Nightmare in the Woods

Pamela Salant expected a quiet evening camping near Mount Hood, Oregon — then things took a horrible turn

By Derek Burnett from Reader's Digest Magazine, | March 2012


Day 3
At the first hint of light, she arose, desperate to be moving again. She looked down at her legs. The gash on her right thigh still yawned fiercely, and the curve of her left leg made it appear vulnerable, pathetic. She felt that sudden strange detachment again and a kind of maternal responsibility toward her legs, as if they were children tugging at her sleeve. God, she thought, can’t you just take care of yourselves?

She nursed them along down the gorge. Somehow it made her feel less lonesome to have someone to nurture, even if it was only her own legs. She washed out the wound on her right leg and wrapped it in her underwear. Later in the morning, she blundered through some thornbushes, and it occurred to her that she might use thorns to suture the cut. She stabbed at the folds of skin, trying to pin the laceration closed. But she could never do more than skewer one edge of the injury.

Helicopters flew overhead once in late morning and again in early afternoon, but Salant was never in enough of a clearing to flag them. So she pushed on. She came across a familiar-looking green bush studded with pink berries and thought she remembered Aric identifying the plant as salmonberry. She nibbled at one of the fruits and spit it out. Waited a while, then sampled another. Satisfied that the berries weren’t toxic, she gorged on them.

At nightfall, she tried to sleep, but pain and fear made that impossible. As she lay awake, visions of her childhood came to mind. Random scenes — church on a Sunday morning with her family, trotting around the running track as a high school athlete.

She so wanted to be with Aric and her family. She wanted to hold them and shout how much she loved them. There were things she still wanted to do — learn to play the fiddle and have children. But in the black of night, she recalled a dear friend, Luke, who had died two years earlier. If I don’t make it, she thought, at least I’ll be with Luke somewhere.

Day 4
When the sun rose Tuesday morning, Salant gritted her teeth. “I’ve had enough of this,” she said. “I’m going to be found today. Or I’m going to die. But the journey is coming to an end.” She made her way to a flat rock with a clearing overhead — a good place to be spotted. For three hours, she waited, shivering, starving, thirsty. No helicopters.

She scooted uphill a little to sit in the sun. A fat green caterpillar shrugged along nearby. She picked it up and bit into it. It cracked apart, spurting a metallic flavor into her mouth. Ugh! Then she spied a meaty-looking slug. She’d always wondered what one might taste like, and after plopping it into her mouth she knew. Never in her life had she tasted anything more repulsive. She spit it out and scooped up handfuls of water in a vain attempt to erase the awful gluey film on her tongue.

Thwup, thwup, thwup.

Helicopters! She skidded back down to the flat rock where she’d spent her morning. A chopper passed overhead. Salant tried to stand but toppled back onto the rock. Then the helicopter flew off.

Did they see me or not? she wondered. Across the stream was another salmonberry bush. I’ll count to 500, and if they don’t come back, I’ll go over there and eat some berries. She counted as slowly as she could. Four hundred ninety-nine, 500. Hell.

She was crawling to the berry bush when she heard “You must be Pam.”

“What are you guys doing out here?” Salant asked.

Four members of a volunteer alpine rescue team called the Hood River Crag Rats had spent the day descending Lindsey Creek. They had been in radio contact with the Oregon Army National Guard helicopter that had spotted her. “I can’t believe there are people who do this. I love you,” she cried.

Half an hour later, a medevac chopper arrived. With no place to land, and with some of the Douglas firs stretching 150 feet in the air, the Blackhawk crew had to stage a daring cable rescue, lowering flight medic Ben Sjullie from 300 feet into a drop zone the size of a pickup truck. Ten minutes later, Salant was dangling from the cable above the treetops in Sjullie’s bear hug. Safe inside the helicopter, Sjullie closed the door.

“Are you OK?” he asked. And for the first time since her ordeal began, Salant broke down and cried.

“I just don’t know if she could have made it past the point [where] we’d found her,” says Tom Scully, one of the Crag Rats who rescued Salant. “There was a waterfall above and a waterfall below. Another day and she probably would have stayed right where she was.” Scully is in awe of Salant for covering such terrain with broken bones. He calls his descent of Lindsey Creek — aided by ropes and climbing gear — “one of the burliest hikes I’ve ever been on. It wasn’t even a hike. It was survival. There’s nothing out there but nothing. We were all soaked and scraped up. And she had been at this for days without gear or clothes. She’s amazing.”

Salant reached Aric on his cell phone from her hospital room in Portland. He had spent the weekend camped out at Bear Lake helping the search effort, and now he was speeding toward Portland. “Aric?” Pamela said through her tears. “I’m OK.”

“Thank God. Thank God. I’m on my way.” When he stepped into her room, neither of them could find the right words, so they hugged instead.

Pamela Salant left the hospital after a week. In addition to the laceration on her right leg and the tibial plateau fracture just below her left knee, she had suffered compression fractures in her spine and abrasions all over her body. But all she could think about during her convalescence was the forest — how peaceful it had been out there, how much a part of it she had felt, like any other animal suffering along through nature.

As soon as she was able to use crutches, she and Aric camped again. “Are you sure you really want to do that?” her friends asked.

“Are you kidding?” Salant said. “It’s all I want to do.”

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