Books Magazine

In Which I See an Owl. And Rivers of Blood!

By Jennyphresh @feralpony
I am undarkening my blog ever-so-briefly to tell a tale of my woodland adventures in NH. As a wilderness trip leader, I recently took a group of four young girls (age 9-10) and their counselors to Kinsman Pond in Franconia Notch. As we arrived in the parking lot, we discovered that every space was occupied. One fine fool had parked his car, plastered with Boston College bumper stickers, smack across two spaces. Upon finally finding our own space after much circling, the "adults" in our group left him a note that read: "Your genitals will be snacked upon by lemurs as punishment for your hideous parking skills." I included a smiley face to let him know that the snacking would be done in a kindly, lighthearted manner.
Onward to the trail. Each of the young girls had been given a horrible load to carry. One had a sack of 6 bagels. Another had five pieces of pita bread. A third had a few packets of hot cocoa. In addition, each of the girls was forced to carry her own chewy bar, an apple, and orange, and a cup/bowl/spoon set. (Unlike my previous trip, on which I'd failed to bring bowls and cups for the children and thus almost resorted to dumping globs of Mac n' Cheese on a tarp for each place setting, I'd successfully remembered to stow these items.)
"Any of you want to give up your arduous load of food?" we offered. But the girls were stout-hearted; they would carry their lumps of bread to the very top!
We mastered the first couple of miles to arrive at a trail junction at Lonesome Lake. Day hikers strolled by, some with young children toting stuffed animals and wearing flip-flops. This was clearly a strenuous and dangerous trail. A family of four with a dog passed us and headed down toward the parking lot; one member of the group was wearing a distinctive Boston College T-shirt.
Past Lonesome Lake, the journey took on a more sinister character. We had chosen the Fishin' Jimmy trail, part of the larger Appalachian Trail. As such, thru-hikers on their way to Maine, fragrant and sometimes bloodied, left us gasping in clouds of body odor. Long-legged fellows with trekking poles would stride with ease down over slippery roots and near-vertical rock faces studded with wedged, wooden steps. The girls struggled up the same route, sourcing out the best holds for their little hands. We leaned to the side to allow the thru-hikers passage and the girls pinched their noses and said "faugh." And so we clambered higher and higher into the woods along the edge of the mountain. We crossed mossy streams where mushrooms grew, so round and bright that I thought one was an orange tumbled from someone's pack. A foot would slip; someone would squeal and right herself.  A toad trundled across the trail.
My pack was from the 1980s--a gift from a former trip leader. It was old-school indeed, a classic frame pack covered with small sewn patches from the various AMC huts I'd visited in an earlier lifetime as a trip leader. And it was the most painful and wretched pack I could imagine carrying. I'd thought it would be kind of cool and retro to use this pack on the trail this summer. However, I had failed to recall some of its lesser virtues from the last time I'd used it. One, whenever the waistband was tightened to anywhere nearing comfort, it would pop open at the moment of greatest stress, thus sending something in the realm of 40 pounds of weight down on my shoulders. The best recourse was to leave it loose, which also let the 40 pounds sit firmly on my shoulders. Second, the pack was ungainly and off-balance, so that when I clung to a rock face on the Fishin' Jimmy trail, I came within an inch of toppling over backward into scrubby gullies. I reeled like a drunk on the edges and clung to tree branches. The tent bound at the top swung wildly and caught on pine branches. And third, if I decided that I needed to crouch low and clamber over a rough spot, the external frames at the base of the pack would scrape and catch on the rock. Scritch, scritch, the pack would scream, as I slid down the rocks.
We made camp at the lovely Kinsman Pond shelter. Our second day in the woods was uneventful, and included a hike to the top of North and South Kinsman in the fog. On the way up, we passed an older hiker who appeared to have wrapped his head in cheesecloth. He had a ragged gash on one arm and a haunted look in his eyes. "It's very rough," he said. "Very steep. Very dangerous. Hold onto anything you can!" He took a peek at the young girls and shook his head mournfully.
