A human being is born to dive deep into the stream of life.Srimad Bhagavatam
I dragged my pack out from the back of my truck to a nearby picnic table, where I propped it on the bench, hoping it would be easier to put it on when I departed the trailhead. I had weighed it the night before. . .fifty-five pounds. My new pack had been custom designed for my small frame and made this weight surprisingly comfortable to carry. The weight was held close to my vertical axis, towering above my head like a chimney rising above its roof.
A couple of weeks earlier I had tried out the new pack on a short trip in the Bighorns. Even with the lighter weight I seemed to fall a lot, landing face first on the trail several times and seemingly without provocation. Hikers who read this will know of course that falling is a regular occurrence on the trail. We trip on outcroppings or stumble over rocks. Usually these falls are not serious and result in only minor scrapes and bruises. I had experienced many falls like that over the years, but this was different. It didn’t take long to figure out that with this tall pack rising like a sentinel above my head my balance was off. I’ll get used to it, I thought, and I prepared and packed for the next trip, a ten day circuit through the Wind River Mountains, allowing for extra time off trail to explore the beautiful back country of that wild landscape.
I slid the heavy pack off the picnic bench and onto my back and stood upright. For a moment I experienced that old familiar feeling, and the refrain went through my mind as it had at many trailheads, “I can’t possibly carry this.” And then I did. I carried it, usually a hundred miles or more. I had learned to trust the process, and the next verse was easy, “I can do this.”
Midway through the day I stopped for lunch, leaning my pack against a rock so that it would be easy to get back on. It was hot and didn’t seem to cool off much as I gained elevation. A black bear came ambling towards me, lifting its nose into the air to taste the smell of tuna fish, then walked slowly around me, making a complete circle, as if it wanted a whiff of this treat from every possible angle. I thought of turning my head to watch the bear behind me but decided it was too much effort. It was that kind of a day.
That night I made camp near the banks of the North Fork of the Popo Agie River and the next morning followed the river upstream towards a trail junction that would lead me to Cirque of the Towers, a popular climbing destination where I planned to spend some extra nights.
Eventually I arrived at a crossing of the river. It was not very wide, nor did it appear to be particularly deep. I estimated the depth to be about three-and-a-half feet, which would be just above my hips. The water tumbled over rocks, however, and the current was swift as it flowed, cascading in a froth that danced in the air and plunged down into deeper pools. This was not going to be an easy river crossing.
I stood by the river for awhile, weighing my options. There weren’t any, except to return to the trailhead, and that was not even worthy of consideration. I reasoned that a fall would be wet but not life threatening. I had crossed countless rivers by this time in my life, many of them wider and deeper than this one. I grabbed a stick that had been left by a previous hiker and stepped into the river.
Almost immediately I felt the current grab at my calves, then my thighs, and finally the water rose above my hips as I continued the crossing. The footing was irregular and precarious, the rocks slick. Midway across the river I felt the current pull me forward, and as I anchored my stick my top heavy pack started to pull the rest of my body forward. In a hasty attempt to correct the situation I leaned back, and I just kept going, into the river, under the river until I was completely submerged and lying on my back.
With a strange kind of detachment I remember thinking, “Now it’s happened…the worst thing that can happen to a hiker has happened to me. I am under water, and so is my pack.” The pack was anchoring me to the river bottom, and I suddenly felt like a beetle on it back, arms and legs upright and waving frantically. I could not stand up without extricating myself from my pack, and when I did so, I looked at the river bottom, and there it sat. Everything I had with me for survival on the trail was under water. I reached for the shoulder straps to pull my pack out of the water and as I did so fell forward into the water once again.
I don’t know how long I was in the cold water, only that it was long enough for me to become hypothermic, for here my memory fails me. The next thing I remember was walking down the trail, dripping wet and shivering without my pack on. I had not gone far. I knew that I was cold and that I needed to do something about that. I turned around and walked back to the river, thinking I would rest for a bit and then make another try at carrying my pack to the river bank.
When I returned to the river, my bright red pack had been propped neatly against the hillside, just the way I always set it down in less extraordinary circumstances. Water was flowing out of it like a small stream. I had no recollection whatsoever of removing it from the rapids. I like to think that a band of angels, sent from on high, had flown to my rescue and lifted my pack to shore with their angelic and luminous hands. I think a more likely explanation is that an adrenaline rush enabled me to lift it with my own arms and hands. They were neither angelic nor luminous but certainly strong at that point, for the pack must have weighed twice as much after soaking up water. I was sitting in the sun, and the shivering did not last long. I ate a protein bar, miraculously dry from being sealed in a Zip-Lock bag. It seemed like the most ordinary of moments on the trail, sitting by a river, having a snack, my pack by my side.
I recalled a meadow not far from the river crossing, so with some difficulty I loaded the soggy pack onto my back and carried it back down the trail. There I spread out my gear in the sunlight, pitched my tent, and laid out the rain fly on the grass next to my sleeping bag. My precious journal sat on a rock, and I turned the pages to dry them out. The paperback novel never seemed to dry out, which seemed appropriate, for it had been dreary and depressing. Everything else was dry in a couple of hours under the hot Wyoming sun. As I crawled into my sleeping bag that night I felt a sense of exhilaration. I had survived a fall in a river, and I would be sleeping warm and dry.
The next day I got up and loaded up my dry gear, remembering that less than twenty-four hours earlier it had all been soaking wet. I carried my pack to the river which had been the scene of such turmoil the day before, set it down, and began removing items. When I had gotten it down to the point where about two/thirds of my gear was sitting on the river bank, I carried the pack safely across the river. I then returned and subsequently made two more trips until all of my gear had been safely ferried across the turbulent rapids. It was so much simpler with a lighter pack.
I made it to Cirque of the Towers that night. Clouds had come in, and it had started to rain lightly about the time I arrived in camp. I found a nicely sheltered campsite in a copse of subalpine fir and set up my tent. I then sat down on my bear canister and had a cup of tea, my standard treatment for a dark mood.
The previous day I had felt triumphant that I had survived the fall uninjured and also managed to dry out all of my gear, which seemed even more miraculous. This night I sat pondering whether I should ever go hiking again. These kinds of thoughts had occurred more frequently lately. I was in my late fifties by then, and thoughts of aging always came up when I had a hard time on a hike. I knew that even if I was getting too old for these trials, I wasn’t about to stop hiking. I was surrounded by peaks that rose to eleven thousand feet, piercing the sky like jagged teeth. I thought it must be one of the most beautiful places on the planet. I couldn’t bear the thought of not returning here and to all of the other most beautiful places on the planet that were constantly beckoning to me. No, I was not ready to give up hiking. But I was ready to give up the heavy pack.
That would be a gradual transition, but eventually I replaced almost every piece of equipment I owned with lighter weight options, beginning with that over-priced top-heavy pack. It took me awhile to invest in an ultra-lite pack. It seemed silly to spend that kind of money on a pack that would likely only last a couple of years, but my ultra-lite Osprey is the most comfortable pack I have ever carried. I am no longer able to stay out for the long treks I once loved, but I have been able to increase my mileage because my pack is lighter, and I am able to cover greater distances. What matters is that I’m still out there on the trail, and I’m a good deal older than when that fall in the river occurred, and. . .I must add. . .a great deal wiser.