“We were three and a half miles from our cars. It wasn’t far at all but it doesn’t matter. If you're a quarter mile away from the road and you have an accident like that, you could really get yourself killed.”
Erik photographing in the Goat Rocks Wilderness in the Gifford-Pinchot Forest
Popping huckleberries into their mouths and hoisting up their backpacking gear, Erik Gauger, 46, and his friend Tim ascended the muddy trails leading to the Indian Heaven Wilderness — a plateau in southern Washington's Gifford-Pinchot National Forest. The sun sparkled through the misty pines and along the paths grew alpine wildflowers and foot-wide Fly Agarics — poisonous, psychoactive red and white mushrooms.
“Backpacking gets you beyond the periphery,” Erik said. “It gets you into a place that is true solitude. Once you have a backpack on, there's something really freeing about that. It feels like you're putting yourself into this moment where all of the worries of the real world go away and it's very beautiful.”
Left to right: A handful of huckleberries, two Fly Agaric mushrooms
Throughout his 20 years of traveling, Erik mostly traveled solo — his backpacking trips were the only times when he would go with others, sometimes with two of his friends: Tim (a former army medic in the National Guard) and Eric (who grew up backpacking with his father, a mountaineer). The three had decided to end their summer of 2020 with an easy one day trip in late September, planning to hike 3.5 miles to Lake Sahalee Tyee, spend the night, and then hike back the next morning.
In the early afternoon, Erik and Tim arrived at the lake, where they met up with Eric. For the first time, Erik tried tenkara rod fishing (a Japanese style of fly fishing) and to his surprise, caught three trout. While his friends filleted the fish and tended to the fire beside their campsite, Erik arranged sheep milk cheeses from France, blue cheese from Rogue River, cured meats like Jamon Serrano and Bresaola, almonds, grapes and figs onto a wooden cutting board.
He was excited to finally contribute incredible food to the campfire spread, as for the past backpacking trips, he had obsessed over minimizing his backpacking weight, eating compressed freeze-dried meals while Eric and Tim sipped on red wine while preparing food like fried eggs with sausages and tomatoes.
As the three friends sat joking around the fire, about to cook the trout, Erik felt the cold setting in and decided to walk down to the lake to change into his thermal underwear base layers and fill up on water. He hurried along the sandy beach of the lake. All of a sudden, he found himself on the ground — his foot had broken through the sand-packed surface and was now locked into a thick layer of mud. Erik pulled his foot out and tried to take a step.
“Although my mind wasn’t fully comprehending this part yet, it was like my foot just wasn’t attached to my leg,” he said. “If I get some form of PTSD to this day, it’s over that one moment of standing back up and trying to walk and just feeling raw meat crunching against the sand.”
Although he didn’t know it at the time, he had broken almost every bone in my ankle — his ankle sockets, tibia, and fibula.
“I was in a state of shock, but state of shock does not mean panic; it means the opposite,” he said. “Your mind is in a state of calm,” he said. “There's sort of like a fog over what's happening.”
He lowered himself to the ground and began yelling for his friends, who rushed over and helped Erik hobble back to camp. Erik knew he had to get out of the wilderness and to a nearby hospital before the darkness set in. But when he climbed onto Tim’s back or tried to walk between his friends, his foot flared with excruciating pain. There was no way for Erik to make it down the trail; he would need to be rescued.
Photos that Erik took in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest
“We were three and a half miles from our cars,” Erik said. “It wasn’t far at all but it doesn’t matter. If you're a quarter mile away from the road and you have an accident like that, you could really get yourself killed. I was lucky that I was with two strong guys who were very lucid about the situation. They were pretty much my heroes.”
Tim and Eric placed Erik beside the campfire in between their tents, helping him into warm layers and tucking an emergency blanket around his body. Then, Eric hiked down the trail looking for cellular reception while Tim walked to the campsites near Blue Lake (just below Lake Sahalee Tyee), looking for help.
Erik was left alone. The quiet enwrapped the “wilderness fairy land” of the alpine lake. In the distance, rose the snowy peaks of the Cascade mountain ranges and the twilight held the threat of rain.
Lying on the ground, unable to move his, Erik flashed back to his solo trip to Cuba a year prior. He had decided to trek down the Ancón Peninsula to photograph flamingos. After being dropped off near a string of empty resort hotels, he began walking through mangroves on an uneven terrain of caked-up dried leaves. It was a hot, humid day and Erik didn’t have water with him. Although he faced no difficulties getting back to the place to his starting point, he realized that he had behaved foolishly.
“Nobody knew where I was,” he said. “I didn't have water; I didn't have sunscreen. And it's very easy in a situation like that for things to go wrong. And there are probably thousands of examples throughout my life where I could have made a mistake and put myself into a situation where I could have really killed myself.”
A few photos that Erik took in Trinidad, Cuba
As luck had it, one of the campers Tim found was a physical therapist and had an emergency beacon. Erik was able to find cellular reception down the trail and contact the Skamania County Sheriff’s office. But since Erik was stable and the darkness had already set it, the sheriff decided that the rescue would have to be postponed to the following morning.
Erik would have to spend the night on the ground outside, for he knew he wouldn’t be able to get over the side of the tent. Strangely, the thought that dominated his mind was what he would tell his freelance clients on Monday morning.
“My body was telling me, ‘we have to get through and make sure everything's gonna be normal,” he said. “I went into this weird phase that got me through it all, despite me being a person who is frightened of all things medical.”
At 8 a.m., after 15 sleepless hours of waiting to be rescued, Erik felt the first prickle of dread: why weren’t the rescuers here yet?
“I remember there were Canada Jays, a type of mountain bird that are usually pretty cute and innocuous, but they were marching around camp, pecking at food, crawling over my sleeping bag, and they might have been the Ringwraiths of Mordor [faceless fictional characters in J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle-earth that symbolize fear],” Erik said. “One even looked at me, as if he knew I couldn’t do anything. I felt so helpless, like I could be pecked to death by Canada Jays.”
Members of the Volcano Rescue Team prepare to carry Erik down the trail
About an hour later, 14 members of the Volcano Rescue Team stepped through the thickets, all wearing bright red jackets. They lifted Erik up onto a stretcher set over a single fat tire and began carrying him down the trail, 6-8 people holding the stretcher at a time while the others guided the entrepauge, pointing out rocks, steep patches and puddles on the paths.
“Seeing the 14 members of the Volcano Rescue Team, working in unison, making jokes, moving like a well-oiled machine, was spectacular,” Erik said.
They made it down in about an hour and a half, after which an ambulance took Erik to the hospital.
“If one thing had gone different, my easy rescue might have gone the other way,” he said. “That’s the lesson for me and hopefully for everybody else. Accidents, even freak accidents like mine, can happen at any time.”
Erik emphasized the importance of remembering the 10 essentials while taking trips into the wilderness: navigation (map, compass, GPS device), headlamp, sun protection, first aid, knife, fire (matches, lighter), shelter, extra food, extra water, and extra clothes.
“It’s best to dot your I’s and cross your t’s on safety, with the full expectation that when something does finally go wrong, you have layers of safety and choices,” he said.