Nightmare in the Woods

Pamela Salant expected a quiet evening camping near Mount Hood, Oregon — then things took a horrible turn.

Day 1
It was shaping up to be the perfect weekend. Last July, Pamela Salant, a 28-year-old preschool teacher, and her boyfriend, Aric Essig, 31, who works for a sailboat company, had driven two hours east from Portland, Oregon, to camp overnight in the Mount Hood National Forest. They planned to hike a mile and a half through the forest to Bear Lake, spend the night, and walk back out on Sunday to attend a birthday party for two of her students. It was sunny, clear, and fine.

But during the hike, the subject of their on-again/off-again relationship came up, and the tension between the two began to rise. By the time they set down their packs at the campsite on the south shore of the lake, Salant was blind with anger. “I’m sorry, Pam,” Essig said. “I’m going to see if I can find a better spot for us to camp,” she told him, stalking off along the western shore of the lake. It was one o’clock.

Bear Lake is only about 100 yards long, hemmed in by trees, which forced Salant to drift inland. With no trail to follow, she descended a drainage basin, climbed up the other side, and scrambled atop a pile of rocks. Where she expected the lake to be, she saw nothing but steep forest and, far beyond, a snowcapped peak. She began backtracking through the dense woods, but the farther she walked, the more confused she became.

“Aric!” she called. “Help!”

No response. She kept moving until she came to a stream. She knew that the creeks here flowed northward toward the Columbia River, several miles away. But what good was that when she didn’t know anything else? She clambered up a series of cliffs to get the lay of the land, climbing a dangerous scree slope and topping out on a boulder. She scanned the horizon. Nothing but trees. She’d been hiking for six hours, and the sun would be setting soon. With a new panic, she began to descend. There, far below! A lake! But was it Bear Lake? It didn’t matter — any lake ought to have trails or people along it. She picked her way down to the lower elevations, traversing the cliffs as carefully as she could.

[pullquote] When Salant awoke a few minutes later, the first thing she noticed was the cliff she’d fallen from looming 40 feet above her. [/pullquote]

Then, a misstep, and darkness.

When Salant awoke a few minutes later, the first thing she noticed was the cliff she’d fallen from looming 40 feet above her. The second was that her left leg curved strangely outward below the knee. “OK,” she told herself, “my leg’s broken.” Surprisingly, the injury was not excruciating — some primal part of her had taken over, allowing her to go into problem-solving mode: She was hurt and alone with night coming on and absolutely no gear. All she wore were shorts, a tank top, socks, and boots. She could hear water trickling somewhere in the middle distance, probably a stream. She would sleep right here for the night, and in the morning she would follow the sound of the water to the creek.

Day 2
nightmare in the woods, Pamela SalantIn the middle of the cold night, she awoke and felt that her left leg was wet. Hours later, at sunrise, she saw that the moisture was blood. She had a deep gash on her right leg — a result of her fall — and it had bled all over her broken left leg. She could see its gleaming white bone with folds of torn and bloodied pink tissue above it. Once again, she processed this fresh horror with a strange detachment. “All right,” she said to herself. “I need to get to the water. I’m thirsty, and I need to clean up this cut.”
Dragging herself along in an awkward crab-walk, she found the creek a quarter mile away. It took her an hour to get there, but she was upbeat. Good, she thought. Either this will lead me back to Bear Lake or to the Columbia — either way, I’m saved. She drank and washed out her injury. The water was pure and beautiful. Magical, she thought. She could feel it rejuvenating her. Salant took one last sip, then set out down the creek, scooting along on her butt.

The area to the west of Bear Lake contains some of the country’s tallest timber and most inhospitable terrain. The stream Salant had chosen to follow is called Lindsey Creek, and it drops toward the Columbia River in a deep, waterfall-studded gorge so difficult to navigate that she may have been the first ever to attempt its descent. Still, she took a moment to admire it. The waterfalls, the ancient forest — they reminded her why she loved coming to this spot in the first place.

All day long she picked her way carefully down the gorge, clinging to the slopes at the edge of the creek. She moved methodically, plotting every step, crossing and recrossing the stream to avoid obstacles, and balancing on fallen logs or clinging to tree roots. She came to the top of an outcropping above the stream and stopped. There was seemingly no good way to go. Forward was too steep, backward was too steep, left was too steep. She could proceed down the opposite bank if she could cross the stream — but it was a 12-foot drop to the water. For an hour she sat and contemplated her plight. Then she jumped.

“I can’t believe I’m doing this!” she screamed, hurtling down into the shallow creek. She landed on her right leg and pitched over onto her side, popping out of the water seconds later.

“OK,” she said, panting and dragging herself out of the frigid water. “What’s next?”

[pullquote] The waterfalls, the ancient forest — they reminded her why she loved coming to this spot in the first place. [/pullquote]

In the afternoon, she heard a helicopter. Is that for me? One swept overhead, but the firs obscured her location. Maybe I should just sit in one spot and wait, she thought. But no — she was too cold for that. Even though the day was warm, the V-shaped gorge was shaded, and she’d spent all day slipping into the cold water.
Around 4 p.m., just as the sun was hitting the gorge, Salant found a flattish spot between two trees and curled up to sleep, shivering. Use all your resources, she told herself. Her tank top had a built-in bra, which she pulled out and folded over her head for warmth. She removed the drawstring from her shorts, poked holes in her shirt and shorts just at the hips, and ran the string through to pull them together and seal in the heat. Then she peeled strips of dry moss from a nearby rock, covering her legs and stuffing her clothes with it.

