6/11 Idaho Magazine Features - "The Demons of Boulder Lake" (non-fiction)

Daniel Claar - Idaho's Premier Backcountry Writer

Winner - Idaho Magazine Publisher's Choice Award 2010
"The Proper Filter"

Winner - Idaho Magazine Judge's Choice Award 2011
"Where the River Leads"

"Hot Spring Break "

"Stampede! "

"Seeing Things"
Winner - Idaho Magazine Second Place 2011

Monday, February 28, 2011

Between Stars

     Lying face down with legs splayed wide, I press my belly flat against the cold, rocky trail. With chin tucked to sternum, my head is cocked sideways; face buried in one armpit. I can practically taste the overpowering reek of sweat, blood, and fear. My fingers are interwoven, clenched protectively behind my neck. I am afraid to move… to make a sound. Despite my efforts to calm down, my ragged breathing echoes like thunder in my ears. It has to hear me. The creature has to notice my slumped form rise and fall, however slightly, with each breath.

     I hear nothing. The sounds of the forest seem to fade with the dying light of day. Maybe the beast has moved on... for real this time. There is no way to be certain. I’d rather not risk a repeat performance of the last time I thought it was safe to move. During the second attack, I had sustained real injuries; the moment my dire situation had become exponentially problematic. A six day shift of permit checking, answering questions, and trail maintenance had started just yesterday, and like a bad employee, I was walking an overgrown, long re-routed trail where select few still travel.

     With my face protected, I can see but a sliver of light between my arm and the ground, offering a narrow view of dry pine needles and trail’s edge just behind me. For all I know, the animal is hovering above me, saliva dripping on my backpack, waiting for a noticeable sign of life. Squinting for clues within my limited field of vision, I shudder involuntarily upon noticing a bloody mass inches from the bottom of my torn pant leg. I swallow a surge of panic as my already fragile mental capacities insist I must be staring at my own severed foot. Thankfully, the small portion of reasonable thinking still holding sway inside my skull, heads off the complete mental meltdown by looking past the grisly blood to what is clearly just my hiking boot. The mental reassurance nearly leads to a bray of insane laughter.

     Then again, I can’t see my leg below the knee, not without moving it and risking a third assault; maybe my foot is still inside the boot. Before I can stop myself, the absurd notion causes me to twitch the big toe for affirmation and a white hot wave of sheer agony pulsates from the area. The foot must still be attached. My once glorious, calloused appendage, half responsible for a million miles of covered trail, may look like a chew toy, but I can still feel it.

     “You idiot,” I think to myself. “You know better.”

     I hear the voice of another inside my head delivering the chastising message, striking me as odd as anything else I had experienced this evening. It is the quiet, comforting voice of a fellow ranger; a subtle, confident sound that had appealed to me since I first heard her speak. I can’t stop the corners of my mouth from curling into a slight grin. Here I am, possibly one wrong twitch from dying and I find myself thinking about a girl I barely know? Or, maybe the idea of companionship just burns brightest when faced with the possibility of dying alone.

     I know that to be bullshit though. Might as well be honest with myself. In recent weeks, I had been thinking about the raven haired ranger more and more, despite having never experienced much more than a passing conversation. I have always been shy around beautiful woman and she is certainly that. Below the dark eyes and high cheek bones I can picture so vividly, her lecturing lips turn to a gentle smile, “I can hear what you’d say about a tourist in the same situation. Serves you right.”

     She is correct. The trail has been closed for the last three seasons to backcountry visitors and park employees alike due to fire damage and the potential for mud slides in the narrower, steeper reaches of the canyon. Like veterans of any endeavor though, I feel there are rules that once understood, you can break, just so long as you stay true to the fundamental principles. I know the risks, but I also understand the terrain. Mudslides are of little concern at the moment. Of course, sometimes the confidence blows up in your face and you remember why the rules were established in the first place. I also know full well that dusk is primetime predator activity as the hunters look to ambush prey migrating to water.

