Stuck in a snowstorm, with a more pressing problem besides

By Jayson Jacoby September 03, 2010 08:30 am

The bladder is the prankster of organs.

This stretchy sack of tissue will plod along for months, performing its simple but vital duties with unremarkable consistency.

But under more pressing circumstances the bladder can turn as sneaky as a petulant three-year-old who’s just been told she can’t have dessert.

Let’s say, by way of example, that you’re backpacking in the Eagle Cap Wilderness, and an ill-tempered August snowstorm comes up, and you’re ensconced in a clammy tent trying to stave off hypothermia until dawn, when you can actually see the trail that leads to parking lot, where there should be a pickup truck with a heater.

That’s precisely the situation in which your bladder will get up to its mischief.

My bladder will, anyway.

 

Although I’ll concede that perhaps mine is particularly cantankerous, which seems to me unfair since I’ve always tried to look after its needs.

In any case, that preceding phrase-ridden paragraph describes the predicament that my father-in-law, Howard Britton, and I endured Saturday in our camp beside Minam Lake.

(By “beside” I don’t mean literally right next to. The Forest Service prohibits camping within 100 feet of lakes in the Eagle Cap, and we pitched our tent comfortably outside that threshold. That was the only comfortable part of the experience.)

There was already an inch on the ground when we got to the lake a little after midday, and the snow was still coming down thick.

Which it continued to do for the whole rest of that gray daylight.

We hiked most of the way along the east side of the lake, peering through the heavy wet flakes for a suitable spot, before we found a place that was partially sheltered and close enough to flat that we needn’t worry about our blood pooling in our heads or feet while we slept.

Or tried to sleep, in my case.

While I fumbled with the tent (the temperature of an aluminum tent pole in a Minam Lake blizzard is best expressed in degrees Kelvin), Howard, being a far more accomplished woodsman, took on the crucial task of kindling a fire.

The flames, fortunately, were crackling cheerfully many minutes before I had assembled the tent.

The tent site was a fine one, lying between a pair of fat-trunked old spruces that allowed but a trifling amount of snow to accumulate on the vinyl skin of our shelter.

Sadly, this glade was too confined to also accommodate the fire.

Not safely, anyway. And as dearly as we cherished that fire, we were unwilling to risk burning the tent just to save a handful of steps between sleeping bag and blaze.

And so we spent the seven hours til dusk beside the fire, exposed to the storm but as faithful to our toasty altar as any penitent is to the shrine of his faith.

Except when we trudged forth to find fresh fuel.

Which would have been quite often, given the fire’s hearty appetite, had we settled for mere twigs.

Instead, again heeding Howard’s experience in such matters, we lugged back to camp the biggest chunks we could together bear.

It was a long day.

Long but at least endurable, I was certain, compared to the coming night.

It’s not that I actually feared frostbite, or its more sinister and stealthy cousin, hypothermia.

I had scrutinized the weather forecast before we left Friday morning for the West Eagle trailhead. The meteorologists’ cautionary tone persuaded me, despite my kibitzing over every gram I had to haul over 26 miles of trail, to stuff into my pack a formidable array of garments renowned for their ability to repel cold and moisture.

I figured I might shiver, but I’d survive.

Yet still I was scared of the dark. And it’s at this point that the bladder — specifically my bladder — returns to this tale.

Only rarely have I managed to get through a night in a tent without being awakened by an insistent and unpleasant pressure from down there.

Relieving this sensation, and thus making sleep at least theoretically possible, requires that I engage in a great lot of thrashing about, rather like a contortionist who is suffering a grand mal seizure or has just poked a screwdriver into a power outlet.

I can’t think of many movements so inimical to the human anatomy than extricating yourself first from a sleeping bag, then from a tent that has a single, zipper-actuated door with the approximate dimensions of a mailbox.

(It’s not without reason that the type of sleeping bag preferred by backpackers is called a “mummy” bag — my point being that, except for Brendan Fraser films, how many really flexible mummies have you seen?)

These nocturnal urges hardly rate as dire when conditions are tranquil (as they’re supposed to be in late August).

In fact I sort of enjoy slinking out into the woods on a fine summer night; the star show tends to especially stellar then.

But in my view, a 32-degree blizzard at an alpine lake is about as tranquil as a burlap sack full of bobcats.

Which is to say, I don’t want to get caught in either.

In a naive ploy to prop up my bladder’s confidence, I avoided drinking much water after mid-afternoon. This was silly as well as naive, since breathing for several hours the dry, smoky air next to a raging fire is an excellent way to become dehydrated.

But I was committed to my goal, which was to stay inside my sleeping bag, with as little of my body exposed as possible, until first light Sunday.

(Or at least until Howard coaxed the embers back into full flame.)

We intended to linger beside the blaze until 8 o’clock, but about half past 7 a nasty little wind came up and went tearing down the lake bearing a fair amount of the fire’s heat.

So we heaved the biggest log on top and turned in.

I managed to wedge myself  into my bag and achieve a tolerable temperature. I slept, I suppose soundly, although I was plagued by unsettling dreams that included, inexplicably, Peyton Manning grabbing my cell phone and crushing it with one hand.

Then I awoke to the rustle of grainy snow spatting again the tent’s rain fly.

That, and the familiar, hated pressure from the vicinity of my navel.

I didn’t mind at first. I figured, based on what seemed the great extent of my dreams, that daybreak must be near.

I wrestled around so I could reach the light button on the digital watch on my left wrist.

The numbers, which glow a fetching shade of blue, told the sorry story.

12:20.

I lay there for 20 minutes more, sure of my fate yet powerless against the dim hope that perhaps, just this once, the pressure would ease enough that I might again drift off.

Howard, fortunately, had stashed a pair of flip-flops right outside the tent for just this eventuality (we share a distrust in our bladders).

I stumbled off through the snow, which was still falling, melted a hole and crawled back into my cocoon of synthetic insulation.

By dawn the snow had ceased.

The sun came out and we basked in the rare gift of a Currier and Ives Christmas scene set in the waning days of August.

We hiked out six miles and had a fine final morning in the high country, even though I soaked my gloves in the West Lostine and the stream almost carried off one Howard’s trekking poles at the second of the two fords.

(The Forest Service subscribes to the notion that wilderness areas should be places where a person not only has “outstanding opportunities for solitude,” which is how Congress puts it, but also where a man can get his feet wet every so often.)

Before we got in the truck and drove away, I made good use of one of the facilities the Forest Service, in contrast to its disdain for bridges, deemed necessary at the Two Pan trailhead.

It’s an outhouse. And a fine one indeed.


Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.