Mike loves going backpacking over Labor Day Weekend. He starts planning the next trip the day after he returns from the last. This year it was backpacking into Naturalist Basin in the High Uinta Mountains of Utah. Our daughters have planned on this most of the year. Anna has done this trail several times with Mike, I have gone on this trail once before and Charlotte has been on ones in this area. Many others were invited to join us. The final count ended up being Mike and I, daughters Charlotte and Anna, Anna's friend, and our niece who had just moved out for her freshman year at BYU. To respect privacy I will refer to the last two as A.F. and Niece.
Naturalist Basin is a stunning area. Beautiful lakes surrounded by high mountain pastures and thick forests, and a variety of wildlife. It is bear country, but we have never seen a bear. We frequently see elk, and hear them bugling at all times. We camp by a remote lake, 7 miles from the trailhead, fed by a stream that flows from a waterfall through a meadow. Even though we see many other hikers on the main trail, once we make our way to the lake, we rarely see another person until we return to the main trail.
Naturalist Basin is also a true wilderness area. The trail is 90 percent like a small boulder field that is either going up or down, rarely level, most of it strewn with small rocks among the boulders. The trail is clear during the daylight, but impossible to see at night, even with a light. Hikers have become lost in this area and never seen again.
Mike goes to great lengths to make sure everyone is prepared. He gathered food supplies and equipment all year. He divided up basic foods into individual packs for each hiker. Charlotte and Anna went over supply lists with A.F. and Niece. We made sure everyone had backpacking experience. Mike and I made arrangements to meet the Utah group at the trailhead. We checked again that everyone had layers for cold nights, water and food for the trail, divided up the equipment, went over the trail map, and reminded everyone of the rules. Never leave the trail, wait at the trail forks for those behind, stay with at least one other person in the group and never, never, never hike alone. I am a slow hiker and Mike promised to stay with me. Anna and A.F. are fast, and Anna is very familiar with where we were going, so we agreed that the two of them could go ahead and meet us at the final stream crossing, after the final fork from the main trail. Charlotte and Niece stuck together, and would wait for Mike and I every once in a while. We had been hiking a few hours, Charlotte, Niece, Mike and I had met up again. Mike showed the map to Niece again, pointing out that we would always be taking the left fork, and where we would meet Anna. He said again, "If you get ahead of us, wait at the fork". We started hiking again and Charlotte was telling me more about her new job. Niece moved on ahead. When we got to the fork, she wasn't there. We figured she had gone ahead to where Anna was waiting at the stream crossing with A.F. We slowly hiked over the roughest part of the trail and when we got close to the stream Charlotte went ahead. Within minutes Anna came running down the trail. She said Niece had never reached them, and must have taken the right fork instead of the left. She was going to run the trail and find her. I filled her water bottle and she ran down the trail. Mike and I were immediately worried. We hurried to the stream where we decided that Charlotte would wait with hers and Anna's packs. Mike, A.F. and I hiked the last mile to the lake. They left their packs and went back to help search. There was less than an hour of light left. Anna had no light, and she was wearing light hiking clothes. Niece had her pack with clothes, sleeping bag, some food and water, no light. I set up the tent, and prayed, and paced, and prayed. I was now terrified for all of them. Anna was trail running a rocky boulder strewn trail in the dark without light, Niece could be lost who knows where, and the others could lose the trail in this dark. After 10 o'clock, Mike, Charlotte, Anna and A.F. made it back to the campsite. No Niece. They had found Anna a few miles down the trail trying to make her way back, inconsolable at not finding niece.
Our prayers changed from pleas to find her, to pleas for her comfort and safety through the night until we could search again in the morning. Needless to say, we did not sleep much. As I kept looking out at the sky to see if it was getting any lighter, I thought about the news stories in recent years of those who had been lost in this area. The most hopeful was about a boy who was found after a week. I was glad Niece was not from Utah, and so was not aware of these stories. I kept worrying about what she was going through, and crying at the thought of what I was going to tell her parents.
We were up before the sun. As we filtered water, and filled our daypacks with enough food for ourselves and Niece, and tried to eat enough so we had strength to search, we went over every scenario. We decided to hike back to the last fork, leave A.F. there to relay messages to hikers. Mike, Charlotte and Anna would search the branches of the other fork. I would hike back to the trailhead, hoping she had hiked back to the car. If I didn't find her, I would drive until I had cell phone coverage, and I would call Search and Rescue. If the others found her, they would send Charlotte to run out and catch me.
As we hiked the 2 1/2 miles to the fork, I thought of Anna running this trail in the near dark. She ran over 4 miles in an hour. I was amazed she hadn't been injured. At the fork we went our separate ways. I hiked the 4 1/2 miles back to the trail head faster than ever. I spoke with every person I saw, and many offered to help search and relay information. I only stopped once for a few minutes to think and pray. Every time I felt exhausted and overwhelmed, I thought, "If this were my child, I wouldn't want anyone to give up."
At the trail head, one hiker who had verified she was not at one of the other lakes asked how he could know if we had found her. I told him to watch the news, and if this was not one of the stories, then we had found her. I drove out and got signal, called Search and Rescue and arranged to meet them at the trail head. I left messages for her parents to call me. I reached her brother and told him. He assured me she would not be one to leave the trail, but she was not likely to ask for help from another hiker. Good news and bad news. I drove back to the trail head. Charlotte was waiting for me there. She had run 8 miles out to tell me they had found her safe over 3 miles in from the fork. Other hikers had seen Niece and directed Mike and the girls to her. After giving thanks, we drove out to notify Search and Rescue, and tell her brother to keep trying to reach his parents with the good news.
When we got back to the trail head, Mike was there. He had made sure Niece was well, and Anna and A.F. took her to the camp site. He hurried out to meet us and help us filter more water for the hike back in. He and I just held each other and sobbed with relief. People in the parking lot must have been wondering what was happening.
We made our way back to the camp with gratitude and relief motivating us, rather than fear and worry. I travelled that 7 mile trail four times this weekend. This is one instance where familiarity breeds contempt. After a long hike the day before, and a sleepless night, Mike and Charlotte had logged 20 miles on a rough trail that day.
Niece told us she had not noticed the fork, had not realized we were not close behind her, and did not see other hikers on the trail. After a moment of panic when she realized she would be alone in the dark, she prayed for help, felt assured she would be all right. She bundled up in her sleeping bag and waited through the night there on the trail.
There's the labor and the terror. The miracles are that no one was seriously ill or injured from this, Niece was found within a day, and she had the courage and faith to make it through such a night, we were able to find the strength to search and bring her back to safety, the night she was alone on the trail was the only night where the temperature stayed above freezing.
Some of the things I learned, or remembered - We can do so much more than we think when we don't try to do it alone. Help and direction come in ways we can't imagine. I have amazing daughters - They didn't hesitate at all to do what needed to be done to bring Niece back, even though it meant risking their own lives. We are all at some point either losing our way, trying to find our way, or helping someone find their way back home.
Here's the other thing I learned - It will be a while before I go on a trip without being able to sleep in a warm comfortable bed. I think Mike learned that as well.