This fellow must have come up via a different trail, for we encountered nothing more hair-raising than that which we'd seen on Fishin' Jimmy. No trauma ensued but for two girls scratching their legs near the peak of South Kinsman and howling bitterly about it. They insisted on giant gauze patches lashed on by surgical tape. Another girl had to go poo near the peak so I dug her a hole with my hiking pole and handed her a patch of moss. (Moss soaks up urine well enough but can be grubby on the undersides.)
On the second evening, we sat by the pond and watched clouds roll down from the mountains. J and M were snogging and lover-making or some such, as 17-18 year olds will do when presented with romantic scenes such as remote mountain ponds under darkening skies. I didn't blame them a wit. E and I departed and were snuggling into our sleeping bags when I heard something whisking by my head. I trained my headlamp on the creature. It was an owl. A very petite and round-eyed owl that we later determined to be a Saw-Whet owl.
In which I see an owl. And rivers of blood!
The owl flew about the shelter, lighting on various beams and gazing at us as if for advice. Eventually it settled atop my garbage-bag-wrapped sack of clothing, not more than a foot from my head. It blinked at me.
"It's sitting on my luggage!" I said. The presence of the owl, so otherworldly, rendered my speech loose and excitable, like a child who has seen his first lion. "It's on my luggage," I repeated. "There it is, on my luggage!" The owl gave a little hop and landed back on the bag. I slowly withdrew my camera and as I did so it flew straight out of the shelter. It was better that way, really. I didn't want to see my last glimpse of the owl through a camera lens. We were assured that our bonny owl was a good omen and would bring us doubloons and blessings for the year to come.
The blessings began the very next morning! I woke up and prepared to light the camp stove. Then my nose started gushing blood. I used to have a lot of nosebleeds as a kid, so I pinched my nostrils shut and waited a minute or two. It didn't stop. I figured it was due to altitude or something and didn't panic, although I thought about panicking. Through some fluke, I had also acquired a cut on the side of my nose and that, too, started to bleed profusely. So I was lying on my back in the shelter with a pack towel over my face, wondering if the bear that had been reportedly sighted in the area appreciated the scent of blood in any way. The shelter featured a large "Bear Box" where we stored our pepperoni, chicken, and other items of interest to a bear, and the bear had visited and fumbled with the lock on the first night and had loped away without satisfaction. Now he would come back, and he would eat me. And the Saw-Whet owl would observe this from atop my luggage.
Finally, finally, I got the bleeding to stop. I affixed a Band-Aid to the side of my nose. I'm sure it was unsightly. When the campers woke up for breakfast and noticed my blemish we hatched a scheme in which we would all put Band-Aids on our faces and make many ominous comments to the day hikers heading up the trail. We'd scare the wits out of them just like that old feller had scared us!
We set out to hike down the Fishin' Jimmy. I had researched a few alternate trails but they all listed things such as "rough and intolerably steep" and "lousy with trolls" and "slippage to certain death inevitable." So we went back to Farkin' Jimmy. It was slow and wet from the previous night's rain. The girls took their time and made their way with steady progress.
We were crossing a small stream in a flat section of the trail when I heard a cry. One of the little girls, L, had pitched forward and was lying prone atop the rocks. She had failed to put her hands out to arrest her fall in any way. And her forehead was spurting blood. Having seen head wounds before, I knew they could bleed badly even if superficial. We gathered around and soothed her. She was remarkably calm, until another little girl squealed in a high-pitched voice: "Oh my God. So much blood! It's GUSHING. I have never seen so much blood! Oh my God, it's like a fountain of blood! The blood! The blood!"
This dramatic outpouring sent poor L into tears. And the tears themselves were filled with blood, too. L was a pretty girl with long, thick hair, which she'd brushed and brushed until it was gleaming and then had sorted it into a braid. Even the braid, which had fallen forward, was bloodied. We pressed the wound with my pack towel (already encrusted with dried blood), and then E pulled it away and looked and went white and mouthed two words: "Puncture wound."
