Lake, Allagash Waterway - 1993
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I use the Boston Globe in the morning to soften the transition from sleep to work. Last January the description of two college students climbing in the White mountains made me wish that my paperboy had overslept.
Derek Tinkham and Jeremy Hass, pick the worst weather in years to hike in an area known for some of the most severe winter weather in the world. Within hours they find themselves struggling to survive in sub-zero weather.
When Tinkham shows signs of hypothermia, Haas helps him into his sleeping bag and leaves to find help. Haas has taken his gloves off to work the zipper and can't get them back on but continues in the direction of the MT Washington observatory. He climbs along an exposed ridge with his hands tucked under his arms and somehow completes the four hour hike. Haas ends up with frostbitten face and hands and his friend dies.
Every winter hikers die in the mountains and this winter is no exception; the difference for me was my reaction. Stirred by the description of the two hikers fighting forty below temps with one hundred mile an hour winds I 'm reminded of my own recent camping trip in Maine. Our weather was tropical, our situation benign by comparison, but the survival issues of how a group works together in the face of perceived or real dangers surfaced like never before.
Every October I camp in Maine with four friends, and every year we find how difficult it is to juggle that many schedules. Five adults have a difficult time getting together for a beer let alone a five day trip. This year Eric is missing from the group, now it's just Dan, Bill, Adam and myself. We do our usual months of planning (or maybe anticipating is a better description of the process) and then Thursday night, October 28th we set off in Dan's van. Sounds innocuous but that is mistake number one.
We arrive at our motel, The Terrace, in Millinocket five hours later just after midnight. We go to our room and find no key in the door as promised. No clerk of course, this is a small town and it's late. Dan drives to the nearest phone booth to call the number he'd earlier used to make the reservations. Those of us left standing outside the locked door can hear the phone ringing in a nearby empty room.
I think the important thing to remember now is the collective kinetic energy that is propelling this group: months of planning, this little window we use to flee the pressures of home life, and the seamless way we all work together, like perfectly meshed gears. That's why the next logical step is for me to break into our room by crawling through an unlocked window.
Why didn't we just drive to another motel? No one knows. It's the first day of hunting season and I'm crawling through a window from a dark alley into a darker room and I'm only guessing it's the correct one. A fern at that moment would have made a more reasoned decision, but luckily I guessed right. However, Bill is worried. What, he asks, do we suppose the penalty is in Maine for B&S (breaking and sleeping).
The next morning I apologize to the clerk for wiggling in through her window, and she takes ten dollars off our room charge. One night, four people, forty dollars. When we return late Monday night we get the same discount. From Millinocket we drive another hour to the beginning of the Allagash waterway, stop at the ranger station and go over our painstakingly drawn out plans. To which the ranger says, "Impossible." He offers a different route to the same destination, Allagash lake, and we are off. After four hours, forty miles of deeply rutted logging roads driven in an overloaded family van, and three people at various times walking alongside directing the driver past the roots, rocks and gullies - we arrive at the beginning of Allagash stream.
I mentioned momentum before, now it has doubled. Just get us on the water, we don't care about anything else as it's been ten hours just to the put-in. We've been here before- we could have driven to Ohio by now - and vowed it would never happen again.
We eat a hurried lunch, minestrone soup that my wife made, load our canoes, shove off, and immediately hit what none of us expected-white water. So now we are dodging rocks, grounding our canoes loaded well over the gunwales with gear, pushing off, stopping to plan our routes around other semi hidden obstacles, and praying that we don't capsize. This of course is mistake number two. In the back of all our minds but unspoken is how do we get back?
After an hour of zigzagging down the river, and our adrenals squeezed dry, we come to then end of our narrow confining stream which empties into the vastness of Allagash lake. How many times have we been greeted by loons calling, mist enveloping our canoes or moose feeding near the shore? This is why we are here. No hunters (not one gunshot to be heard the entire three days) and no motorized anything.
