We had initially planned a fishing trip north and higher in elevation, but snow and ice forced us further south. We didn’t know how much of an impact that decision would make on our lives. It was supposed to be a relaxing fishing trip, but it turned into the opposite. My goal in writing this story is to make the reader think about how they’d prepare and respond if they’re ever faced with a similar predicament. This is a rewrite of an article I wrote about the same incident.
This version is based on our experience, but I altered some of the place names and people, trying to focus the story on what we did as campers, and what lessons we learned during the rescue attempt.
I hope that other hikers, anglers, and campers can learn from both our successes and failures that night.
My friend had been driving all over the mountains since early morning, and I was in my car heading north to meet him. He lived about an hour and a half from the area and had grown up in the region, so he was much more familiar with it than I was. I had been coming up that way for years, but—since it’s almost a five-hour drive for me—only about once a year for a few days at a time. While driving I’d get occasional calls from him about the wintry conditions and iced-over lakes that he found. There was a cross-country skier at the place we were planning to canoe and camp at. Ice-out was late this year, and we weren’t prepared for an ice fishing trip, so our original location would have to change.
He kept driving south and lower in elevation until he found open water. We finally decided to fish South Pond, which is in one of the first wilderness areas that you reach as you head north from civilization. My friend had wanted to fish South Pond for years, and he was sure that we had a chance to get some big brook trout. We met in a small parking lot by a river, and as the rain fell, we headed to the boat launch for Island Pond. From there, we’d paddle out and around the island—about two miles to the canoe carry trail on the opposite end of the lake. From there, we’d hike less than a mile to South Pond.
We had more gear and food than we needed for three days. It always seems like you bring more if you don’t have to carry everything in a backpack. We loaded up the canoe and paddled across Island Pond as the sky cleared and the sun came out. It took us two trips down the hiking trail to South Pond—we carried the heavy packs first and returned to get the canoe, paddles, and the lighter pack. As we arrived at the shallow cove on the far end of South Pond, I noticed a few ice patches in some of the shady spots.
There’s one camping shelter on South Pond along with other campsites scattered along the shore—all connected by hiking trails. We got lucky and found the shelter unoccupied. It’s a rustic, three-sided log shelter and it’s much appreciated when the fickle mountain weather changes for the worst. It looked like it was in pretty good shape, and it had a newer roof on it.
It was later in the afternoon, probably around 2:00. We had some time to get our stuff situated, eat some food, and then go out fishing in the early evening. I noticed that we didn’t get cellphone service, so I set my phone to airplane mode and put it in the front pocket of my backpack. It can still serve as my camera, and I downloaded the map data for our region of the United States, so it wouldn’t be useless during the trip. I had already let my wife know where we were camping and that there might not be phone service in the area, so she won’t be expecting any calls from me.
Our gear was strewn all over the floor of the lean-to, and we were sorting through our fishing gear when four hikers approached from the opposite direction of where we came from. Three of them stayed down on the main trail, and one of them came to talk to us. He was a confident hiker probably in his late 50’s. He walked up the small slope towards the shelter, a hiking pole in each hand. Raising his voice loud enough that his three companions could hear, he told us that they would let us have the lean-to and were planning to camp in the next site further down the trail.
Sam was a wilderness guide taking three hikers on an overnight camping trip. They too had been forced south by the wintry weather and this area was part of his backup plan. He told us they might come back to the shelter later at night if the storm coming through in the evening got bad.
They were on a short backpacking trip, hiking in from one of the many trails in the wilderness area. Sam asked us which way we came in from. My friend was still focused on sorting through his gear and pointed northeast to the trail near the pond, telling the guide we came in from Island Pond. Sam pointed to the hill behind the lean-to and told us Island Pond was southeast, not northeast. He was right, but it would be quite a challenge to carry the canoe up over that rock and forested hill.
The group continued down the trail, their loaded backpacks swaying with their footsteps as they worked their way to the next campsite along the lake. We talked about it after they left, hoping they decided to continue hiking or cut their trip short if they were worried about the storm. We pictured the four of them and their soaking wet packs piling into the lean-to with us in a thunderstorm.
We had a good day of fishing. I used my bass fishing tactics to catch 5 brook trout on a black rubber grub, casting toward the submerged limbs and branches along the shore. My friend used more traditional brook trout fishing methods and caught 5 or 6 trout. We kept a few fish to eat later. The water temperature was still in the 3o’s so we left the cleaned trout on a stringer and put them back in the pond to keep them cold.