     Despite the heart wrenching terror I experienced at the initial instant of the assault, and the fact I could be slowly bleeding to death through one foot, for some vain reason, the injury most concerning me is one of pride. I almost wish my unknown assailant would finish the job and spare me the mocking hell from every green horn and grizzled ranger in the park. What will Jaime make of the whole deal? It had been over sixty years since the last violent encounter between a park attraction and employee; my little misadventure is going to give the locals something to talk about.

     Despite ten years with the National Park Service, a lifetime of outdoor experience, and being mauled by the damn thing, I am still not certain what manner of beasty has me pinned. There are few options, but of the choices, I can only guess. One second I was picking my way across the poorly maintained shortcut, the next, I was thrown onto my face and driven into the earth by a writhing mass of muscle, hair, and animal breath. Beneath the considerable weight of my thrashing assailant and 50 pounds of hiking equipment, I could barely move as the creature ripped at my backpack with enough force to lift and shake my body.

     I had instinctively tucked my head while protecting the back of my neck with interlocked hands and let the animal tear at the dense pack loaded with clothes, food, and gear. The attack was brief, but every second felt like a lifetime awaiting the searing certainty of tearing flesh, breaking bone, and unimaginable pain. That moment never came, and as quickly as it had overtaken me, the weight lifted and the violent shaking ceased. The animal was gone and I was left paralyzed in disbelief with the lengthening shadows of dusk. I was eerily aware that neither the creature, nor I, had made any sound during the struggle.

     After the first attack, I laid there in silence, absolutely frozen for what felt an eternity. It was probably closer to ten minutes that I spent listening for any sound that might betray the animal’s location. I heard nothing and in that time, as my breathing slowed, and my scattered wits reunited, I began to apply logic to the situation. Although I realized my thought process was probably more a defensive reaction to prevent panic, I was all too eager to welcome the Boy Scout’s attempts to silence the shrieking banshee in my head.

     Most animal attacks are motivated by a protective instinct, I reminded myself, not a predatory one. Cougars and bears protecting their young, or a kill, or even when surprised at close range, might react violently, but humans hunted in the act of predation are rare. Statistics suggest that whatever attacked me had done so because it had been startled by my sudden arrival, or because it was guarding something. Either way, the animal probably didn’t wish me any personal harm; it just wanted me gone.

     Had the creature really wanted to eat me, it would have made more of an effort. Or… it figures I had sustained enough damage to let me bleed out and will return later for a more relaxing meal. With the exception of a pocketknife and a canister of bear spray pinned beneath my body, the only tool I carry that could be considered a weapon is an old oak-handled Pulaski I bought with my first pay check as a National Park employee. The dual headed instrument consists of a trenching spade and a honed axe blade. I dropped it when the animal had first propelled me forward and have no idea where my favorite tool now lay in proportion to my body.

     The sun dropped behind the western ridgeline as I finished composing myself from the first attack. I had to try something. I sensed the shadows grow thicker and felt a light breeze caress the bare flesh of my exposed shin where the pant leg pulled up when I had been unceremoniously dumped on my face. I imagined the concerned eyes of my family looking down from the darkening sky above. Using their presence as inspiration, I had jumped to my feet, both hands held rigidly out in front like some kind of half-ass karate stance while looking around frantically for my Pulaski. I remember spying it about six feet off to one side and having just enough time for a confident sneer to hit my lips before the creature rammed into my back once again, this time knocking the air from lungs.

     Silent as night, the animal again made no sound as it plowed me back onto the rocky ground, scraping my forehead across a jagged stone. I tried to fight back at first, but didn’t possess the leverage or upper body strength to lift the writhing weight from my shoulders long enough to reach my knife or bear spray. I felt a muscle or tendon stretch in my lower back from the strain. As the accompanying pain streaked through my torso, I felt the bulk of the creature’s weight shift from my shoulders to midsection as the animal spun around on top of me. My flailing boot connected with something solid and that’s when the creature went to work on my foot.

     Every instinct, notion, or intention of fighting back evaporated the second I felt those knife blades sink into my calf followed by incredible pressure and pain. It wasn’t the calculated decision to play dead that I’d been taught in basic outdoor survival, it was simply the unbearable agony of my lower leg being feed into a meat grinder totally paralyzing my body. Again, the violent shaking ceased, and the blades retracted from my flesh. Mercifully, the animal had stopped, but this time I was left not only wondering where my attacker had gone, but also knowing I had been seriously injured and not in a position to do anything about it.