Time to relax and do what is familiar. Hike, take day trips to other parts of the lake, cook meals measured not in calories but BTU's and hang out. At least that is what we are supposed to do, but there's that troublesome detail about getting back to the van, paddling upstream against white water. That problem, a source of adventure to some but a real concern to others begins to gnaw. Like a rat chewing on Romex.
It's Saturday, we don't leave until Monday so we should be into the part of the trip we all love. But how do you relax when you know leaving is going to be arduous. Survival is not the issue, we will get out. But the last day is not going to be the usual: roll out of bed, make coffee, pack up, paddle out, drive the four hours to the diner in Millinocket and make them regret that sign in the window. BREAKFAST BUFFET-ALL YOU CAN EAT $2.95
Then it snows. Not much of a surprise, it's below freezing and almost November. I notice that the snow is collecting on top of the water near the shore, and I keep thinking my vision of the shoreline must be distorted, it can't be that cold. We usually swim in this water. I drop my trusty thermometer in and announce the obvious - water temperature is 35 degrees. Another mistake. Somehow knowing what the water temperature is makes some of us concerned about getting back in the canoe . You fall in, you die. Or not.
I think not. And that becomes a source of tension.
Whose perception of danger is accurate? Very quickly we begin to polarize around the safety and the, "How are we going to get out of here" issues, except it's not expressed that clearly. We are after all, guys. The soup boils but no one knows why. Can't see the heat. I'm defensive because I fear worry is going to cut our trip short, Bill and Dan see me as being callous and not responsive enough to their fears. We are back to back now and walking away from one another. Ten paces anyone?
Thinking about it later, I see that I didn't want to listen to their worries. Everything we do involves risk. Most mountaineering deaths, I suppose, result from underestimating the climb. The hiker, ill equipped, hikes into the wind when he should retreat. Haas regretted bringing gloves instead of mittens because he could have put his hands, frozen closed, into mittens. Unfortunately had he brought mittens that chair next to his in Biology class would still be empty - the predicted weather would have stopped the most experienced mountaineer.
But we weren't facing that kind of risk as it fell well within what I consider acceptable limits.
Another detail to add. The day before the snow falls we all gather essential things like cameras, warmer clothes, savory soup with sour cream & red wine, and canoe across the lake to the base of a mountain. Takes an hour and a half. At the foot of the mountain is another ranger station, closed for the season and atop the mountain a fire tower to which we are going to climb. We'll enjoy lunch with a panoramic view. Before we begin our climb, we discover no one has brought water- another not well thought out move. I'm as at fault as anyone, but I'm exasperated. This group is a spike short of a crucifixion. I'm embarrassed, I want this sloppy thinking to stop and I want to blame someone else for all these mistakes. It's my favorite dance step.
It's clear the missing ingredient, someone who has overseen some of these details in the past, is Eric. No excuses, we should have adapted. I'm less concerned with how do we get out and how cold the water is than with how we'll all react when something bad happens, like Dan and Bill's canoe capsizing on the return trip to our campsite. Now why does that thought come to my mind?
No water, what do we do? Obvious. I break into the ranger station by prying open the back window to turn the well on or find a jug of water. Once I'm inside, I find no water and no way to turn on the well, but we do find a pot to boil lake water. After ten minutes of boiling the mixture looks like primordial soup and only Adam and I drink it. But more stress has been added to the mix. How can we all be so dumb? In later discussions we realize part of the problem is the dichotomy; home, safe and warm is not a good place to plan a trip to the wilderness. Too far removed from the reality that if you move suddenly you might fall into a cold lake not break the glass you got for a fill-up at the local Sunoco. Yes, we do it every year but it just doesn't seem to translate, it takes a lot of time out there to rewire the circuits.
And stress in the wilderness brings out the worst in people, I guess it could also bring out the best, but I bet it seldom really does. This is a good group of people, but our seams are beginning to fray. A lot of the tensions surface, but much remains just beyond the sensory level. Those will boil over once we get back to town Monday night, and are (I thought) happy that we have made it, and only concerned with how hot the pizza is. Instead it turns out to be a good time to unload pent-up anger over how dysfunctional the group performed, and who was at fault. Moi? I thought everyone else was.
