By Wes Blalock
“That’s funny,” she said out loud.
Buoyed atop the snow by government issued snowshoes, Ranger Birdie McLaren emerged from a wood and stared out across a meadow. Or what had been a meadow a few short months ago. Human tracks led east through the knee deep snow, across the clearing and into the forest, following the Lacy Trail. Melting in the sun, the tracks looked unformed, with flat impressions at the bottom from someone wearing smooth-soled shoes, not even hiking boots. He was easily two hundred pounds and tall; his tracks pushed deep toward the ground, but he was still able to step out of the snow.
Winter made the trail dangerous and Birdie had personally closed it weeks ago - it wouldn’t reopen until the June thaw, almost five months away. She scanned the pines and sequoias bowing and creaking under the weight of snow settled on their limbs, the only other sound the occasional crack of a branch giving way and dropping with a thud into the hard pack. Otherwise the forest was silent, sound deadened by the blanket of white.
Birdie adjusted her sunglasses to prevent snow blindness from the glare and pulled her sheepskin trapper hat lower on her head. Not the beautiful, iconic Stetson authorized by the National Park Service, nor her favorite non-regulation boonie hat which she often hid from her supervisors, but a warm, comfortable cold weather accessory. Hiking up her gun belt, Birdie shuffled forward, protected from the cold by the layer of polypropylene thermals beneath her black snow pants, and green, wool coat with NPS patches on the shoulders. Birdie’s nose and cheeks burned from the wind and she pressed her gloved hands against them, warming her skin before tugging her wool scarf up from around her neck to cover her face. She paused before grabbing the radio from her belt and pressing the button to transmit.
“Cary Valley Base, 423.” She waited and then repeated the call.
“423, this is Cary Valley.” A female voice answered.
Birdie gave the dispatcher a quick summary of what she had found.
“What’s going on out there?” her supervisor’s voice cut in.
“Hey, Boss. Looks like a hiker walked through the meadow recently. No tracks coming back out.” Birdie scanned the trees as she spoke.
“Stay safe and keep us updated,” her supervisor advised. “We’re going to send some snowmobiles your way.”
“Will do,” she answered.
Glancing at her watch, Birdie turned and snow-shoed into the woods. She was at least a three hour hike from the trailhead and moving further away. So (doing the math), a really, really, long trek back once she found him, and sundown was no more than two hours away. Without the sunlight, the temperature would drop significantly and Birdie had seen how quickly people die in the cold. After another hour shoeing up the mountain, Birdie grabbed her radio and tried for a signal.
“Cary Valley Base, 423,” she said into the radio. Nothing. She tried again three more times without luck. No signal. She sighed. Other rangers often bought their own equipment, including satellite phones and Birdie could understand why.
Giving up on the radio, she followed the tracks along the tree line, passing a small stand of Douglas firs before the trail ended abruptly in a fracture, the snow dropping down the hillside, away from her. Avalanche. Birdie looked down the flow and saw a dark shape at the bottom, about two hundred feet away.
“Oh, shit.” Birdie shuffled carefully down the hillside sideways, kicking her snowshoes into the ice as she descended, keeping her feet level. Nearing the bottom, she heard the man shouting for help, lying on his back, as though he was making snow angels.
“Help me!” he shouted as she scrambled toward him.
“I’m here!” she shouted back, shucking her backpack into the snow and kneeling down to look at his face. He was young and fresh-faced, built like a football player and visibly younger than her.
“I’m Ranger Birdie McLaren. I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” She smiled. “What’s your name?” She assessed his clothing: blue jeans, a cable sweater and cowboy boots. Terrible cold weather gear.
“Drew Swanson. I think my back is broken,” he breathed heavily.
Birdie’s hands vibrated with adrenaline as she took off her gloves and evaluated him. Lying with his head lower than his feet probably helped, but his fingertips were already bluish-white, and felt hard and waxy to the touch. Frostbite was already setting in and he needed to be removed from the elements.
“How long have you been here?” She checked his neck and head.
“I’ve been here since Friday,” Drew said. “The snow gave way and I fell.”
