An Excerpt from The Passage
by Curt Remington
Tuesday, September 16th, 2008
This is from The Passage, a thus far unpublished novel I set aside some time ago. It’s about a group that is shipwrecked off the coast of British Columbia. This chapter is a story of a man dealing with aging and survival in the wilderness.
John bolted upright in bed, hearing a loud clang in the adjoining room. He quickly realized it was Lori dropping something. She probably wants to get me up and out of here. Lying back down, he tried desperately to recall his dreams, but they had disappeared. More than ever, he’d wanted to remember his dreams during the past week, but each morning he woke in such a state of anxiety that his dreams were immediately forgotten.
It had begun the morning after his incident with Lori. He’d had almost the same dream about wolves and was lying in bed fretting about the dream. On top of his worries, he’d felt painfully uncomfortable around Lori. She tried to be friendly, but it was obvious she was uncomfortable too. She was probably humiliated that he’d called her by his wife’s name. As if she wasn’t enough to command his full attention. John felt terrible, and he desperately wanted to regain their previous friendship.
Constantly working on the canoe for the past few days had given him more time to think and worry. He’d thought about hiking up into the mountains and hunting for mountain goats. That would help clear his head. They might need all the food they could get, and Lori would appreciate a coat like Catherine’s. Maybe when she wore it, she’d think warmly of him.
John climbed out of bed nervously excited about a goat hunt, knowing he faced a long, hard ordeal. He vividly recalled hunting mountain goats in southern British Columbia, twenty years ago. He had hiked, climbed and stalked until he was sure his legs would give out, but they kept going. I’m sure I can still do it. It’ll be just what I need to get my mind off my worries.
He quickly dressed and found a camouflage coat Trent had left behind. Stepping outside, he glanced up and saw a mostly clear blue sky, just beginning to glow from the rising sun. Lori was already outside stoking the fire and warming her hands. Her long blond hair was twisted into a knot to keep it out of the fire.
“You’re up early.”
“Morning,” she said, turning and smiling. “What’s up for today?”
“I’m thinking of heading up into the mountains to try and supply you with a goatskin coat like Catherine’s.”
“John, you don’t have to do anything special for me. Besides, do you really think that’s a safe idea?”
“With the salmon run almost over, there haven’t been many bears around, so-”
“I meant do you think it’s safe for you. Getting to the mountains is a tough climb.”
“Do you think I’m not up to it?” He was a little concerned himself but wasn’t about to admit it to anyone.
“I just think it sounds risky.”
“I’ll be all right.”
John ate a quick breakfast, then packed a daypack with a tarp, blanket, water bottle, food, a garbage bag for carrying meat, extra clothing and a folding hunting knife. It was certainly possible darkness would fall before he could return, especially carrying a heavy goat quarter. Catherine and Paul argued with him about leaving but eventually succumbed to his stubborn insistence. They, like Lori, seemed to question whether he was still up to such a trek. John was in the best shape he’d been in for at least ten years, and his outdoor skills had been honed by the past few months in the woods. He knew he was as ready as he’d ever be.
Starting up the trail, with the pack on his back and the magnum rifle slung over his shoulder, John decided to set a reasonable pace, knowing that at sixty years old, he didn’t have the stamina he’d had when hunting goats at forty. He also wanted to avoid stumbling into a bear. As he hiked, he concentrated on paying close attention to his surroundings, watching for game and identifying the trees and plants he knew, rather than falling back into worrying about Jenny, Trent and Kevin. For the first few hundred feet, a blue and black Steller’s Jay followed him, landing on a spruce branch, then flying ahead and landing again. Once it realized the hiker wasn’t going to feed it, it turned and flew back toward camp.
Reaching the cottonwood lowlands along the creek, a well-used watering hole for game, he approached quietly from downwind, practicing his stalking skills. He peered around a tree to the creek and marshy area twenty yards away and slightly below him, startled by the sight of a sow grizzly with two large cubs, playing in the stream.
