It was the prettiest morning I had ever seen -- even if the helicopter hadn't come. But it had. At dawn. With the moon lingering over the cabin, with the pastel pinks and blues pouring over the frosted mountain ridge.
I was stepping gingerly onto frozen Russell Pond of central Maine's Baxter State Park when the Army National Guard "Huey" Number 778 feathered to a landing on the fresh snow. The pilot had seen our chimney smoke settling over the valley. Then he had seen two of the party swinging ski poles high over their heads, and me, crouching on the run, trying to capture it all on camera.
Rescue had come on the sixth day of a four-day cross-country skiing expedition into the heart of the forever-wild Maine woods. Forty-eight hours of rain and a late-January thaw had aroused dormant streams that severed our trails and stranded us with little food and more than some concern.
Two attempts to ski out had been turned back, one by storm and fear of impending darkness, the other by flooding and an unfordable river.
When we were airlifted to safety, officials reported our conditions as "fine." This was true. No one in the party of five men, one woman and a 15-year-old boy was seriously injured.
According to the group's leader, this was reason enough to label the trip "a success." What we had faced, he explained, was merely "par for the course." My problem was that, as a skier, I was a double-bogey duffer and should never have joined this more-experienced crew. As a journalist, however, and a confessed experience junkie, I couldn't say no.
Baxter State Park is a 312-square-mile swatch of woods, mountains and streams carved from the state's northern wilderness. When he first purchased a parcel of this land and deeded it to the state in 1931, Gov. Percival P. Baxter stipulated that it "forever be left in its natural wild state and forever kept as a sanctuary for wild beasts and birds."
I learned from the trip that there is a price to pay (the price is posted and the print isn't small) for the privilege of bellying up to Baxter's centerpiece Katahdin, Maine's mightiest mountain, in the winter. There is a price to pay for a share of such solitude, for an opportunity to plant a ski pole in the well of a print of a moose or a bear.
The price is perhaps to place yourself in peril. Each year, about 1,500 skiers and climbers use the park. They must vouch for their preparedness by filling out a questionnaire detailing their experience and physical condition. Over the years, several have been killed and injured. Dramatic rescues are not rare. bat 10
Our party set out along the park's perimeter road near noon on a Friday in January. The temperature was 15 degrees. The bare face of 5,267-foot Katahdin shone silver in a sun whose light might have been fashioned by a Disney animator. I had little chance to enjoy it.
We had to move and keep moving quickly. It was 15 miles to the cabin at Roaring Brook Campground -- too many miles on a shortened winter's day in conditions that were poor. This was not smooth skiing. It hadn't snowed in more than a week. Often, we clattered along in icy ruts.
With five miles to go, dusk came, darkness didn't. A full moon rose over my right shoulder, over a picket-fence-perfect stand of birches. The moonlight was balm for my blisters and the burning muscles of my back and legs.
I was thirsty, but could do little about it. The water in my canteen had frozen. Earlier, we had punched a hole through the icy spout of Ralph's canteen with a ski tip for a sip of lemonade. But Ralph was now somewhere behind me on the trail. I was ordered not to wait, to keep moving, to ward off the cold. The temperature was nearing zero.
I skidded through moon shadows, feeling with my skis for the softer tracks left by the rabbits in the group who were far ahead. I found myself alone and tested my isolation with a hollered "Hello." The reply was the snap of a tree limb, the drone of a distant brook. I imagined the forms of my friends. I imagined I heard their voices. I shivered, not from the cold. This was to be the easiest of our days.
The next day we left behind the wide, plowed road for a narrow hiking path. It had not been skied for weeks, maybe not this year. We broke trail.
This leg was to be a cinch, promised the leader, half the distance of yesterday's trudge, to the plywood and barn-board bunkhouse at Russell Pond. An easy day's ski. It wasn't easy. And again the distance devoured the day.
Only this time, when dusk drained the colors from our brightly colored packs, and the blue trail markers we depended on dissolved into gray, no moon arrived to light the way. The sky was heavy-lidded. Snow had begun to fall. And we, in tight single file, with little choice, dove into darkness.
News reports of our adventure described us as having been "stranded." That was accurate and began to become apparent Sunday, the third day. We were set to ski 14 miles to a cabin at Nesowadnehunk Campground. But another late start, then a false start along the wrong trail and a storm of heavy, wet snow turned us back. The bunkhouse here at Russell was not a sad sight. Well-stocked with split wood for the rusted-through stove, it had kept us warm. Water was no problem. In little time, rain running off the roof filled our eight-gallon pot.
Those same rains were filling the streams and undermining the trails we would need to make good our escape.