Birdie refused to let the shock show on her face; surviving four days lying in the snow was a miracle. She leaned forward, running her hands over his limbs and body, checking for injuries, asking what hurt and what didn’t. She found a break in his right leg below the knee and in his right arm above the elbow. He could move his hands, but not his feet. No bleeding, no tender areas indicative of internal injuries.
“I was sure I was dead,” Drew whimpered. Birdie couldn’t tell, however, if the tone of his voice was relief or dread.
“How long have you been without food?” she asked him.
Birdie paused and looked up at the sky, the sun edging its way below the tops of the trees. “I have food, but we are still a long way from ‘rescued.’ Are you thirsty? When did you last drink something?” She asked in paramedic speak, digging through her backpack.
“I’ve been putting ice in my mouth and letting it melt.” He smiled, grimly.
Alarmed, Birdie pulled out her radio and tried calling dispatch, twice. No luck. She knew that his body temperature was lowering considerably each time he melted the ice in his mouth.
How much does a satellite phone cost, anyway? she thought, exasperated.
“Are they coming?” Drew asked, his face suddenly slack with fear.
“Not right away.” Birdie took an emergency blanket from her backpack and wrapped it around Drew as best she could without jostling him. Folding up a second blanket, Birdie tucked it under his head to insulate him from the cold snow beneath. She pulled off her own hat, trying and failing to fit it over Drew’s much larger head, before resigning herself to pulling the blanket up and wrapping it around him. Sitting back, she looked down at him and scrunched up her face.
“Well, we won’t put that photo on Facebook, will we. You look like a crazy man.” She made a face at him. “I’m going to have to go get help.” She pulled her trapper hat back on.
“Don’t leave me alone!” Drew shouted, struggling up from his supine position.
“Whoa!” Birdie pushed down on his shoulders, holding him in place. “I’ll only be gone a little while. I don’t have a radio signal here. I have to radio for help.”
“No! Don’t leave me alone! I can’t…I can’t be alone anymore.” Birdie saw Drew’s eyes flash wild as flop sweat broke out on his face.
“Wait, wait, wait. Calm down. I’ll see what I can do.” Birdie kept pressure on his shoulders until she felt him relax. As she had estimated, Drew was easily six feet tall and 230 pounds of muscle. With him nearly twice her size, she was no match if she had to keep him physically under control. Birdie measured her options. It would take hours before a search party found them by chance, so she couldn’t wait. She couldn’t possibly drag him far enough to get a radio signal. Drew needed a hospital right away. “You stay right here. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
“Where are you going?” Drew asked, panic edging into his voice.
“You need to be stabilized before we do anything else. I just need to find a couple of good branches.” Pulling a roll of duct tape from the backpack, she set it on top of the emergency blanket, then grabbed a mean looking hunting knife from a side pocket and walked to a nearby tree.
“Where are you from?” She inspected the low branches within her reach before moving to the next tree.
“I’m from Sacramento. I go to University of Northern California at Rocklin,” he told her.
“UNC Rocklin, that’s a good school. What’s your major?” Birdie continued to inspect the branches nearby.
“Pre-med. I wanted to help people,” he said. She paused.
“That’s why I became a park ranger. People think parks are completely safe and then they drown in rivers, fall off mountains, and,” she looked back at him. “Freeze in snow.”
“Yeah. I was taking a picture when the snow gave way under me. I got bounced around pretty good so I thought I’d better just stay still,” he said.
“Good call,” she told him. Choosing some suitable branches, she hacked them away from the trees. “I’m going to get you out of here as quickly as I can.”
“Okay.” Drew took a few very deep breaths.
“So what happened to your camera?” Birdie went back to the tree branch, but glanced over her shoulder. The shock of broken bones alone could kill him, but add the cold and she had serious concerns that she wasn’t working fast enough.
“Oh.” He seemed confused for a moment. “I must have lost it in the snow when I fell.”
“What brought you out here anyway? These trails closed weeks ago.” Once she removed the branches, she cut away all the limbs and sliced off the bark until she had several straight sticks.