Bears made him nervous as hell since that earlier incident on the trail. He watched them silently and looked for a solid, climbable tree. As he was looking, the wind shifted and carried his scent to the bears. The sow roared and rose up on her hind legs, with her nose high in the air, apparently trying to decide where the scent came from. John froze, partially in terror and partially to conceal his location. She ran ten yards down the stream, in his direction. His heartbeat drummed in his ears. Then the sow turned, looked back and crossed into the woods on the other side, with her cubs following close behind.
His heart still pounded like a jackhammer, so he sat down and breathed deeply. After a few minutes and some sips from his water bottle, he felt shaky but up to continuing his trek. He sure as hell wasn’t going to go back and tell the others a bear had scared him into his senses. The scar tissue on his shoulder itched like a burlap bag.
The trail continued to wind and climb, haphazardly following the creek, mile after mile. As the trail gained elevation, the trees and vegetation thinned and the terrain became more steep and rocky. When it opened up to a quarter-mile-wide meadow, a spectacular view of the jagged, snow capped peaks came into view. Wow! That’s where I’m headed. Past the meadow, the trail climbed steeply a few hundred feet to a lightly wooded plateau. John followed the trail through the woods another quarter mile, where it ended at a primitive campsite, on the shore of a small alpine lake. The lake’s mirror-like surface reflected a perfect image of the gray mountains, which rose steeply behind it. The trees ended with the plateau, but there were patches of green ground cover and white snow on the mountains, with snow becoming prevalent toward the top of the peaks.
Trent had told John about this place, but seeing the rugged beauty for himself made the whole hike worthwhile, even if he returned empty handed.
John glanced at his watch and realized it was already past noon. If he went much farther, it would be difficult to make it back before dark. Trent had been gone for two days, when he brought back that mountain goat. Maybe a good goal would be to make it back to this campsite by dark. He could build a fire and stay reasonably warm for the night, then hike down to camp the next morning.
John took out some venison jerky and water, then sat down behind a large boulder and started glassing the mountainside with his riflescope. A pair of binoculars would’ve been better, but Jenny and Trent had taken the only pair. He’d make do with the riflescope.
Working a section of the mountainside at a time, John examined every detail, especially the white patches. Most of them turned out to be snow, but after twenty minutes, he found a group of white patches that, on close examination, had legs and black horns. The goats were high above him and would require a long hard climb to reach. John kept scanning, looking for a good route up, one that would keep him out of the goat’s line of sight. Goats tend to expect danger from below and to run up hill if they feel threatened, so John wanted to work his way into a position above them.
A steep ridge stood above the goats and to their right. John decided that if he carefully worked his way around the lake, to the right, then stayed on the far side of the ridge, he should stay out of their line of sight. That plan should also keep them from winding him, as long as the breeze didn’t shift much. He tore off another chunk of venison, then packed the gear and shouldered the pack, moving slowly back into the woods. Goats have keen senses of vision, as well as of smell and hearing.
Although the going was tougher, John stayed well back from the edge of the lake, using the cover of the trees. By the time he reached the end of the lake, the ridge was between him and the goats. The terrain rose steeply from the lake, consisting of bare bedrock, loose boulders and patches of ground cover.
John’s breathing became labored, and he could feel his pulse pounding in his temples. He looked back and saw he’d gained a few hundred feet in elevation. This seems like a good time for a rest. He sat down on a boulder and looked out at the panoramic view of the lake below, the lush green valley he had spent the morning climbing through, and the distant ocean sparkling from beyond the network of islands. The sun’s warmth soaked in deep, even in the cool, breezy mountain air.
In a few minutes, John resumed his climb, feeling a slight ache in his thighs, with each step. It was the kind of ache that told him he was getting a good workout. He just had to be sure not to overdo it. John leaned forward and started using his gloved hands to climb, scrambling up a steep section, climbing upright where he could, then using his hands again. Occasionally he’d come to a plateau with green ground cover, using these spots to rest.
He glanced at the ridge, a hundred feet to his left and picked a spot to climb it, another hundred fifty feet above him. Once in position, at the base of the ridge, John rested, knowing it would take all his energy to get up the ridge. Looking up, he realized this would be more of a technical climb than a scramble, the kind you should have a rope and a belayer for. Unfortunately, he had neither. This looked like the safest place to go up, and he wasn’t about to turn back after coming so far. He’d just be very careful. This part of the ridge wasn’t vertical, but it was scarily close. The ridge’s jagged edge stood roughly eighty feet above.
