Friday, January 22, 2016


As I write this, I am sitting at my desk with most of the lights off. It is warm and cozy in my house with a fire going in the other room,  the puppies are contentedly chewing bones. Out the window I can see the kayaks slowly getting covered with a North Carolina mix of snow and sleet. It is 3:15 in the afternoon, and I am contemplating a whiskey. It is that kind of day.

Dark Sky says 9 to 14 inches, and makes no mention of the sleet and freezing rain. It has been "snowing" since 5:30 am - I know this because I have a puppy that doesn't let me sleep in - and we have about 1.5 inches of snow, and a steady flow of sleet. I suspect when the sun drops the temperature will go with it, and it will become snow again. Here in the south this kind of weather is crippling. I think my little city of 250,000 has about 2 snow plows. People don't really know how to drive in bad weather. Everyone freaks out and buys milk, bread and eggs. I think they stay home and make french toast. This combination of weather, and what occurred yesterday is why I have no problem sitting here in front of a fire with a whiskey in hand. So here is what happened yesterday. 

I awoke at six to the above mentioned puppy, and made coffee. I kept the dogs occupied while I packed a backpack. I was going to a class, my first real class of the year and I wasn't teaching it. It was a wilderness survival class and I wanted to take it for a second time to experience it with a different instructor. When I took it the first time it was taught by a guy who taught survival for the military, so the class had a very military 'feel' to it. This time it was being taught by another instructor who wasn't former military. I wanted to see the difference. The problem was that they were calling for really cold weather, so I had to pile on the layers. I grabbed my pack and started pulling gear from the monolith. Matilda was a big help. 

I grabbed a 48 liter pack - the one I use when I am teaching, and first dropped in some extra layers. then a liter of water and a sawyer water filter. My fire starting kit (which should be a post unto itself) a headlamp, a compass, a GPS and a small first aid kit. A jet boil, and a freeze dried meal for lunch. A multi tool. A small Alite folding camp chair. The FIELD NOTES book I use to take notes in and a blackwing 602. 

I finished getting dressed. midweight base layer, windproof fleece pants, and rain pants over them - there is a good chance in this class I would end up lying on the ground. Up top I wore a midweight base layer top, primaloft jacket, and a rain shell. I added a wool hat, gloves and my buff. Finally I grabbed my go pro and three extra batteries which would be in an inside jacket pocket to keep them warm. The temp was hovering around 30 with a steady wind. When I arrived to class I saw that there was still a little snow on the ground. 

The class went really well, and I had a bunch of fun. I worked hard to keep my mouth shut - as I wasn't the instructor - but at the same time I wanted to take part and be engaged with the instructor and the other participants. It is a difficult balance at times. It was definitely a different class without the military angle, and even though it was a venue I had taught at many times, I ended up seeing some things I hadn't seen before, getting to experience a class through someone else's eyes. At the conclusion of class I headed home, and dutifully unpacked my bag. Putting everything back into the monolith, and stowing the pack. I changed into normal human clothes and cooked dinner. Just as we were sitting down to eat my wife's phone rang. You know how you can tell from the tone in someones voice that it is a bad phone call? Without even being able to hear the words? That is what I heard. I knew something was up. She sat down at the table and said we needed to eat quickly. A friend of hers was out trail running, and her dog got off leash and ran away, chasing a deer. She had been looking for an hour, the sun had already set and she was freaking out - just a little. She said we needed to eat and head out to help her find the dog. In the dark. 

There are two pieces of this story that make it slightly more interesting. The first, she had been running on the very trail I had been working on earlier in the day. A trail I have hiked for fun and for work around 500 times.  The second, we were hours away from what people were calling potentially the worst snow storm in the history of the state. My brain immediately said if we didn't find the dog in the next 5 hours it wouldn't survive the storm. 

