I shouldered my pack and started up the shore. My feet slipped with each step, forcing me to walk slowly and deliberately. There was an option. I could walk farther up the bank where there was snow, but I doubted whether its crust was strong enough to support me. If I chose that route, I would have to drop my pack, lace on the snowshoes, shoulder the pack once more, then tramp upstream. I stopped for a minute to consider this possibility but decided that travelling over the ice coated rocks, as annoying as it was, was less exertion. After the hike down to the Pool Table Run, the hike back over and down to the tail of the MiniCanyon Pool, and the hike to the Heart Attack Hole, energy conservation was a priority.
Before resuming my trek, I glanced downstream at the place where Mike and I had split up. There was no sign of him. He had made the climb up the steep snow covered bank and disappeared into the dark woods presiding over it.
The snow seemed brighter, the river darker and louder. The contours of the landscape were less defined in the fading light. I looked at my watch. The glowing hands confirmed that the light was failing. It was five to four.
I wondered if Mike’s raincoat would be difficult to locate in the decaying light. It had to have been at least thirty minutes since Mike and I had parted company at the Heart Attack Hole and I found his Helly Hansen rain coat sprawled on a patch of snow like a giant dead bat.
I let the Trapper Nelson slump from my shoulders and kneeled down.
Folding the rubberized piece of canvas into a small package proved an annoyingly difficult and time-consuming task, especially since I couldn’t manage it without shedding my mitts. I wished I’d had a short length of rope or a small Bungee cord, but as I didn’t there was no choice but to wedge Mike’s slicker into the pocket of my pack. By the time I pulled my mitts on once more, my hands were stinging. I stood up, jerked the pack on again and surveyed my amorphous surroundings, concerned that finding the trail head might be a problem.
With some difficulty I located our tracks and followed them to the start of the trail then began the climb up the steep bank to the first terrace. Once there, I made my way up on a 45 degree angle. In the trees there was even less light. The sound of the distant rapids spilling into the canyon confirmed I was still on the trail. I thought about how much easier the climb to the truck would have been if I’d thought to throw a flashlight in my pack, and how careless I’d been not to.
When I looked down I couldn’t make out any tracks. There was little snow on the ground on the tree sheltered part of the trail. I felt a twinge of panic. I was warm from the exertion of the climb, but time was of the essence. At any other time of year I could take comfort from the fact that it would be possible to hunker down until morning and resume the climb in daylight when finding the trail would be easy. That option was not available in the bitter cold. It would have been if I’d had some matches or a lighter, but those items were safe at home along with the flashlight. I had to move. I couldn’t afford to get lost.
I walked what I hoped was the trail for about ten minutes. Just when I’d convinced myself I’d left the trail and was about to turn back, I ducked under a low bow and saw a bit of pink flagging on the ground in a boot mark that must have been mine or Mike’s. I began to move more quickly and soon reached the next level where I stopped to put on my snow shoes, begrudging the time it took. It was almost dark as I tramped up toward the truck. Ten minutes later I reached a dead end. I didn’t know there was a fork. I did now.
Fighting off panic, I descended, careful to follow the tracks I’d recently laid down. There was enough light to pick up the original trail. I started up and came to another fork. It was dark now, but it was a clear night. I hoped Mike had made it back to the truck so that he could grab a flashlight and come looking if I made the wrong decision and became hopelessly lost.
I decided to take the second fork. In an agonizing quarter of an hour I was out from under the forest canopy and out of the woods. Moonlight lit the snow. There was a glimmer of light ahead. I mustered the little strength I had left and quickened my pace. There were headlights ahead. I walked into their illumination. Mike was in the cab drinking coffee. He rolled down the window.
I was about to send out a search party, he said.
I got your rain coat, I replied.