He rubbed his stiff shoulder, the one the bear had chewed on, then tightened his pack, pushed the rifle’s sling over, and started up. His heavy hiking boots weren’t ideal, but they held while he used a combination of smearing and edging to work his way up, always careful not to move his foot until he’d found the best foothold. Two thirds of the way up, his calves starting shaking violently from fatigue. John found a good ledge and stood straight legged with his weight on his heels, resting until the shaking stopped, scanning for handholds and footholds farther up the face. After a few minutes, he resumed his climb.
Almost at the top, he stopped on a narrow ledge, slipped his rifle and pack off, and hooked the pack over a rocky knob. With the rifle in hand, he edged up the last few feet to the top of the ridge, carefully looking over the top. He spotted the goats about a hundred eighty yards out, on a knoll with steeply sloping terrain towering above them. Two goats were lying down, while the largest was standing, looking down at the valley below. John’s pulse was still pounding, and his mouth felt dry. The climb had been damn hard, and now was the moment he’d worked for.
John took off his gloves and placed them between the rifle stock and the lip of the ridge. He fixed the
scope’s crosshairs just behind the goat’s shoulder and gently squeezed the trigger. The rifle’s response was not gentle. The heavy .375 bullet knocked the goat over, and at the same instant, John realized he’d made a terrible mistake. This gun wasn’t the .270 he had hunted with for years, but the type of magnum that kicks so hard you wonder if it was you or the game that got shot. As he was thrown backwards, John flung the rifle out, freeing his hands to grab for rock, but his feet had already lost their ledge. As he started sliding, his hands and feet searched frantically for a hold to stop his descent but found nothing to cling to. Soon, he was sliding fast and gaining speed. When his legs hit an outcropping of rock, they buckled and he was flung outward, rolling and bouncing against the rocky face.
At the bottom of the ridge, his legs hit hard again, shooting up bolts of pain, while John extended his hands to break his fall, snapping both wrists. He continued to roll another forty feet down the mountainside, coming to a rest on a green plateau.
John looked down at his shattered legs and wrists, twisted at unnatural angles, then he looked up at his pack, high above him. He was filled with terror as waves of pain shot through his body. My God, I’m going to die here slowly. He quickly lost consciousness, his head dropping to the green ground cover he was laying in.
Minutes later, he looked up again at the sky and it was a deeper blue than he’d ever seen it, accented by soft white clouds. His body didn’t hurt anymore, in fact he felt unusually strong and healthy. He also realized that he wasn’t on the rocky peak anymore but sitting next to a fire at the alpine campsite. The greens of the forest were sharper than they had been, and the air smelled even cleaner, scented with pine and cedar. Looking toward the lake, he saw his wife Sandra walk up, smiling. She looked radiant and as youthful as when they married, with long flowing brown hair.
“John, everything is going to be okay.” She touched his hand, and he felt warmth and love radiate from her. “We’ll be together soon.”
“What do you mean?”
Suddenly pain shot through his body again, and John opened his eyes. He was back on the mountain, and the sun was now a large orange ball on the distant horizon. The pain started to numb, and he didn’t feel the fear anymore. His clothes were torn badly, and he suspected he was bleeding internally.
Many thoughts raced through his mind. The hunt had been a bad idea. Now Lori, Paul and Catherine were left without a rifle, and they would panic when he didn’t return. He also remembered something he’d told both Jenny and Kevin. When you’re alone in the mountains, one mistake can be fatal.
God I love them. I just wish I could see them again before I go. They must both be alive, or I think they would’ve been in my vision.
He also wished he’d missed the healthy mountain goat that was now lying on the mountainside, going to waste. Maybe it’ll make a good meal for a hungry bear. Maybe I will too.
His thoughts then turned to the significant events of his life, the impact people had on him and that he had on other people. He remembered his parents and his childhood friends. The events he remembered most vividly were those with his own wife and children.
Sometime well after dark, his heart stopped beating and his body grew cold.