     Adding another level of uncertainty to my predicament, I now face the imminent nightfall following my sunset attack. The temperature is about to plummet and I am afraid to grab the sleeping bag or tent in arm’s reach. I also need to reach the first aid kit and play doctor; bite wounds have a tendency to get infected even when treated. I feel the overbearing sense of panic returning and this time, my rational brain is too strung-out to fight it off. If I move, I could die in a horribly painful manner. If I don’t move, I could die… probably slowly and even more painfully. A slight shiver begins to take hold and I feel suddenly exhausted. At least some of the pain seems to be receding with the warmth of my body.

     “At this rate I’ll be able to walk by midnight,” I whisper in what faintly reminds me of a drunken slur.

     In the darkest recess of my mind, I hear a faint siren, and my vision turns red, like a blood colored lens has been placed across my vision. My eyes snap open. The forest has been swallowed by nightfall, and a remaining purple glow in the western sky is all that remains of the day. Did I fall asleep? How long were my eyes closed? A fresh wave of screaming pain tears up my leg and like lightning, penetrates all the way into my abdomen. The agony brings my senses back into focus. Something is wrong, I can feel it. I sense the presence of something living… and can almost feel the footsteps of something large reverberating through the earth beneath my cheek. I am cold but sweating, possibly feverish, and again it is Jaime’s voice I hear echoing through a mental landscape one breath from tearing itself apart.

     “Bill, are you out there?” Her voice. So real. So close.

    “Way out there,” I whisper. My feeble voice sounds surprisingly loud and I flinch before wondering why I am so jumpy. Something about playing hide and seek with someone? The logic is reasonable, but doesn’t ring true. My brain is fuzzy. I can’t concentrate with this layer of fog swirling around my head. Again, I feel a footstep, or did I hear it this time… and the sound of metal clanking?

     “William!” Again her voice. This time loud and clear echoing down the valley.

     “Jaime?” I hear myself asking from a thousand miles away. I lift my face from where it has been buried, despite my instincts screaming to hold still. Standing above me, silhouetted against a violet sky with the evening’s first stars already glowing, is a slender, long haired figure leading a white horse by the reins. The person is wearing a wide brimmed hat that strikes me as comically familiar.

     “Bill! Jesus, Bill. What the hell happened?”

      I raise myself on one elbow, staring at the talking apparition in disbelief. A dirty, yellow light emanating from its hand pours over me, causing me to squint and feebly shield my eyes. I feel a moment of clarity wash over me; some kind of hope daring me to trust this mirage.

     “Princess Charming,” I stammer, “come to rescue… the dragon bit my leg.”

     “Something did more than bite you,” Jaime says kneeling down, bringing her angular face out of shadows and into the dim light. “I saw it tear out of here as I arrived. Didn’t get a good look but it was big.”

     Jaime touches my face with one cool hand, brushing my sandy blond hair out of my eyes. Even her cold fingers interject warmth into my body. I feel my thoughts begin to gel. She is real. I don’t know how or why she is here, but the woman commanding my daily thoughts is kneeling before me in the flesh.

     “How?” is all I can manage. “How…”

     Letting her index finger linger on my cheek, she says, “Had the night off… and wanted to talk to you about something. Rode Mr. Legs out to where you were supposed to be camped tonight and when I realized you weren’t coming, figured you crashed somewhere along the shortcut. I overheard you talking about this trail last year and use it myself. I know you like to buck the system, but I didn’t expect to find you wrestling the wildlife.”

     “Don’t tell the others…” I say with a weak grin.

     Jaime smiles, her faces lighting up with natural beauty. “Well, I have to get you back right now. Your leg is a mess, but you’ll live. Don’t worry, we’ll think of something. Besides, nobody is looking for us. I didn’t exactly tell anyone I was going out to find you for my night off. Might have raised questions. I’ll think of something to cover us both… and maybe make you sound heroic. Ok?”

     “Deal,” I say while looking past my gorgeous savior to a dramatically clear view of the sparkling Milky Way. “Did you bring any whiskey… or bandages?”

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