She thought about Aric. He must have called for those helicopters. How stupid that their last exchange had been so nasty. It was Sunday evening now; she was supposed to be at her students’ birthday party.

Day 3
At the first hint of light, she arose, desperate to be moving again. She looked down at her legs. The gash on her right thigh still yawned fiercely, and the curve of her left leg made it appear vulnerable, pathetic. She felt that sudden strange detachment again and a kind of maternal responsibility toward her legs, as if they were children tugging at her sleeve. God, she thought, can’t you just take care of yourselves?

She nursed them along down the gorge. Somehow it made her feel less lonesome to have someone to nurture, even if it was only her own legs. She washed out the wound on her right leg and wrapped it in her underwear. Later in the morning, she blundered through some thornbushes, and it occurred to her that she might use thorns to suture the cut. She stabbed at the folds of skin, trying to pin the laceration closed. But she could never do more than skewer one edge of the injury.

Helicopters flew overhead once in late morning and again in early afternoon, but Salant was never in enough of a clearing to flag them. So she pushed on. She came across a familiar-looking green bush studded with pink berries and thought she remembered Aric identifying the plant as salmonberry. She nibbled at one of the fruits and spit it out. Waited a while, then sampled another. Satisfied that the berries weren’t toxic, she gorged on them.

At nightfall, she tried to sleep, but pain and fear made that impossible. As she lay awake, visions of her childhood came to mind. Random scenes — church on a Sunday morning with her family, trotting around the running track as a high school athlete.

She so wanted to be with Aric and her family. She wanted to hold them and shout how much she loved them. There were things she still wanted to do — learn to play the fiddle and have children. But in the black of night, she recalled a dear friend, Luke, who had died two years earlier. If I don’t make it, she thought, at least I’ll be with Luke somewhere.

Day 4
When the sun rose Tuesday morning, Salant gritted her teeth. “I’ve had enough of this,” she said. “I’m going to be found today. Or I’m going to die. But the journey is coming to an end.” She made her way to a flat rock with a clearing overhead — a good place to be spotted. For three hours, she waited, shivering, starving, thirsty. No helicopters.

She scooted uphill a little to sit in the sun. A fat green caterpillar shrugged along nearby. She picked it up and bit into it. It cracked apart, spurting a metallic flavor into her mouth. Ugh! Then she spied a meaty-looking slug. She’d always wondered what one might taste like, and after plopping it into her mouth she knew. Never in her life had she tasted anything more repulsive. She spit it out and scooped up handfuls of water in a vain attempt to erase the awful gluey film on her tongue.

Thwup, thwup, thwup.

Helicopters! She skidded back down to the flat rock where she’d spent her morning. A chopper passed overhead. Salant tried to stand but toppled back onto the rock. Then the helicopter flew off.

Did they see me or not? she wondered. Across the stream was another salmonberry bush. I’ll count to 500, and if they don’t come back, I’ll go over there and eat some berries. She counted as slowly as she could. Four hundred ninety-nine, 500. Hell.

She was crawling to the berry bush when she heard “You must be Pam.”

“What are you guys doing out here?” Salant asked.

Four members of a volunteer alpine rescue team called the Hood River Crag Rats had spent the day descending Lindsey Creek. They had been in radio contact with the Oregon Army National Guard helicopter that had spotted her. “I can’t believe there are people who do this. I love you,” she cried.

Half an hour later, a medevac chopper arrived. With no place to land, and with some of the Douglas firs stretching 150 feet in the air, the Blackhawk crew had to stage a daring cable rescue, lowering flight medic Ben Sjullie from 300 feet into a drop zone the size of a pickup truck. Ten minutes later, Salant was dangling from the cable above the treetops in Sjullie’s bear hug. Safe inside the helicopter, Sjullie closed the door.

“Are you OK?” he asked. And for the first time since her ordeal began, Salant broke down and cried.

“I just don’t know if she could have made it past the point [where] we’d found her,” says Tom Scully, one of the Crag Rats who rescued Salant. “There was a waterfall above and a waterfall below. Another day and she probably would have stayed right where she was.” Scully is in awe of Salant for covering such terrain with broken bones. He calls his descent of Lindsey Creek — aided by ropes and climbing gear — “one of the burliest hikes I’ve ever been on. It wasn’t even a hike. It was survival. There’s nothing out there but nothing. We were all soaked and scraped up. And she had been at this for days without gear or clothes. She’s amazing.”

Salant reached Aric on his cell phone from her hospital room in Portland. He had spent the weekend camped out at Bear Lake helping the search effort, and now he was speeding toward Portland. “Aric?” Pamela said through her tears. “I’m OK.”

“Thank God. Thank God. I’m on my way.” When he stepped into her room, neither of them could find the right words, so they hugged instead.

Pamela Salant left the hospital after a week. In addition to the laceration on her right leg and the tibial plateau fracture just below her left knee, she had suffered compression fractures in her spine and abrasions all over her body. But all she could think about during her convalescence was the forest — how peaceful it had been out there, how much a part of it she had felt, like any other animal suffering along through nature.

As soon as she was able to use crutches, she and Aric camped again. “Are you sure you really want to do that?” her friends asked.

“Are you kidding?” Salant said. “It’s all I want to do.”

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest