… wherein he plunges head first off a cliff while running from a bear
So there I was, last Thursday afternoon, trotting briskly down a steep section of the Dewey Lakes trails, east of Skagway, Alaska. The weather was a day to die for (and I almost did) — with temperatures in the low sixties and mostly sunny skies.
The longest trail goes out about four miles in what appears to be a loop. The first part is steep, but the path around the lakes is mostly flat, and it’s all heaven on earth for the legs and joints — all single track pine needles, leaves, and loose and damp topsoil but with many rocks and roots to look out for in a constantly changing environment.
I’d left Suzy off in town to shop and told her I’d be back at the cruise ship (Holland America’s MS Veendam) in an hour, or maybe two. I did much more hiking than running because that’s what I was dressed for, being attired in blue jeans and two sweatshirts and carrying my digital camera. But I hustled most of the downhills.
Because the conditions were beautiful and I felt great, I went farther than I expected, so decided to push it harder on the return trip, running mush of the way. Part way back I heard, from no more than 200 feet away: “Oooouuuuurrrrll” I’m thinking: “Ack!! — a bear!” I’d been out over two hours and hadn’t seen another human in an hour and a half, so I high-tailed it out of there to get out of the bear’s sniffing range.
So the adrenaline had subsided somewhat and things were otherwise going great as I was having the time of my life, figuring I’d be out a total of about two and a half hours, when I hit a steep and rocky downhill not far from the trail’s end, one of those hills that a cautious person will walk because it was too steep and hazard-laden for running. In fact, that was my intent, but I approached it too hard. My forward momentum got ahead of me and I lost control — big time.
Suddenly I went headfirst over the right edge of a steep precipice. I instinctively tucked my camera in so it wouldn’t break, but I broke instead. First I hit the right side of my head on something, tearing off my sunglasses, and tumbled eight feet down the hill until I came to a thudding stop when I hit a tree. If it hadn’t been for the tree, there was at least another forty feet on that hill before it reconnected to the trail it was curving around to meet via the switchback I was on.
By happy coincidence on this otherwise people-barren trail, a friendly and experienced young local-living good Samaritan named Mike (age about thirty) happened to be just twenty yards or so behind me and saw everything, whereupon he came running to my aid.
The impact stunned me and knocked the wind out of me, so at first I could indicate only with hand gestures how I was — not good! Finally I gasped that nothing fatal happened, as I began to take inventory.
The biggest problem, which Mike drew to my attention, was that my head was bleeding, and the blood was running down the right side of my face rather vigorously. It was not the sort of blow that likely caused a concussion, although it was hard enough for my taste. It never swelled up. The blood was caused more by scraping my head against the rocks, which happened near the beginning of the fall. The second worst problem was that my lower left back got seriously discombobulated. I believe I tore a muscle, which is still healing today. I ran lightly Saturday and Sunday without too much difficulty, but bending and stretching, or doing anything at all after sitting for a while, is still tough, and I have to proceed cautiously.
Secondary problems were: my right wrist was twisted along the thumb line up through the forearm. Also, I lost patches of skin on my right arm, and on my back, and tore a hole in a sweatshirt. Everything else — feet, joints, toes, legs, etc., is all fine. Also, the camera was fine. The wrist no longer hurts today.
My Oakleys didn’t fare as well. I have M-Frames with large blades, which I’ve used since 1996. The (expensive!) frames are fine, but the right ear of the detachable blades I was wearing broke, so they’re history. They needed replacing anyhow, and I do have a spare set of lighter tints.
It took two minutes of fussing around, leaning against the tree, to figure out my next move. I knew that in a couple of minutes I’d be okay to walk down the rest of the trail, but where I stood I was on very loose dirt, as I strained and held onto the tree to keep from sliding further. I’d need a hand getting back to the trail surface. Mike anchored himself and reached, but I missed the grab, and the dirt I put my left foot on gave way, so down I went again another six feet or more, but this time it didn’t cause any more damage. It just got me really dirty. But the next time he managed to tow me up, albeit with some effort on both our parts.
I’m of the ignore-it-and-maybe-it-will-go-away school of thought about medical treatment. My plan was to get back to the ship (a ten-minute walk), clean up, and see how I felt, which turned out to be a reasonable decision.
I doubted that I needed anything more than a good shower and plenty of Kleenex, so when we came out of the woods Mike and I parted directions, but not before I’d made a new friend and discussed his upcoming plans to spend a year at a research station in Antarctica, which made the experience worth having.
As I walked across First Avenue in Skagway toward the dock, a lady ranger saw me, with blood still running down my face, and came running over to know if I needed help, offering to take me to the medic in town, or at least to help me find the public restroom just down the street. (I hadn’t seen my face myself yet. It turned out to look worse than I realized, and I’m glad I didn’t go shopping for an anniversary card for my wife looking like that, which was what I originally planned to do when I got back.) I was willing to keep on trekking back to the boat, but was using my conveniently bright red hooded sweatshirt to daub my head. As I got closer to the boat, I put it on and pulled the hood up so as not to shock any of the white-hairs on the boat. Of course I had to go through photo-check security, which gave the guard a moment to pause and consider, but by this time he recognized me, and I opted not to explain myself, passing through as if all was normal.
Suzy is used to me, so was not particularly shocked when I walked into our stateroom and presented myself. I managed to clean up adequately to enjoy dinner that night.
It’s now Monday, and we got home less than four hours ago. I’m fine, except my back is still tender, so I have to take it easy for a few more days. Inconveniently, I’ve got the Javelina Jundred 100-mile trail race coming right up (in 26 days), so I hope it’s okay by then.
- Skagway – Skagway, AK (travelpod.com)