“Pardon Me, I’ll Run to my Ambulance Now…”
A true story from Bowron Lake Provincial Park, British Columbia, Canada. September 18-28, 1993.
Adventure travel sometimes takes an unexpected turn. While backpacking in Canada, I heard tales of a wonderful 73-mile canoe trip where you paddle a rectangular circuit of wilderness lakes and portage by rolling your canoe on wheels. Rugged mountains soar a vertical mile above you, mysterious mists hug the waters, and ravaging bears take your gear unless it is hung in caches reached by ladder. After dreaming about the trip for two years, I borrowed a canoe and joined some friends at Bowron Lake Provincial Park, near Quesnel, British Columbia. Little did I know that we would encounter an animal more fearsome than any bear. On the first day of the trip we witnessed a marriage proposal, a case of hypothermia, and a trip member running to catch his own ambulance!
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An Unexpected Phone Call
I planned to spend seven days canoeing the Bowron circuit with Mark and Kim, a married couple whom I knew through work. Kim’s friend Laura from the East Coast decided to join us. We chose to go in late September, when the summer crowds diminish and the leaves of the aspen trees glow gold.
A week before the trip, my phone rang. On the line was Dale, a stranger to me, calling from Oregon. (I’ve changed the name of Dale for this story, but all other details are true.) Laura was going to visit Dale for three days on her way to meet us in British Columbia. With enthusiasm, he asked if he could join our canoe trip, which would be a great break from his stressful high-tech job.
I chatted in a friendly manner, then questioned Dale closely about his outdoor experience. The Bowron canoe circuit requires paddling and camping in remote wilderness areas, a few days away from help. Dale said he was an experienced river rafter, triathlon athlete, and mountaineer. He had led climbs of several high mountains. Although he sounded a little manic and excitable, I felt that he might add positive energy to our group.
When he asked if Laura was my “blind date,” I said no, and he seemed relieved. Laura had never been his girlfriend, but he seemed interested in renewing a friendship with her. We spoke at length. Because I had initiated the trip, I had some power over who would go. Finally, I agreed that he could join us on our dream trip.
“This Guy Is Crazy!”
Mark, Kim, and I drove two cars from Seattle to the airport in Quesnel, British Columbia, which was just an hour’s drive from Bowron Lake. Dale and Laura arrived by plane. As she entered the baggage claim area, Laura was a little tired but in good spirits. Laura went in the car with Mark and Kim. Dale rode in my car. His eyes showed exhaustion, yet he pushed himself to stay awake. Last week on the phone he had spoken energetically, but now his voice was flat and devoid of emotion. I felt tense in this presence.
“Do you own a car?” I asked.
“No, but there’s a car in my driveway at home,” he said in an odd monotone, with a straight face. In the same mechanical monotone he asked, “Are you going to plant seeds?”
His question seemed out-of-context, and I was speechless. After a moment of thinking, I replied, “Oh, do you mean like when you toss an apple core into the wilderness, and it turns into an apple tree?”
Yes, that was what he meant. Something disturbs me about his flat, robot-like voice, I thought.
Despite his apparent exhaustion, Dale spoke with logic and intelligence. With more energy, he asked me if I wanted to climb a high mountain with him at some point during the trip. I said yes. He described his leadership experience, then questioned my abilities as trip leader. I said that I led informally by consensus and honored the opinions of those with the most experience.
“Would you be willing to risk your life to save someone else’s life?” Dale pressed.
I replied, “In an actual emergency, I probably would react by instinct without thinking. I would only risk my life if I had a reasonable chance of bringing myself back alive.”
My headlights pierced the pitch black night. I followed Mark and Kim’s red taillights as we drove the winding gravel road to Bowron Lake. Suddenly, the road forked ambiguously. Mark and Kim stopped their car and stepped out with Laura. Dale and I joined them.
“This guy is crazy!” I blurted, half-jokingly, towards Dale. Dale’s robot-like behavior was giving me the creeps. Dale didn’t react. To break the ice, we joked about being lost in the wilderness with Dale as an ax murderer. Dale cracked a small smile. Only Laura knew Dale, but she offered no unusual insights about the past three days she had spent with him in Oregon. Until this week, she hadn’t seen Dale in four years.
We chose the correct road and drove to our lakefront lodge to get some sleep. All five of us shared one cabin.