After a long day of traveling, paddling, hiking, and fishing, we were tired. We ate dinner and built a fire in front of the lean-to, and had a beer at the fire to cap off the night.
The sun was getting lower in the sky when the wind started to blow a little more, blowing smoke and embers into the lean-to. I thought about a fishing trip we took a few years earlier where wind filled our lean-to with wood smoke overnight, causing me to spend most of the next day recovering from a migraine headache.
We prepared the campsite for the night, stowing our gear in the lean-to, out of the wind. It looked and felt like a storm was coming. I walked up the hill and looked for a tree to hang the bear rope on. It was a rocky hill with little pockets of soil here and there. Vegetation was sparse—mostly mosses and various sizes of pine trees. There was no shortage of dead wood and fallen trees on the hillside. I picked a tree about 20 or 30 yards from the lean-to’s outdoor toilet on top of the hill, figuring that we could follow the trail to the toilet, then veer off to the left near a large rock and tree. I took a mental note of the landmarks, knowing that it would be dark when we returned to hang the food for the night.
We got out the headlamps and lights for the lean-to. I set up my solar lantern—a lightweight, inflatable plastic cylinder with a solar panel and light bulb on one of the flat sides.
My friend’s headlamp wasn’t working right, and he had resort to his pocket lantern or borrow my headlamp instead, an AA LED flashlight that slips through an elastic band on a Velcro strap.
Around 7:45-8:00, the winds increased. It was getting dark, but there was still plenty of ambient light. I sat on the edge of the lean-to and watched the taller pines as they swayed in the wind. It was somewhat comforting that there weren’t any large trees in front of the lean-to, which faced the rocky hillside. There were some large trees between the back of the shelter and the pond, but they looked healthy and sturdy. We had a lot of pine trees on our property where I grew up, and I remember some of them breaking unpredictably during storms. It always made me nervous to camp in a pine forest but this lean-to was probably the best place to be in the area. It reassured me a bit to see carvings in the logs that dated back to the early 1970s. I’m sure this shelter has been through worse weather.
A heavy rainstorm blew through, extinguishing our fire. We had built up the fire, hoping it would be hot enough to withstand the rain, but it was too much water. My friend managed to get it going again, and the wet smoke filled the lean-to.
One of the tall pines on the hill fell over during a big gust. By this time, it was almost dark, and I could see the shadow of it as it fell up the slope of the hill. Later, when we hung our food from the bear rope, we discovered that the tree had fallen on our toilet. It was difficult to find the bear rope after the tree had fallen—the trail looked much different. The wind was a lot stronger on the hillside than it was near the lean-to, and we quickly made our way back to the shelter after hanging the food. We’ve camped through a lot of bad weather together, and we joked about it as we made our way back down the hill.
It was probably 10:00. The darkness of the wilderness hid the swaying of the pine trees. It was still windy—just as we thought it might die down a bit, a big gust would come, snapping some pine tree off in the distance. I tried to guess what the sounds meant. A broken limb would make a higher-pitched snap. An uprooted tree would make a dull thud when it hit the ground. A large tree that broke above the stump would make a deeper cracking sound, followed by a thud when it hit the wet ground. Having nothing else to do, I wondered which way to run if we heard a snap from behind the shelter. Not being able to see anything, I decided that it would be best to take our chances inside the lean-to.
It was quite a storm. The last forecast I looked at before we left called for 30 mph gusts, but this felt much worse. We talked about the group of four hikers that we saw earlier. They must have decided to hike out since they didn’t come back here to get out of the storm. We hoped they went home—it was a bad storm, and the campsite that they were heading to when they left us was surrounded by large pine trees. Sam seemed experienced, so there was no way he would have his group sleep in the pines during this storm. We concluded that we were the only ones crazy enough to be out here in this weather.
About an hour later, we turned off the lanterns and got into our sleeping bags. I knew I wouldn’t sleep much as I never do on my first night in an unfamiliar place, and this storm made me nervous. When I was a younger, more naïve camper, I’d have just drunk enough beer until I didn’t care about the wind anymore.
I was sitting upright in my sleeping bag when we were startled by a beam of light bouncing off the trees in front of the lean-to. Someone was approaching from the trail behind the shelter. Was it a ranger or a lost hiker? Who would be walking around now?