I looked and my stomach dropped, for this little girl had a hole in her forehead. It wasn't a huge hole, but any hole in the forehead is a bad hole. It was shallow enough, but the skull isn't far from the surface. Touch your forehead now and you'll see what I mean. I thought I might be able to see the glimmer of bone at the base of this hole.
Adrenalin is a strange thing. Readers of my blog know that I suffer from panic attacks and have experienced the push of adrenalin, misplaced and false and unneeded. This time it did what it was meant to do. We all acted quickly and cleanly. I flung the shoes lashed to the outside of my pack onto the trail in order to access the med kit. (I never saw the shoes again in this lifetime.) We stuffed in a gob of Neosporin and bound up the wound.
A man with a dog stopped by and informed us that he worked at a local hospital. No, he wasn't a doctor or a nurse, but he offered to carry the little girl's pack, and that was good enough and made him a hero. We legged it to the hut, one mile away, where the crew wrapped up little L even more thoroughly such that she looked like a Revolutionary war solider. Her face was blotchy and her eyelashes were gummed with blood.
At this point E and I decided we'd hike her out to the hospital while the rest, commandeered by hardy crew members M and J, lagged behind. I hadn't eaten anything, so I opened the communal jar of peanut butter and thrust a grimy paw into it to bring up a big scooping handful. This I licked as we hiked down. Some ways down the trail a bee shot out and stung me on the leg. E was carrying the little girl's pack on her belly, with her own pack on her back, so that she looked like a strange double-humped creature. I was wearing two knee braces and wielding two trekking poles. The day hikers with their teddies and lollies and pinafores continued to pass us as we made our way down, and at one point little L (cheering up now) turned back to us and conspiratorially said: "I think our plan to intimidate them is working." What a champ that kid was. Her eyes were still gummed-up with blood and still she had a hole in her head and still she managed to laugh.
We hiked on, cooking up stories for how the scene had played out. In one scenario, a bear with the ghost of Fishin' Jimmy riding sidesaddle on its woolen hide had lunged from the woods, knocking L into a troll-spike.
Finally we reached the van and drove 15 miles north to the hospital in Littleton, NH. A few miles into the drive my nose inexplicably started bleedly again, and I grabbed a beach towel to staunch the flow. In doing so I opened up the cut on the side of my nose again.That bled too, profusely. I drove one-handed, silently cursing. By the time we stumbled into the ultra-clean waiting room of the Littleton hospital ER, my face and hands were soaked in blood and my leg was bee-sting swollen and I had a rime of peanut butter around my mouth. We stank of the woods and of old cheese and probably a little bit of urine, as leaves don't wipe as well as they ought. The triage nurse opened her eyes wide and wondered who was the patient? Lucky for us, the waiting room was entirely empty, and L was whisked in for gluing and reparation faster than one would have hoped.
I left them there for rescue by the camp nurse and took the van back to collect the others, now waiting at the trailhead.  They would want ice cream, and would want to know: Was L all right? She was, and they would get their ice cream.  When I turned on the van's crusty old radio a song featuring the little girl's name was playing. What were the odds of that? (And I'd like to say her name aloud here, because she deserves honor for her bravery and her laughter, but one doesn't write about other people's children online, of course. But I'm saying her name to myself all the same.) The odds.
Maybe 10 years from now she will be on a trip herself, now bold and 18 and in love with something of the mountains and maybe with a boy, and she'll remember M and J and the way they glanced at each other over the stones. In 15 years, she will be 23 and I will be old and intolerable and maybe I will have forgotten how to skip--my parents, in their 80s, say that when you can't skip anymore that might mean that you are old. Does it? Maybe in 20 years, someone will ask: How did you get that scar? And she'll touch it lightly and remember the light on the water and the shiver of the lilypads in the wind when she was eight and high in the mountains  and far from home. And how when she fell she dove rather than faltered and engraved this instant on her memory.

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