Wow, I thought, Dale has seriously disassociated himself from his feelings. I did not trust his ability to cooperate with the group. I lost several hours of sleep worrying about how I would handle seven days in the wilderness with Dale. Finally, I decided that stress and lack of sleep explained Dale’s unusual behavior. He would probably awake with the normal personality that I knew from our telephone conversation.
A Marriage Proposal
As I undressed to take my shower in the morning, I heard a knock at the bathroom door. I wrapped a towel around my waist and opened the door. Dale addressed me on his knees.
“May I please have Laura’s hand in marriage?” Dale asked seriously.
I laughed and said, “Sure, but you’ll need to ask Laura.”
Maybe Dale normally spoke in this style of deadpan humor. Only Laura knew Dale’s personality. I trusted her to tell us if Dale was unfit for canoeing 70 miles in the wilderness.
Mark told me later that Dale had rustled loudly through several packs in the wee hours of the morning as others slept. Dale had apparently eaten an apple and then planted its seeds outdoors in the frosty ground. Mark found this behavior rather strange, because apple seeds would never germinate in this cold climate. I agreed. But then I silently forgave Dale, because for him, planting seeds in the wilderness might be symbolic, like placing flowers on a grave.
Rays of sun pierced the morning fog and illuminated the golden aspen trees, which reflected in the expanse of beautiful Bowron Lake.
As we ordered breakfast at the lodge, Dale asked the waitress, “Do you need any help in the kitchen?” The waitress looked at him quizzically. She silently shook her head and returned to the kitchen.
With mingled fear and excitement, our group discussed the coming trip. When Dale asked if anyone knew water life-saving skills, I said yes. I said that if anyone fell into the water of these lakes, within five minutes they would lose most of their strength. This happened to me in a limb-numbing practice swim from a raft in Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona. The Glen Canyon Dam releases the Colorado River into the Grand Canyon at 46 degrees Fahrenheit, which is very cold. The lakes of Bowron Lake Provincial Park are even colder. Not surprisingly, hypothermia poses the greatest danger on the Bowron circuit. We agreed to keep within voice distance at all times during the trip.
We repacked gear for the canoe trip. “Is that your pack?” I asked Dale, pointing to his pack. “That’s not my pack. That’s a pack” he corrected.
This smart-aleck behavior could get out of hand, I thought. I felt oddly fearful.
“Your Friend Is Naked”
The lodge’s van carried our boats and gear to the trail head. Sun filtered through the aspen trees and warmed the air pleasantly.
We strapped our canoes onto rented carts for wheeling a mile to the first lake of the Bowron circuit. However, Dale seemed confused. He kept trying to wheel his single-man canoe to the lake visible below instead of up the trail. We had to redirect him twice. Once he found the right trail, Dale ran far ahead, contrary to our agreement to stay within shouting distance.
We arrived at the crystal-clear, inviting lake outlet, which twisted through a reedy marsh surrounded by pine trees. The sun forced steam from the still surface of the outlet channel. But we saw no trace of Dale or his canoe. I confided to Mark, “This is really getting out of hand.” Despite the beautiful surroundings, my mood soured from distrust of Dale’s behavior.
A canoe approached around a small bend. A concerned woman in the canoe said, “Just around the corner, your friend is naked and neck-deep in water. His wet clothes are in the boat. He says he’s meditating, but he acts a little strangely. What should we do?”.
“We’ll be right there,” said Mark, as we hastened to detach the wheeled carts from our canoes.
A few minutes later, the woman returned by canoe and said, “Your friend has stopped shivering and no longer replies. We’re getting very concerned for him.” By then, Mark and Kim were paddling madly around the corner.
By this time, Dale may have been in the icy cold water for 25 minutes. As Mark and Kim approached him, Dale instinctively reached out of the water and grabbed their canoe, almost capsizing them. His bluish body clung to their canoe as they paddled to shore. They helped the tall, now-shivering Dale to shore, and Kim wrapped him with a silver space blanket. Laura (clothed) joined Dale in a sleeping bag to help warm him. I heated some hot water on a stove to help revive him.
Mark and I privately shared anger at Dale’s irresponsible behavior. Kim ran back to the ranger station and ordered an ambulance, as suggested by Mark.
Reborn in Wilderness Waters
After an hour, we were able to revive Dale from the depths of hypothermia. He finally stopped shivering. Eventually he crawled out of the sleeping bag shared with Laura. “Here, Dale, put on another coat,” said Kim.