That discovery was made Monday. It was to be our last day. We decided to keep on schedule. But instead of plodding on, we would go the way we came, ski two days' worth in one: 23 miles. It would have been worth it. The last of our dinners had been consumed: my whole-wheat macaroni and cheddar, Frank's couscous with lima beans and ham, Cheryl's spinach spaghetti topped with ground nuts and nacho cheese sauce. Our medicinal quantities of Corvoisier, Stolichnaya and coffee brandy had been reduced to fumes.
More importantly, our friends and families, including two of the skiers' pregnant wives, were expecting their phone calls not long past nightfall.
The downpour was steady as we skied out in tight formation. I focused on the tips of my skis. I could see no farther through rain-splattered and befogged glasses.
It was warm, about 45 degrees, according to the L.L. Bean thermometer on Ralph's jacket zipper. I peeled off my old wool hat (it was reminding me just how full of mildew it had been) and my wool glove liners.
We came to a bridge, two football fields long. We crossed with skis off, on narrow split logs laid lengthwise, careful to keep the thin waist-high guide wire between the fingers of our right hands. Under us, cocoa-colored water stampeded, smashing truck-sized ice floes into cubes against giant boulders.
The snow was soft, in some places slush. Streams that had been in hibernation awoke to take us by our ankles. Our feet were soaked. Yet we went on until the blue-blazed trail dead-ended at the banks of a stream so inconsequential it is unnamed on the map.
The ice bridge we expected to find had been ripped apart. We bushwhacked upstream through dense woods seeking an alternative crossing. The way was steep, too narrow to sidestep. I slipped back and fell. I fell once more. Then again. A muscle behind my left thigh snapped and made the going painful. The sound of my scream was no match for the river's roar and the rain that was trying to match its ferocity.
After 45 minutes, a half-mile and 300 feet in elevation we gave up. The stream was not narrowing. In fact, it had split, first once, then twice; we faced not one, but four crossings.
Jon, the 57-year-old coleader, complained of the cold, of stomach cramps; he appeared to be having difficulty maintaining his balance. He knew what he needed, though: to keep moving. To keep warm. He led the retreat.
The decision was correct. Had we made this crossing, we would have been stymied by the next. (The next stream on the map has a name.) In a few hours, a recrossing might not have been possible. We would have been trapped. And that, we discovered later, is what the rangers feared: With temperatures dropping, we were easy prey for frostbite, hypothermia and death.
On our return, sections of trail that had been snow were slush, slush was water. Downhill was an amusement park flume ride. Uphill, a grueling exercise in determination.
I cursed myself as I had once cursed a draft horse I worked skidding logs in a Montana forest, calling up my courage.
"Up, damn it, lift that ski," I shouted. Often I could not see my skis, covered by more than a foot of water and slush. I prayed they would not be caught under a rock or root.
Some of the crossings we had managed on skis an hour before were now passable only on foot. The ones we stepped across, from rock to rock, now required teamwork.
At one crossing, trip leader Lance, a 41-year-old publisher, went first, javelin-tossing his skis to the other side. Planting his poles, and pushing off from the rapidly eroding bank, he leaped across, hugging a tall pine and swinging about to safety.
We handed our skis over and took our turns. I sucked in a deep breath, summoning what I had learned in yoga class, and flew. Lance grabbed my pack strap and hauled me in. I held him as he helped others.
We made camp once more at Russell Pond. Once more we strung lines over the stove to dry our clammy clothes. We combated cabin fever Monday night and all day Tuesday by playing hearts, singing camp songs, humming through six plastic kazoos we found stashed in the rafters. We took turns reading aloud from Homer's "Odyssey" by candlelight.
We were on rations by now, our meals exercises in counting. (Two crackers, five slices of pepperoni, four squares of Cadbury fruit and nut chocolate and all the unsweetened Kool-Aid we could drink.)
We tried to fish through the ice on the pond. A blizzard, blustery winds and lazy trout drove us back inside.
We began to listen for a plane. We heard one. We heard many. We even thought we saw one trying to pierce the clouds with a searchlight.
Such is the strength of the imagination. Only one plane had been dispatched to spot us. That pilot had had no luck. That pilot had no searchlight.
The last I saw of Baxter State Park was through the side window of the drab olive helicopter. A guardsman, on whose helmet were the letters "J-O-Y," had placed ear protectors on my head. They served to only partially stopper the engine's almost-white noise that sopped up my fear like a sponge.
As we rose almost imperceptibly in a swirl of sifted snow, the past few days seemed to have only a shadowy connection with what was real. Below was the bunkhouse. It had been shelter. It no longer had any relation to a thing called home.
From up here the roiling rivers appeared part of a placid still life. The trees, whose roots had tripped me, whose branches had bitten my bearded face, whose barked bodies blocked my way, now posed as crystal innocents, a display of delicate snowflakes. So serene.
Six days ago, driving here, north on I-95, the northernmost interstate, I had cursed the polluting plumes of smoke from the gargantuan paper mills placed not far past the park boundaries. I didn't curse them now.