“I know, but it was so beautiful and I thought it would be nice to be the only one out here.” Drew laughed a small laugh. “But I didn’t know it would be so hard.”
Carrying the bundle of sticks, she dropped them in the snow beside him. “Well, the cold is pretty tough on people trying to hike, that’s why the trail is closed,” she offered diplomatically, but felt he was talking about something other than the weather.
Without waiting for a response, she cut strips of duct tape, and spent a few minutes splinting Drew’s broken arm and leg. “Do you have a hotel room in town? Or are you staying at the Lodge?”
“Um.” Drew hesitated. “I just came up for a day trip. I thought I would be quick.”
Birdie’s forehead crinkled. “So you just drove in from Sac to hike for a couple hours and then drive back home?” Sacramento was easily a three hour drive away.
“Yeah. Just a day trip,” Drew sighed.
“Okay, so how is school going this quarter?” Birdie asked, working diligently beside him. She taped his broken arm to his body and his legs to each other as he grimaced and whimpered and winced.
Drew took a breath and started to speak, but then stopped. He took another breath, “It’s going okay. It’s not what I thought it would be.”
Birdie looked at his face as he stared up into the sky. “Really? What’s wrong?”
“Nothing, really. It’s just kinda lonely,” he said.
“Oh, did you try joining any clubs or groups? You’re a big guy, are you an athlete?” she asked.
Drew’s breath caught in his throat. “I’m on the Lacrosse Team, but I’m a sophomore, so I don’t…play much.”
Birdie saw his lip quiver and a few tears had run down over his temples and were icing up faintly. Well, that’s not good, she thought. The temperature was dropping fast as the sun swung lower in the sky.
“How about a girlfriend?” she asked, but he jammed his eyes shut and turned his face away. Birdie had struck a nerve. She set that aside, for the moment.
“Okay, I have to start building a fire,” she announced, before stepping away. Burned out stumps stuck out of the snow like rocks in a river of white. Birdie cut pieces from them and the stump of an old growth live oak, out of place at this altitude, donated a large flat piece of bark to Birdie’s task, becoming a platform for her future fire. It was a wonder Drew had survived this long; he wouldn’t make it another night without fire, even with the blanket. Birdie was getting cold as well. Pulling the wood beside him, Birdie burrowed into her backpack, digging out her fire kit and opening it.
If only that guy in the Jack London story had dryer lint and paraffin wax, she thought. Within minutes, the fire smoldered and caught, flames flickering.
“That’s a pretty neat trick,” Drew said, watching her from the corner of his eye. “Is that a Native American thing?”
With her cinnamon skin and straight black hair, Birdie was frequently mistaken for Mexican, so wearing her hair in twin braids usually guaranteed her heritage would be recognizable.
“I think it’s a Boy Scout thing, the fire starters. But who knows where it began. The only Native American trick I really know is,” she leaned in close, sharing a secret. “There are no Native American tricks.” Birdie smiled. “Neolithic cultures tend to develop similar methods to achieve the same goals.”
“Oh, sorry.” Drew looked back at the sky. “Is ‘Birdie’ a Native American name?”
“Now, that’s a better question,” she said. “My real name is ‘Huittsuu.’ It means ‘little bird’ in Paiute.” She drew some more items from the backpack. Pulling a headlamp over her hat, she turned it on, the LED light illuminating her work. In a metal cup, she heated some snow over the fire, and when steam wafted off the top, she dropped in a tea bag. “I’m going to give you some tea to drink, try to warm you up.”
“Oh, what kind?” he asked.
“Orange zest and rose hip,” Birdie said, reading the package. “I also have some sandwiches. Veggie bacon, lettuce, tomato and avocado or egg salad with soy mayonnaise.”
“Veggie bacon? Soy mayonnaise?” He knitted his brow. “I guess the veggie bacon.”
She placed a bendy straw in the cup and the end in Drew’s mouth. He sucked down the warm tea until it was nearly gone, then felt a sandwich appear in his good hand. While he ate, Birdie made another cup of tea and when he had finished that as well, she began cleaning her utensils.