“We need help. A tree has fallen and pinned our guide and he can’t move.”
We were wrong—the group of hikers was still out. I climbed out of my bag, sat on the edge of the lean-to, and laced up my boots. I grabbed my rain jacket and headlamp and followed the hiker down the trail.
“I’m surprised that I could find you guys.” I figured it was a small tree, and they just needed our help to lift it off. Our lights reflected off the wet rocks and bushes as we made our way to their campsite.
It was a mess of tree limbs and sticks. In the darkness, it was hard to tell that it was a campsite at all. We came up from behind, and I had to peer over the tree to see him. There was no way we were going to budge this tree, it was huge. I tried anyway. It was hard to orient anything in the darkness. All I could see was a mass of tree branches, a tent, a broken tent pole, and part of a person under all of it. I clumsily stepped on his foot by accident as I was trying to climb over the tree. “Someone is stepping on my foot.” After I apologized, I went back to talk to my friend. We had to get help—there was nothing else we could do.
I met him on the way back to our lean-to. I told him, in a shaky voice, that I thought we needed to get to a place where we could find cellphone service. He had a length of paracord, a small folding backpacking saw, and a small shovel, like a gardening shovel. He wanted to see for himself if we could move the tree, but once he saw the situation, he came to the same conclusion as me. He gave the saw and shovel to one of the hikers and they started to dig around Sam. Sam told the campers he was scared as one of them started digging around him with the shovel.
We had to make some sort of plan. They weren’t going to go for help in this storm—like it or not, it had to be us. We could hike a little over 1.5 miles to the state campground—but following the trail would leave us far from our vehicle, and no one was in the campground this time of year. We quickly decided we needed to take the canoe. I ran back to our lean-to and grabbed my phone, my car keys, and some extra batteries for the headlamp. My friend ran to the canoe and picked it up over his shoulders as I grabbed the paddles. In the rush, we left the life vests there. He used my headlamp and I took the inflatable solar lamp and walked in front of him.
We had to walk by their campsite on our way back to Island Pond. We saw the lights from their headlamps bouncing off the trees as we yelled over that we were going for help. Someone responded, saying that it was a good idea. Sam was shouting directions to us as we walked by.
The trail looked so much different at night. We switched jobs near the top of the first hill—my friend put the stern of the canoe down and held the middle of it up while I climbed under, resting the yoke on my shoulders. The trail was a muddy mess. I slipped and fell a few times but managed to keep the canoe from hitting the ground. I saw a little drainage channel made of rocks that I didn’t remember seeing on the hike in. I had a feeling that we were walking the wrong way, but we didn’t see any other trails.
We kept going, and the trail opened to a wider triangular shape, and our light stopped reflecting off the trees. We had found Island Pond.
My friend’s Kevlar canoe is great for backcountry trips. It’s large, holds a lot of gear, and weighs about 40 lbs. In a storm with gusts that felt like 30-40mph, the light-weight works against you. It acts as a sail and wants to turn broadside to the wind. I was in the bow with the headlamp. During the wind gusts, I had to paddle out almost straight out from to the side of the canoe just to keep the bow pointed in the wind.
You could see the outline of the shore, but only when you were very close to it. It was still cloudy, so there was no moon or stars to help us. We made note of the direction of the waves and used that to figure out our direction. Once we found the opposite shore, we had to paddle into the waves until we reached the end of an island, when the shore disappeared from view. We rounded the island and paddled hard, broadside to the wind—fighting to keep the canoe from blowing ashore.
The whole thing felt surreal, almost dreamlike—only the fatigue in my arms and shoulders reminded me that it wasn’t a dream. Once we reached the point at the end of the island, we aimed back into the waves and made for the opposite shore, upwind of where the boat launch should be. Once we could see the shore, we spun the canoe so the wind was behind us, and blew down the lake until we spotted the stone wall near the launch. My friend pulled the canoe ashore while I ran to the parking area to get my car. I felt relieved, thinking that the hard part was over—we just had to make a call.
It was just before midnight when I turned the lights on after starting my car. I picked up my friend and drove as fast as I could down the road. I had to slow down often to maneuver around fallen sticks and limbs. Our plan was to head towards the larger town to the east and drive until we either get cellphone service or see a house with a light on. It wasn’t far after we passed the gates to the nearby campground when we saw a house with the lights on inside.
