The camping spot we were aiming for would mark the end of our day’s walk. The destination was more of a “likely looking map location” than a formal campsite. But I knew that it would be easy enough to locate, given that on the map, it appeared to be only a few hundred yards beyond where the Middle Fork Trail forked in from the west and not too far past Stough Creek. After further map study, it looked to be only about 4 miles beyond our lunch stop, which meant that we had only about 2 hours of walking time after lunch left to get us there. It would be a straightforward and leisurely afternoon of backpacking, I assumed, as I grabbed one more handful of lunch.
By 1:30, we were finished eating, at least for that moment, and were back on the trail. I’d repeatedly done the math and was confident that we’d be set up in our evening camp and zipped up in our sleeping bags, if or when the late afternoon storms rolled in.
As we began hiking again, the trail wound its way through thickly spaced, but progressively shorter trees, and we continued gaining elevation. Minutes turned into hours. I kept looking down at my watch, and eventually, it said 4 o’clock, just as our progress was abruptly stopped by a stream cutting across our path. It was Stough Creek. I was almost surprised that it was right where the map said it would be, but when I realized that we’d been walking for over 2 hours since lunch, just came to grips with the fact that we were on schedule and where we were supposed to be.
The trail ran right into an ankle-deep and 30′ wide crossing. We stopped and without hesitation, found places to sit down, took off our packs, and changed into stream crossing/water shoes. While lacing up my own shoes, I looked across to the other side and saw a big log, ideal for sitting and putting our hiking shoes back on and noted a trail fork shown on the map just beyond that. Perfect, I thought. All we needed to do was cross the creek, walk a few hundred yards, and find a suitable camping location. I could rest because I assumed the hard part of the day was mostly behind us.
Within 15 minutes, we were all on the other side, sitting on the log and fiddling with our shoes. Once everyone was across and out of the water, my focus turned to things in my immediate world, such as how to attach my wet shoes to the outside of my pack and where my socks were. I can’t really say why we didn’t just stay in our wet shoes for the short walk to the campsite, but I remember it had something to do with the uncertainties related to where a good camping spot might actually be.
Counting heads is a constant activity among group leaders. It becomes almost second nature, since keeping the group intact and not losing anyone is undoubtedly the most critical responsibility that people in charge of groups have. Coaches, platoon leaders, teachers, and backpacking guides undoubtedly all do it. It’s just what group and team leaders do.
Once I was ready to get up and lead the group the last little bit to our campsite, wherever it might be, I stood up and surveyed the group. There’d been 10 of us from the start, and I’d become accustomed to counting 7 heads (I didn’t include myself or the other leaders, Barry and Busby, and with the small size of the group, I could almost do it just by looking and not even physically counting each person.
I had no reason to think that I would come up with any number other than seven this time around, but as I glanced and counted, the result was six. Everyone was in a clump, and my initial thought was that someone was off to the side or that I’d simply miscounted. I took a deep breath, cleared my mind, and counted again. I consciously looked around in every direction, figuring I’d solve the puzzle with a simple answer. But the second time around, I still got six. It became clear that someone was not there.
I looked at the group and took note of who was there, and by doing that, it was apparent who wasn’t. It was Garret who was missing. My first thought was that he was close by, probably off in the bushes doing his business, I reasoned. But since I was not 100% certain, I threw out the general question to the group, “where’s Garret?”
No one answered. “Maybe no one in the group heard me, or they’re all preoccupied,” I reasoned. And so, I repeated it more forcefully a second time.
“Who’s seen, Garret?”
One of the kids finally answered, “I was just talking to him as we walked up to the creek,” he squeaked.
“Did you see him cross,” I asked?
Two different people responded that he’d crossed right in front of them.
“Did anybody see him go off to go the bathroom,” I said, hoping for an affirmative answer.
But no one responded, except to look around with blank looks on their faces. I could see each one of them silently counting and trying to remember anything about Garret and what’d happened when we got to the log and had started changing shoes. There were theories and ideas, but no one had any solid or reliable information. And after a few minutes, it became apparent that he wasn’t just off in the bushes.
It didn’t make sense to me. “Everyone knew that we were stopping somewhere close to the crossing, didn’t they,” I thought. And then it dawned on me that while we’d talked about it, I’d never made any sort of definitive statement about where or when we were stopping.
And so, the guessing and speculation began. Garret was an intelligent person, so it was a good bet to assume that he had not just gone backward or headed off-trail. Given that, I made the assumption that he likely kept going forward. Under normal circumstances, it would’ve been a simple enough thing for me to hurry down the trail and catch up to him, especially since he already had a lot of miles on his legs that day and was a bit sick with a respiratory problem. But, in this case, there was a big kink in our situation- the trail fork. That intersection meant that there were two trail possibilities for him to choose from, and I had no idea which one he’d selected. There were fresh footprints headed each way and no viable clues to work with. So, I pulled out the map and looked at both routes. Each descended several thousand feet over only a few miles. That meant that he was likely moving faster than he would’ve been otherwise since he was going downhill. I realized that we needed to catch up to him sooner than later. It was simple arithmetic that the further he went down, the further he’d have to go back up to rejoin the group, assuming we caught up to him. And also, because he was both sick and tired, climbing back up and returning to the group would likely be a major struggle. I also realized that if we didn’t catch him before dark, things would really start to become complicated, and it was possible he’d find himself at the bottom of the valley once the daylight disappeared and alone for the night. Assuming that was what happened, I began wondering about where he’d sleep, what he’d eat, and what he’d do if he got sicker, and then what he’d be planning to do the next day.
The realization that we only had a few hours of daylight to work with sent me into overdrive. At least, I reasoned, there was no storm build-up to worry about. I quickly assessed the options, such as they were, and first concluded that most likely, Garret had continued walking forward and past us. But beyond that, things got really tricky because of the trail fork and I realized that my actions were in many ways, a crap-shoot.
I finally decided the best course of action was for me to follow one of the trails, have Barry take the other, and leave Busby behind to supervise the group. And so, Barry and I walked off down the trail in manic anticipation, while Busby stayed. Barry and I took off our packs and left them with the group to move faster. In later years, I would learn that there’s good reason for taking at least some things with you in such a situation. But, at that moment, speed was our priority. We told the group to stay put, rest, not do anything active, and do what Busby said while we were gone and that we’d be back before dark, if not sooner. At the intersection, I took the same trail that we’d been walking on all day while Barry headed off down the Middle Fork Trail. Many things regarding the plan had been determined before we left. But as I walked, I thought of more and more details that had been left undetermined or were on the ambiguous side.
I had no pack, only a single water bottle that I carried in my hand, and a light fleece pullover tied around my waist. Almost immediately, I began thinking of the various items I didn’t have with me and started formulating plans for spending the night out myself and with limited gear. I began wondering what the rest of the group would do if neither Barry nor I returned before dark. And then I began speculating about what would happen if Barry caught up to Garret and the two of them turned around and rejoined the rest of the group, while I kept going for miles and miles. And what about vice-versa. What if I found the teenager and the two of us went back up, got to the crossing, and Barry was still out there somewhere on the trail?
I yelled for Garret at every likely spot but never had any sort of response. I kept thinking that I’d see him around each corner, but every time there were only rocks, trees, and more trail. After walking for about 15 minutes, just as I was beginning to have serious doubts about our situation and plans, two horseback riders rode up from behind. At about the same moment, I was starting to realize that if Garret were actually somewhere ahead of me and with a 20 or so minute head start, if I did indeed catch up him, we’d be way down the trail, by the time I caught up to him. And that, I calculated, would potentially make it almost impossible for the two of us to get back to the group before dark.
But with the two men on horses, I saw a workable solution. I asked them if they came across a lone backpacker somewhere up ahead and going in the same direction to tell him his group was waiting for him back behind. At least they’d be moving faster than me, and if they did, indeed, catch up to the teenager, they could turn him around. I was hopeful.
The riders obliged, rode on past, and disappeared around a corner. It was only 5 minutes later that I rounded a turn, and there he was—coughing and walking toward me. I’m sure he’d also been wondering what was happening and was glad to see my familiar face. I was thrilled, relieved, and pleased to see his.
As he walked up, I said the obvious—”there you are.” Then, I continued, “we didn’t know where you went. We stopped back at the last crossing. We’re going to camp around there and are then going down the other trail tomorrow.”
“The horse guys told me to turn around. I didn’t know that we were stopping back there. I was wondering where everyone was,” he responded.
We began walking back up the trail, talking about some of the details of what had happened as we walked. I was glad that it had all worked out okay but found myself increasingly wondering about Barry. What would we do if he was not back by the time the two of us were? What if he just kept going or tripped on something and hurt his leg?
The questions and possibilities were beginning to meander rampantly through my thoughts when we came over a small rise. And I saw the 6’5″ Barry in a circle with the rest of the group playing hacky sack. My list of questions kept expanding as we walked toward the group, but the answers no longer mattered by the time we got there. In this case, things had worked out positively.