Nightmare in the Woods

Lost in WoodsPhotograph by Robbie McClaran

Day 1
It was shaping up to be the perfect weekend. Last July, Pamela Salant, a 28-year-old preschool teacher, and her boyfriend, Aric Essig, 31, who works for a sailboat company, had driven two hours east from Portland, Oregon, to camp overnight in the Mount Hood National Forest. They planned to hike a mile and a half through the forest to Bear Lake, spend the night, and walk back out on Sunday to attend a birthday party for two of her students. It was sunny, clear, and fine.

But during the hike, the subject of their on-again/off-again relationship came up, and the tension between the two began to rise. By the time they set down their packs at the campsite on the south shore of the lake, Salant was blind with anger. “I’m sorry, Pam,” Essig said.
“I’m going to see if I can find a better spot for us to camp,” she told him, stalking off along the western shore of the lake. It was one o’clock.

Bear Lake is only about 100 yards long, hemmed in by trees, which forced Salant to drift inland. With no trail to follow, she descended a drainage basin, climbed up the other side, and scrambled atop a pile of rocks. Where she expected the lake to be, she saw nothing but steep forest and, far beyond, a snowcapped peak. She began backtracking through the dense woods, but the farther she walked, the more confused she became.

“Aric!” she called. “Help!”

No response. She kept moving until she came to a stream. She knew that the creeks here flowed northward toward the Columbia River, several miles away. But what good was that when she didn’t know anything else? She clambered up a series of cliffs to get the lay of the land, climbing a dangerous scree slope and topping out on a boulder. She scanned the horizon. Nothing but trees. She’d been hiking for six hours, and the sun would be setting soon. With a new panic, she began to descend. There, far below! A lake! But was it Bear Lake? It didn’t matter — any lake ought to have trails or people along it. She picked her way down to the lower elevations, traversing the cliffs as carefully as she could.

Then, a misstep, and darkness.

When Salant awoke a few minutes later, the first thing she noticed was the cliff she’d fallen from looming 40 feet above her. The second was that her left leg curved strangely outward below the knee. “OK,” she told herself, “my leg’s broken.” Surprisingly, the injury was not excruciating — some primal part of her had taken over, allowing her to go into problem-solving mode: She was hurt and alone with night coming on and absolutely no gear. All she wore were shorts, a tank top, socks, and boots. She could hear water trickling somewhere in the middle distance, probably a stream. She would sleep right here for the night, and in the morning she would follow the sound of the water to the creek.

Day 2
In the middle of the cold night, she awoke and felt that her left leg was wet. Hours later, at sunrise, she saw that the moisture was blood. She had a deep gash on her right leg — a result of her fall — and it had bled all over her broken left leg. She could see its gleaming white bone with folds of torn and bloodied pink tissue above it. Once again, she processed this fresh horror with a strange detachment. “All right,” she said to herself. “I need to get to the water. I’m thirsty, and I need to clean up this cut.”
Dragging herself along in an awkward crab-walk, she found the creek a quarter mile away. It took her an hour to get there, but she was upbeat. Good, she thought. Either this will lead me back to Bear Lake or to the Columbia — either way, I’m saved. She drank and washed out her injury. The water was pure and beautiful. Magical, she thought. She could feel it rejuvenating her. Salant took one last sip, then set out down the creek, scooting along on her butt.

The area to the west of Bear Lake contains some of the country’s tallest timber and most inhospitable terrain. The stream Salant had chosen to follow is called Lindsey Creek, and it drops toward the Columbia River in a deep, waterfall-studded gorge so difficult to navigate that she may have been the first ever to attempt its descent. Still, she took a moment to admire it. The waterfalls, the ancient forest — they reminded her why she loved coming to this spot in the first place.

All day long she picked her way carefully down the gorge, clinging to the slopes at the edge of the creek. She moved methodically, plotting every step, crossing and recrossing the stream to avoid obstacles, and balancing on fallen logs or clinging to tree roots. She came to the top of an outcropping above the stream and stopped. There was seemingly no good way to go. Forward was too steep, backward was too steep, left was too steep. She could proceed down the opposite bank if she could cross the stream — but it was a 12-foot drop to the water. For an hour she sat and contemplated her plight. Then she jumped.

“I can’t believe I’m doing this!” she screamed, hurtling down into the shallow creek. She landed on her right leg and pitched over onto her side, popping out of the water seconds later.

“OK,” she said, panting and dragging herself out of the frigid water. “What’s next?”

In the afternoon, she heard a helicopter. Is that for me? One swept overhead, but the firs obscured her location. Maybe I should just sit in one spot and wait, she thought. But no — she was too cold for that. Even though the day was warm, the V-shaped gorge was shaded, and she’d spent all day slipping into the cold water.
Around 4 p.m., just as the sun was hitting the gorge, Salant found a flattish spot between two trees and curled up to sleep, shivering. Use all your resources, she told herself. Her tank top had a built-in bra, which she pulled out and folded over her head for warmth. She removed the drawstring from her shorts, poked holes in her shirt and shorts just at the hips, and ran the string through to pull them together and seal in the heat. Then she peeled strips of dry moss from a nearby rock, covering her legs and stuffing her clothes with it.

She thought about Aric. He must have called for those helicopters. How stupid that their last exchange had been so nasty. It was Sunday evening now; she was supposed to be at her students’ birthday party.

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