He shook his head, then said in a childlike voice, “I don’t need clothing. All I need is a compass and a wife.” Dale’s simplicity struck a chord in me: I was also single, and looking for a sense of direction as symbolized by the compass. From the book Fire in the Belly by Sam Keen, I remembered two fundamental questions that a man must ask himself: first, where am I going, and second, who will go with me? Dale lifted and fondled the compass that hung from a string around his neck, and said softly, “A man drowned here today. I’m reborn.”
“No, Dale, no one drowned here today,” I said. Although still suffering from hypothermia and shock, he had now returned to his robot-like personality. He followed our instructions and allowed us to paddle him back to the start.
We felt fortunate that Dale had not chosen to pull this stunt in the middle of the trip, days away from help. As a confident swimmer and triathlete, perhaps he didn’t really believe my saying that in these lakes, hypothermia can hit you after only five minutes of immersion.
Dale’s eyes darted furtively. Suddenly he sprinted down the trail. I shouted, “Wait Dale, we’ll first need your life jacket back.” My voice stopped him in his tracks, and he obediently returned the life jacket. To prevent him from retreating further into himself, I engaged him to help put his one-man canoe on wheels for return to the lodge.
Dale jogged with Laura a mile to the waiting ambulance. How strange, I thought, here is a man running to catch his own ambulance! Later we learned that Dale spent three days in the hospital under observation. His parents flew across the continent especially to care for him. After his recovery, he thanked us for saving his life. He left thank-you letters on our cars parked at Bowron Lake and phoned us after the trip. In his letter, he confessed difficulty in pulling himself out of the cold water and thick mud. “I’m surprised how fast hypothermia sets in and how much shock it put me in after my body was warmed back up,” he said. “I am very disappointed that I shook you guys up and hope you will forgive my foolishness.”
Laura’s return flight restricted us to finish the Bowron circuit by a certain date. Unfortunately, Dale’s flirtation with hypothermia cost us a day. Our group, minus Dale, athletically paddled the loop for six days, instead of the seven days originally planned. For greater enjoyment, I recommend taking eight or more days. Luckily, a tailwind pushed us most of the trip.
Canoeing the Bowron loop turned out to be safer than I had expected. We shared our wilderness experience with about six other canoes per day. Rangers in powerboats patrolled each lake about once a day. A ranger had taken less than half a day to travel 30 miles around the lake system on foot and by powerboat to help us with Dale. However, by then we had already sent Dale away in the ambulance. I thanked the ranger for his valiant efforts. “I’ve seen a number of disassociated people like Dale come to this park in the past,” he said.
Walking on Water
We paddled fifteen long miles across “L”-shaped Isaac Lake. I paddled the “J”-stroke thousands of times to propel the canoe straight. Once or twice a day we reshuffled gear and mounted the canoes onto handy bicycle-wheeled carts for overland portaging. We wheeled the canoes for only 5 miles of the 73-mile circuit. As darkness fell each evening, we had just enough time to set up tents and cook a tasty dinner before admiring the starry sky. As a nightly ritual, we climbed high ladders to pile our food in bear-proof caches provided in the designated campgrounds.
We shot the whitewater chute of Isaac River, and successfully negotiated the snags of Cariboo River. Fresh snow dusted the Needle Point Ridge a mile above Lanezi Lake. A small glacier clung to a mountain in the distance. In the middle of shallow Sandy Lake, we appeared to walk on water as we pulled our canoes to deeper channels. On the West side of the 70-mile loop, Spectacle Lakes reflected spectacular rows of golden aspen trees. Gradually the mountains receded into the distance, the warm sun shone, and lakes became calm as mirrors. A few days after our harrowing start, I began to relax. On the last day, in the final stretch back to the lodge, rain fell gently as we paddled across Bowron Lake.
For campfire entertainment during the trip, I enjoyed quoting from Dale: “Are you going to plant seeds? . . . A man drowned here today. . . . I’m reborn. . . . All I need is a compass and a wife.” I must credit Dale for enlivening my vacation memories. Perhaps he got all that he wanted out of his trip: a compass strung around his neck for a sense of direction, and a warm woman in his sleeping bag to help revive him. Along with Dale, I felt reborn in the wonderful wilderness waters of Bowron Lake Provincial Park.
Copyright 1993 by Tom Dempsey.
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