This is a 3-part series. If you haven't yet, here's Part I. Enjoy!
"Here, take two," I said.
I offered some magic beans to each person. They're really just caffeinated Jelly Belly's, but they work wonders for when you're stuck deep in a forest and getting to be really low energy. (You know, the usual.)
After everyone took their share there were none left for me, but I didn't care. I was already heavily adrenalized and I didn't need an energy boost. I just wanted all of us to make it out without being too horribly traumatized from this hike-turned-bushwhacking expedition.
While the ladies were finishing up filtering water, I scouted out a "path" and lead the ladies over a really large boulder, deeper into the brush. Hours passed of this cycle of ducking under branches, stepping over deadfall and having our legs cut by a thousand dry branches. Then we finally saw it. One single cairn. Huh...??? I wish I took a photo of it.
I was 100% perplexed. Aren't cairns supposed exist as a string of them?
Steph cracked a joke about how someone was like, "Yeah, I'd take this trail again" and decided to build that single cairn in the middle of nowhere. We all bursted into laughter as we continued on. Humor has such a way of diffusing heaviness and lifting our spirits, doesn't it? I felt so grateful for the gift of laughter and the extraordinary attitudes each lady had through all of these uncertain hours.
The joke(s) and positive attitude of each person gave us the boost we needed to keep marching onward even through the roller coaster of a false bridge sighting, super rugged terrain, and a bear (OMG!) that was probably more alarmed by our presence than we were by his. Until finally. FINALLY, after about 10+ hours of bushwhacking, we arrived at the intersection of Kootenai Creek trail.
I finally felt like I could let my ultra-heightened guard down for a moment, while recognizing we weren't finished. We still hadn't arrived yet. The sun was setting and we had 1.6 miles uphill to get to the Middle Fork Lake. Maybe one more hour or so to go I imagined.
Up, up, up we hiked while learning new cheers, singing call-and-response songs, and playing a storytelling improv game. All of us contributed to that sense of play and positivity those last couple miles. Meanwhile, I was just relieved no one was badly injured.
It was pitch black and five headlamps illuminated our path when we finally reached our campsite after 10pm. (I'm usually asleep by 8:30 in the backcountry, so this was a record late arrival.) We put down our packs and someone called, "Group Hug!" Like magnets our bodies drew together, arms wrapped tightly, my head touched another head and immediately my eyes welled with tears.
We did it. A five or six hour (max) hike turned a whopping 12 hours through the most rugged terrain I've had to navigate. But we made it home. Safe at last.
I thought we would crawl into our tents and pass out with empty stomachs, but to my surprise, Jaymie, Alyx, Korrin, Steph and I all sat around eating dinner and recounting the day. Our achey feet and weary bodies didn't stop us from re-living our journey. We laughed and laughed at what we had just overcome and I finally felt like I could sigh in relief. This late night time together was salve for my previously fear-ladened soul.
My eyes grew heavy as we sat looking at the stars reflecting in the blackness of the lake. It was time to finally lay my weary head to rest. It felt EXTRA GOOD to be horizontal!
I fell asleep to the thought of being only 10 easy miles from the trailhead. Then we would be home.
"Good night everyone!," I said cheerily through my thin tent walls. It was the deepest slumber I'd fallen into in the wilderness, ever, when I suddenly felt a nudge.