The way we decide to flee, after looking closely at the map, and I use the term map in the loosest sense - a pin the tail on the donkey kind of sketch of the area is closer to the truth - is to paddle a little ways back up the stream to the beginning of what looks like a trail. We pull the canoes through the woods, over partially frozen streams to an old logging path and back to the logging road where we can hike to the van.
Four people tethered to one canoe walking forward, then returning for the other canoe. It worked just fine and it only took eight hours extending the time it takes to actually get back to the Boston area to seventeen hours. Outer Banks, hell we're in Florida now. We usually return home sometime in the afternoon of the day we leave camp. This time it will be next day.
The logging roads are both snowy and muddy, our van gets stuck almost immediately, but we're able to push it out of the mud. Four guys is a lot of manpower. We are off the lake and everything should be just ducky, but in keeping with the native wildlife, things continue to be just loony. We need a four wheel drive vehicle with two feet of clearance, we have bald tires on a drive- around-town family van without much gas. It's dark we have a long way to go to the nearest town, and we don't want to make any wrong turns, so every truck that passes us we flag down for direction checks. These are loggers scurrying home after work in their 4WD vehicles with those two feet of clearance. What language do they speak? Dan's eyes look like a computer searching for the right program to load. English? No. Spanish? No. French? Sort of....
We stopped four or five truckloads of loggers. Showed them the map and then asked for definitive directions. Sounds simple if A. You can read a map or B. You know something other than where you were and where you want to be. That's it. They know where their home is in Quebec, and they know where the trees are that need to be cut down. Nothing else. Couldn't tell us where to go, couldn't tell us where we were on our map. We were between work and home and besides, what's a map?
Still we sniffed our way back to the first ranger station, and assumed we were going to have a little discussion with the ranger about how nice it was of him to get us to Allagash lake, but could he have alerted us to the difficulty in getting out? As Dan put it, "We are supposed to be dumb but the ranger who you have to check in with is not supposed to be doing his part to control the number of out-of-staters in Maine." We didn't, however, have that discussion because he too had gone home.
We appeared at this point to be on the down hill portion of the trip. Out of the paper company land we passed MT Katadhin, snow covered, clear skies with a brilliant full moon over it's peak. At the first gas station wives were called to quell the stirrings of, "Where is my husband?" Except for my wife who at that point was thinking to herself, "Did he say he was returning Monday or Tuesday?" Of course during our thorough planning we had neglected to tell anyone where we were going. Picture the rescue effort. "I'm worried. My husband should be back by now. He's in Maine."
So what does any of this have to do with freezing to death on MT Jefferson? Probably not much, certainly the weather wasn't the same, and the risk was by comparison non-existent. What did I learn? That in a pinch I could support my family as a burglar? No, but given all the processing our group has done about interpersonal dynamics in the wilderness, I can draw these parallels. First, you've got to have the whole group working together and making the right decisions. Or just working together and overcoming the wrong decisions. You can't be so invested in your planning and preparation that retreating is crossed off the list of choices. As experienced mountaineer Bradford Washburn puts it," I hate to use myself as an example, but the reason I've gotten to be 83 years old is I've done an awful lot of turning back in my time."
There were by different accounts many trails Haas and Tinkham could have used to descend below tree line for a better chance of survival. Why not stop set up your tent and call it a night? On the other hand, I know now it's unfair to speculate on another person's options with limited information, and from the comfort of home. In our case next year we are going to spend more time planning.
But potential trips may have decreased since we now also have defined what level of excitement each of us can tolerate. Bill's already declared he won't climb a staircase with me let alone a mountain. He will back off that by next October, but not by much. Dan says he'll climb that staircase if it's carpeted, and he knows exactly where it begins and ends. Of course, what really determines future trips is how well we remember this one. I'm writing this in my warm house with my loving family around me. What's to remember?