to settle into slumber.
Though the hikers would tell their epic back home, they had learned what the mountain could do to them. They knew that the ranger had snatched them from a long, cold night, the kind of night when hypothermia stalks the unprepared.
After they left I congratulated the ranger on the first rescue of the season, on the first day of the season. I also congratulated myself. It was my first day as the ranger's wife.