I looked at the clock on the dashboard It was 12:03 AM. My friend knocked on the door. I watched from the car as an older lady answered the door. My friend quickly explained then she invited us in. She dialed 911 and handed me the phone. She grabbed the remote, shut off the television, and listened to my friend tell her the story as I waited for the dispatcher to answer.
The 911 dispatcher kept asking me for a street address when I told her that it was a backcountry accident at South Pond. Not being familiar with the area, I didn’t realize that the boat launch for Island Pond was on Round Pond Road. We went back and forth.
911 Dispatcher: “Round Pond?”
Me: “No, the launch is at Island Pond.”
911 Dispatcher: “Round Pond Road?”
Me: “No, the guy is out in the woods, you have to take a boat or hike to get to him.”
911 Dispatcher: “But it’s Round Pond Road?”
The old lady was standing in the middle of her living room yelling “Round Pond! It’s Round Pond!” Eventually, we talked through it, and the dispatcher said she would send volunteer fire crews to the boat launch at Island Pond.
The old lady recommended that we drive down to the intersection of the main road to flag down the rescue crew. It wasn’t long before we met them and led them back to the boat launch.
Pickup trucks and emergency vehicles soon cluttered the boat launch. One truck had in it an old boat with no outboard. Flashing lights, diesel fumes, and engine noise replaced the noise of the wind and the waves. We saw a paramedic come and quickly leave the area after her and another firefighter decided to hike in on one the trails in the campground.
We talked with a police officer and some firefighters and offered to use our canoe to take a young firefighter and his chainsaw to South Pond. He tried to sit on one of the thwarts but quickly had to kneel on the bottom of the canoe to lower the center of gravity and make the boat more stable. We began crossing the pond and were close to rounding the first point when we heard a voice on his radio. They wanted him to come back—some firefighters went to get a boat from a different fire department and they want us to ride out on the boat.
It’s about 12:45 after we returned to shore, and I’m sitting on a dock that hasn’t yet been put in the lake for the summer season. My friend is talking to the police officer and the fire chief about moving all the vehicles from the launch to make room for the boat that was coming.
The boat arrives and is launched. It’s a 23-foot boat powered by a 115-hp outboard motor. It has a top speed of 45mph, which won’t be reached on a night like this. It’s an open-decked boat, like a pontoon boat, and has an overhead bar with floodlights mounted to it. After some difficulty with the trailer, the firefighters launch the boat and spin it parallel to the wall near the launch. The boat looked big next to the small boat launch.
It took a while, as we were waiting for some other people and some chainsaws. My friend and I sit together in the seat across from the operator and I stare at the ground as we wait. I thought about the severity of the situation in the woods—I couldn’t stop thinking of the group out there waiting for someone to help them.
After what felt like an eternity to me, we’re ready to go. With six people and their equipment on board, the propeller is stuck in the mud. The operator finds the trim control on the throttle, raising the motor and freeing us from the mud.
We move away from the dock, motor idling, as the wind and waves buffet the boat. The deck lights lit up the inside of the boat, making it impossible to see anything past. The boat, moving slow and getting blown by the wind, starts to turn and the operator tries to correct it. With each turn and correction, and no compass and no visible landmarks to orient us to, the boat wanders away from the correct course. With the deck lights on, we can’t see the wave direction, which is what we used to get the canoe across the pond. Confusion and disorientation creep in, and the operator slows more, exaggerating the wind’s effect.
The only thing visible outside the boat was the lights from the emergency vehicles at the boat launch.
After about 15-20 minutes, the operator decided that we should return to the launch.
As some of the firefighters were battling the wind trying to get their boat back on its trailer, my friend and I carried his canoe up the hill to his truck parked in the lot.
We put the canoe on top of the truck and stood in the dark parking lot. I was thinking about Sam still trapped under that tree while we were here standing around, while other people talked on radios and chatted with each other and went on boat rides and fixed chainsaws and drove back and forth from the boat launch to the campground.
I thought about the sense of relief I had felt when we got to a phone and the comforting thought that we had done our part and now the rescuers would take over from here. I thought of the responsibility that we had taken when we first decided to go find help. Did we have much of a choice?
What else would we do—say we’re sorry we couldn’t help and go back to our lean-to?
There were four people out in the woods waiting for us, and here we were leaning on a truck in the parking lot. Some wonderful job we did. I felt awful.
