Yesterday I went for my usual afternoon hike with my dog in an unfamiliar area of the Green Mountain National Forest. I wanted to hike all the way around Somerset Reservoir, which my guidebook said was “not recommended” because a bridge was out at the north end. But the guidebook was eight years old, so I figured it was worth seeing if the bridge had been rebuilt. If not, I could always turn back and go the way I came.
What ensued was a long ordeal that could have been pretty painful if it weren’t for the very nice hunter that rescued me.
What’s funny about this is that I spent seven years as a volunteer rescuer for a search & rescue team, including a two-year stint as the public information officer in charge of our efforts to educate the public on wilderness recreation safety. And yet yesterday I did everything I’ve always warned people not to do. I didn’t tell anyone where I was going; I left with no pack, thus no map, compass, GPS or survival gear; and I only left myself about five hours before dark, even though I knew the hike could take the full five hours (as it turns out it would have been more like seven if I’d made it all the way around). The temperature was in the mid-30s and I had no extra clothing or anything to make a fire with, nor did I have a headlamp. And the area I was in was completely deserted; I didn’t see a soul all day except for the hunter who finally rescued me.
I ran into the hunter just about the time I realized I had gone wrong somehow. I thought I’d crossed the bridge that was out, but I was mistaken. I was now on the West Loop trail heading north, but I thought I was on the West Side trail heading south. I was going further away from my car, which was parked at the Somerset dam, and it was 3:30, a mere hour from dusk. The hunter, Greg, stopped to chat with me as he headed in the opposite direction to meet his uncle for a pre-dusk hour of deer hunting. When I told him where I was trying to go, he scratched his head and looked a little worried.
“You’re an awfully long way from the dam,” he said. “And you’re going the wrong way.”
“So how do I go back to the dam on the West Side trail?” I asked.
“You can’t really do that without swimming, you have to cross some water,” Greg replied. “You’ve gotta turn back and go the way you came.”
I looked at my watch. That would mean at least two hours of travel after dark. Not a great idea, especially given all the river crossings and rocky terrain. If I’d had a headlamp it would have been viable, but without one it was pretty hazardous. As I stewed about my options Greg suggested that I hike out to his truck and wait there for him. He’d get me to somewhere there was cell phone reception.
Defeated, I hiked out to a dirt road where Greg’s truck was parked. There was a shelter there, with a small area map on the wall, and I studied it in vain. I had no idea where I was. I sat down next to the truck to wait. My dog, Jave, stared at me in confusion, trying to figure out why we would stop in the middle of a hike and sit on the cold ground.
By the time Greg showed up at 5:00, Jave and I were both shivering. Greg’s cousin Spike arrived a few minutes later and we drove to their hunting camp, a luxurious cabin (by hunting camp standards) with running water and electricity. There was still no cell phone reception, and the hunters thought my plan to call my brother was silly anyway; he would have a very long drive to get to me, never mind to get me back to my car. Despite the fact that it would mean an hour drive each way for him, Greg offered to take me back to my car himself. He even refused the gas money I tried to give him.
The kindness of strangers is a subject I’ve always meditated heavily on when I’ve run across it. Something about it always brings tears to my eyes. I’d like to think I deserved this kindness for all the years I volunteered on my rescue team, helping hunters, hikers, skiers and snowmobilers who’d made mistakes. But I also know that I’m one of the people who has no excuse whatsoever for making those kinds of mistakes in the first place.
And Jave agrees, given that he had to wait three hours to get his damn dinner.