“Wow, you certainly are prepared,” Drew said in awe.
“Definitely a Boy Scout thing.” She began repacking her bag while another cup of tea brewed, then she placed it near his head so that he could put the straw back into his mouth himself.
“Were you a Boy Scout?” he asked, uncertainly.
“No, but I dated an Eagle Scout, does that count?” she asked with a laugh.
She noticed immediately that Drew became quiet. “Okay, Drew. I have to go get help. If we wait, you might get worse and, this far from a hospital, that could be really, really bad.” Birdie put her backpack on and reset her feet into the bindings of the snowshoes. “I’ll come back as soon as I’ve radioed for help.”
Knowing that he couldn’t move due to the way she had secured him with splints, Birdie took off in the dark without giving him an opportunity to protest. She had to “step kick” her way up the hillside, using the snowshoes to cut into the frozen glaze so that it was like climbing stairs. At the top of the hill, she tried her radio again. No luck. Shoeing through the woods, Birdie sang songs to keep her pace and to keep her mind working as she processed what Drew had, and more importantly, had not told her. She stopped and huffed and puffed as she looked around at the snow, finding her location in the park in relation to the moon, the trail, and the meadows nearby. At the end of each song, she pulled up her radio and called the ranger station.
“423, Do you need rescue?” The voice showed clear concern.
“Base, I have a hiker down on Lacy Trail. Patient has a spine injury, broken arm, and broken leg and signs of frostbite. May be suffering from hypothermia, as well. His name is Drew Swanson, about twenty years old. Out of Sacramento.”
“Copy, 423. Are you okay?”
Birdie smiled a big smile, feeling a little safer, just knowing a human being was at the other end of the radio signal.
“I’m good, just cold and tired. I’m about two miles from the hiker, to get a signal. Once you have an ETA, I’ll go back to him and provide additional care until rescue arrives,” she said.
“We should have snowmobiles to your location within two hours. Oh and your party is listed as a missing person, at-risk, out of UNC Rocklin Police,” the dispatcher responded.
“Well, he’s found, now.” Birdie put the radio back on her belt and took a good swig of water from her hydration pack. A little more than an hour to get back to Drew then an hour’s wait for rescue. Shuffling along above the snow, she headed back the way she had come.
Birdie sang Simon and Garfunkel’s “Hazy Shade of Winter,” but heard the Bangles cover in her head, then worked through all the winter songs that she could remember, managing her pace. When she reached Drew, she slowed and paused, near exhaustion. Side-stepping along the hillside to avoid falling, she made her way down to him, dumping her backpack into the snow and checking his condition.
“Are they coming?” he asked. “It seemed like you were only gone for a few minutes.”
Birdie grabbed the bark platform beneath the fire and moved the pile of embers a little closer to Drew. “Rescuers will be here with snowmobiles in a little bit.”
“Oh, okay.” he said.
“It takes a while to get here,” she explained. “So you said that your car was at the trailhead? We’ll need to take care of it while you’re in the hospital.”
“Oh, yeah,” he corrected. “Actually, I hitched a ride into the park. I…I wasn’t sure how long I would be here.”
“So are your parents in Sacramento?” Birdie asked, taking off her gloves and warming her hands at the fire as she fixed it.
“Yeah. They don’t know I’m here, though.” Drew turned his face toward the fire. “Boy that feels good.”
Birdie took a pen and notepad from her pocket. “Why don’t you give me their names and a phone number and I’ll give them a call as soon as I get back to the station.”
He acquiesced and she wrote down the information, noticing as they chatted that Drew’s eyes began to flutter and his voice was starting to fade. She moved the fire around him, warming him on all sides and saw that his face became blanched and drawn. In the distance, she heard the buzzing of the snowmobiles and packed her gear, keeping a close eye on the rising and falling of Drew’s chest.
Then she woke him, calling his name until he responded, rather than risk more injury by shaking him. “They’ll be here soon.”