A little later, we heard one of the UTVs coming up the road into the parking lot. Two men were in it. “The chief wants to speak with you.” We climbed back into my car and followed the UTV through the campground to another trailhead. This must be the trail that the paramedic hiked in on.
The chief was sitting in his pickup truck with another firefighter, listening to his two-way radio. There were multiple rescuers in the woods, but they hadn’t found the campsite yet. We had a map and a GPS, but they were back at the lean-to. In our haste to leave, we didn’t think to bring them. I assumed the rescuers would know where the campsite was, or that we could take them back to the site. I didn’t give it that much thought at the time, but looking back I would have tried to collect as much location info as possible for the rescue team. It’s an area with a lot of trails and ponds—one group hiked to the wrong pond.
We stayed at the chief’s truck long enough to hear that a rescue party had reached Sam and the group. It was well after 3:00 in the morning. How long would it have taken if we had hiked down the trail, and hiked back with the rescue team instead of trying to go back by boat? Would we have increased our chances of getting lost in the woods or going down the wrong trail? These are all things to consider if faced with a similar situation in the future.
We drove into town and pulled into a gas station and convenience store. It was just before first light, and there was no point in trying to sleep. We picked up some breakfast and drinks from the convenience store and headed back to Island Pond.
It was a cool grey morning. It was still windy, but much calmer than the night before. We carried our canoe back down the hill to the boat launch, past a medical helicopter perched on the edge of the stone wall, its tail boom hanging out over the water. The pilot said he just got there, that he couldn’t fly earlier because there were 50-mph winds last night. He wished us luck and told us not to drown as we paddled away. We rounded the point, headed toward the island, passed the island and followed the shore to the canoe carry trail. We could see a green flat bottom boat at the carry. A couple of Forest Rangers had arrived to help with the rescue.
When I first called 911, I thought rangers would be the first on the scene. I was a bit surprised that volunteer firefighters would be the lead group in a wilderness rescue. I learned later that I should have called the local Forest Ranger office first, not 911. Now, I write their number down or save it into my phone before I head into the woods.
We slowed down and waited—we were far enough away that we couldn’t see much. A crowd of people carried an orange litter onto the boat and the boat slowly made its way back to the launch. It was after 5:00 am. The people in the boat waved as we paddled by. Once the trail entrance was clear, we brought our canoe to the trail. There were two tired-looking young firefighters and a ranger there. They told us that Sam was in rough shape, that he looked ok when they first got there, then started turning white on their way down the hill.
It felt strange to be back at the lean-to. I don’t think either of us wanted to be there, but we were too exhausted to pack up and leave. I slept for a few hours. The sun was out when I got up, and the lake was calm. It was a nice spring day—chilly in the shade, but warm and comfortable in the sun. I didn’t enjoy it at all. The last place I wanted to be was here, at this beautiful lake on a sunny day with loons calling to each other and spring peepers singing. I went for a walk and saw three or four trees that had fallen the night before. I fished for a while. My friend got up and we combed through the details of the night before. It was all we could think about. Why didn’t the guide carry a satellite phone with him? Why didn’t they come to the lean-to? Should the rescuers have had better knowledge of the area? Should we have given better directions, or hiked down the trail? Why did the firefighters come first, and the rangers much later? Why did we both feel so bad about the whole thing? What could we have done better? Did we take too much risk by crossing Island Pond in our canoe, especially without life vests?
We thought of everything, and it consumed us for the rest of the day.
It was a beautiful evening. The pond was flat calm and trout were making ripples all over the pond. They were picky eaters though and wouldn’t touch what we threw at them. We spent the rest of the evening fishing and listening to the peepers and the loons. We paddled around the pond, stopped at an island to fly fish, and returned to the lean-to at dark. We slowly made our way out of Island Pond early the next morning.
It took a long time for that trip to stop consuming my thoughts. I wondered what went through Sam’s client’s heads during the whole ordeal. Were they angry with him or frustrated with him for staying out in those awful conditions? Were they in shock? Will they ever go backpacking again?
Over the next few weeks, my friend and I talked about what happened. We want to make something positive out of this experience. I thought that sharing our story and the lessons I learned would help. At the least, maybe we can educate hikers to prepare for the worst and to think about how you can be rescued if something bad happens–or how you can be the rescuers if something bad happens to a stranger. It’s one thing to be prepared to take care of yourself, but what if someone else needs help?
How can you prepare, if someone needs you?