I went back to the gear monolith and repacked almost exactly as I had that morning. I added a few things I hadn't brought for the morning class. Two headlamps with fresh batteries, a large maglight flashlight. Two chemical light sticks, ten feet of rope (for a makeshift leash, I was optimistic!) and a much larger first aid kit. We raced out the door to head back to my teaching venue. We got a surprise as soon as we arrived. The road approaches the lake from above, you head down a driveway to the lake. But there was a second parking lot just outside the park gates. I could see lights in the parking lot. A lot of lights. As we stopped driving, I started counting. I hadn't planned on other people being there, I figured the park would be closed and locked - it closes at dusk normally- we would walk in ( I know a way ) and get on the trail she had been running on. But as I said, as we arrived I started counting. I counted lights, lots of lights. 4 fire trucks, and a handful  of police cars. All had their lights spinning, and the sound of big diesel engines filled the air. If the fire department was there I knew they wouldn't let us on the trail. I made a quick phone call to the guy who runs the park and asked if he was there. He wasn't - home sick - but he told me who was. But without him there I knew the police wouldn't care that I knew the trail so well I could walk it blindfolded. He told me not to enter the park, and not to get on the trail. I said okay and hung up. Then I shouldered my pack and my wife and I walked into the woods in the dark. We used lights but never let them point towards the parking light (and as much light as the fire trucks were putting out I doubt they could have seen us) at one point where the trail switchbacked towards the parking lot I switched to a red light. Then back to white when we switched back to the other direction. What we did was walk in on a mountain biking trail that was closed due to bad weather, about a quarter mile down the trail I knew where we could cut through the woods and get on the hiking trail, the two trails ran vaguely parallel to each other. We made the switch without incident and as we got some distance from the parking lot the sound of diesel trucks faded, and the sounds of the forest came to life. Every now and then we would just stop and listen. I know how to look for missing hikers. Every time I get trained by a new company it is discussed. We had discussed in the class that very morning - on this very trail! - what to do if you get lost. Stop moving and make noise. But I had no idea what a lost dog would do. I figured he would circle the area looking for warmth or food or owner. At one point I am positive I heard a dog yelp, twice. I felt like he was in front of us and on our right side, somewhere between us - on the trail - and the lake on the right. Maybe he was near the water, drinking. That was when our sneaky little plan went south. I saw the lights first. Just one. Maybe it was our friend coming back down the trail. But then I saw two, three, four lights. It was some sort of group walking the trail. If it was the fire department there was a chance they would let us continue, but I knew if it was police they wouldn't allow it. It turned out it was four firefighters who walked the trail out and back. One of them recognized me as being an outdoor instructor - he knows the company I work for, and I know a number of firemen. They were actually an engine company that a friend of mine works on, but he was off duty. I asked If we could continue to walk the trail and he said he would need to check. As I chatted with the other fire fighters he walked a few steps away to talk who was in charge. I made small talk with the other firefighters. I noticed that why were very well equipped for a rescue, but not really for the environment, and I didn't think any of them had water. 

He came back a few minutes later saying the police department was in charge and they wanted everyone off the trail. They were concerned about someone getting hurt, and the pending storm. The six of us walked slowly back to the parking lot. They told us our friend was with three policemen who were walking the trail as well, and would be back to the parking lot soon. 

we waited an hour and a half, they must have walked very slowly. When they did get back there were many discussions, but all of them involved the park gates being locked and no one was allowed on the trails - sort of. The park would be locked, but the trails had other access points, and legally the trails never closed, except for when there was bad weather. At this point the weather was fine. It was supposed to start snowing in about 6 hours at about 4 am. But realistically I didn't think we would find the dog, in the dark. I was thinking it was probably huddled somewhere cold and scared. We could have probably walked right past it and not seen or heard it. 

We decided to call it a night, but our friend couldn't leave her dog out there, and I completely understood. I gave her a printed satellite map of the area - I teach map and compass on that trail, so I had a stack of maps printed on waterproof paper in my car - and offered her extra lights and layers. I showed her where we were, and she showed me where she had been when the dog got away, and what she had done to find him. Her plan was to  drive through the neighboring houses and into the school that bordered the park. We went home and I unloaded my pack for the second time that day. 

I took a hot shower, the kind of shower where as soon as you hit the water you realize you have been cold all day. I stood under the hot water and thought about the dog. If it had been my dog I wouldn't have stopped either. I would have gone all night. I laid in bed trying to fall asleep, thinking about the dog. Thinking about the snow. 

At 12:15, as I was staring at the ceiling trying to sleep, my wife's phone lit up. It cast blue light on the ceiling, and then went dark. I didn't think much about it, but I should have. The dog had been found. While we had been walking the trail in the dark, working to avoid the police the dog had been found by someone. Our friend somehow found this person and got the dog, the facts are still coming out. My guess is the dog chased the deer and just kept on running until it left the park. All is well that ends well I suppose. But it was a long day. 

Now, a whiskey awaits. I will sit in front of the fire, with my puppy. Promising myself to never let her off leash, and if she gets away and doesn't come back that I will never stop looking for her. 

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