“What’s going to happen to me?” Drew asked, apprehension in his voice.
Birdie sighed. Throughout the evening, she had watched the dread spread over him like a fungus. Setting aside her backpack, she moved closer.
“That depends on what you did,” she told him, pointedly.
Drew avoided her eyes. “How soon do you think I’ll be out of the hospital?”
“Well, they’ll have to evaluate you and treat your cold injuries.” Birdie reached into her shirt pocket, inside her wool jacket and pulled out a small black box. She slipped the box into an outer jacket pocket and pressed a button. “But it will also depend on what you tell the staff at Psychiatric Emergency Services.”
“Why would I go there?” he asked, defensively.
“Unfortunately, any time someone tries to kill themselves, that’s where they go.” She turned her face back to the forest, scanning for the snowmobiles that sounded just over the ridge.
Drew appeared ready to contradict her and then his face went slack. “How did you know?”
“You told me,” she said. “It was pretty clear that you came up here to die. You hitch-hiked in on a weekend, hiked hours into the snow on a closed trail, no food, inadequate clothing…You had absolutely no plan to go home. So, what made you come up here to die?”
She watched him cry silently as they both listened to the steady whine of snowmobiles ebb and flow in the dark woods. His secret seemed to push against his skin, bloat him and fight for release. He opened his mouth and a croak erupted like a belch, but Birdie recognized it as a sob, strangling in his breath.
“I killed her,” he whispered through tears.
Birdie was taken aback by his brutal revelation, it being much more than she had anticipated. She leaned forward. “Drew, remember that I’m a peace officer. You are not in custody and you don’t have to tell me anything you don’t want to.” She pressed gently on his right shoulder to remind him that she was there.
“I have to tell you.” His sentences were punctuated by sobs. “I took her there. I told her we were having dinner. She didn’t know it was supposed to be a prank. She didn’t know what they were gonna do to her. I knew. I didn’t know, but I knew.”
She watched the tears flow freely now.
He continued. “She saved up her pills in the hospital. Took them all at once when she got home.” Drew turned back and looked at her, stricken. “I killed her.”
Two snowmobiles roared up to the top of the ridge like giant, single-eyed bugs, sputtering and spitting, and paused. Birdie signaled them with her flashlight and drew them into the ravine. As the snowmobiles crashed through the snow, Birdie stood and waved until they reached her, relieved to have help.
With the other two rangers, Birdie placed Drew on a backboard and then loaded him carefully onto a sled towed behind one of the snowmobiles. As she strapped him in, Birdie asked, “So what was your plan?”
“I thought I would just be able to lie down in the snow until I fell asleep. I thought it would be quiet and peaceful and easy.”
“Pretty miserable, though, wasn’t it?” she asked him.
“Yeah.” He closed his eyes.
“There’s no problem that suicide can’t make much, much worse.” She patted him on the shoulder one last time.
The ranger with the sled turned the throttle and slowly crawled up the hillside. The other ranger turned to Birdie.
“Can I give you a lift back to your truck?” He grinned, holding out a helmet. “Or would you rather shoe back out.”
“Very funny.” She took the helmet and put it on, her trapper hat disappearing into her backpack. Hopping onto the snowmobile, she held on as the ranger sped away and watched the forest whip by.
Several hours later, after Birdie found her way back to the warmth and safety of the Ranger Station, she traded her winter gear for sweats then dragged out her duffel bag. She sat at a desk in the operations unit, where she wrote her reports and picked up the receiver of an old pushbutton phone, dialing a number.
She waited for the phone to ring a few times and a voice answered. Birdie fiddled with the digital voice recorder she had placed on her desk. “Yes, UNC Rocklin Police Department? This is Ranger Birdie McLaren, National Park Service. I need to talk to an officer about a rape that may have occurred in your jurisdiction.”
Birdie waited, on hold again.
One of the clerks stopped on the way out of the office. “Looks like you saved a life,” he said quietly and waved, smiling.
Birdie waved back. “We’ll see,” she said. “We’ll see.”
Copyright © 2019 Wes Blalock. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!