The names in the following story have been altered to protect those in the story.
One of the things us kids liked to do over New Year’s was to camp out. Yes, in the cold and the darkness we would camp out. It started off at one of our houses, but by the time I reached 15, we were putting our Arctic Survival classes to use.
It normally took use a couple of weeks to build snow shelters and a small structure on the edge of a lake that would become our bonfire. We did everything we could to be safe, including check ins with a radio.
I won’t say stupid things never happened, we were teenagers after all, but overall, things went well for the three years we did it.
Of course, afterwards, we showed our responsibility by cleaning up our mess as well. Most of the kids wandered home, but a few of us always stayed behind to haul stuff out and not leave a mess behind.
My friend Stan drove his snow machine and I drove mine while Grace, a friend of Stan’s cousin rode on the dog sled I was towing behind my machine. She laughed and yelled as we went over bumps and rounded corners.
We had been fortunate that it had warmed up during our camp out a couple nights before, but we had broken camp early because it had cleared up and the temperature had dipped below zero. The air bit into our exposed flesh, but we were bundled up as best as we could against it; this wasn’t even close to our normal cold for this time of the year.
Stan packed up the gear onto his sled, a wooden toboggan, and I tied down the tents and a cooler to my dog sled. It didn’t take long and we were heading back into town. I encouraged Grace to ride on the back of my machine so we could go faster, but she insisted on riding on the sled.
Stan took the lead and we traveled along slowly to keep the sleds from banging around too much. It was starting to get dark, though it was only 2 o’clock in the afternoon, and I slowed down on an exceptionally bumpy section of trail.
Grace yelled for me to faster, but I knew the wooden sled could take only so much of a beating, but I obliged her when we dropped down into a creek crossing which was much smoother. She screamed with delight and I looked back her as she waved.
That is when I noticed the trail was much darker and I looked back ahead and could see the trail that Stan had left. The trail was filling with water that had burst up through the ice that had fractured in the cold.
Now overflow is no joking matter and I only had moments to react and I could already feel my machine slowing. I stood up and hit the gas as hard as I dared trying not to cause Grace to fall off.
I looked back and saw her laughing, but okay. The crossing wasn’t very wide, maybe fifty feet from bank to bank and the overflow was mostly on the side we were approaching.
I sighed with relief when my skis hit the far side and I started up the shallow bank. Then the snow machine lurched and I heard Grace scream.
I cleared the embankment and looked back to find the dog sled on its side and Grace missing. I sprang off my machine as soon as it skidded to a halt and waved to Stan who had stopped just up the trail.
Grace was kneeling in the slush on her hands and knees. Apparently she had fallen in face first and was covered from head to foot in slush. I yelled for her to get up, but she only looked up at me in shock. She tried to get her footing and slipped back down into the slush with an audible splash.
I jumped in found the water only came to about mid calf, but I could feel the cold immediately. I yelled for Grace again, but she didn’t move. I tried to pick her up, but we both slipped and I went down on my knees to hold her up.
I got her back up on her knees and slowly stood up, trying to keep my balance. I hefted her to her feet, but she just slumped against me, having gone into shock. I wiped the ice from her cheeks and tried to get her to look at me. Her eyes just stared off and her head rolled to one side.
Her body shifted and I fell again, trying to keep her upright. She slumped across my shoulder and I scooted forward a few feet on my knees until I felt slush under me. I slowly got up and threw Grace into a fireman’s carry.
Stan had reached the bank and I yelled for him to stay back. His face had gone white and I yelled for him to go grab a sleeping bag. He vanished into the dark as I inched my way forward until I had cleared the overflow.
I was getting cold, despite the effort I was putting forth, and could only imagine how Grace felt. She was no longer responding in any way and I knew that hypothermia had likely set in.
Stan had the sleeping back rolled out and I set Grace down on the snow machine.
“We need a fire,” I said through chattering teeth. “Get her undressed and into the sleeping bag,” I ordered as I trotted off to the sled to grab the axe and some wood left over from the bonfire. There wasn’t much, so I went to chop up some small limbs and trees to get a roaring fire. I figured the physical exercise would keep my temperature up.
I carried the wood and the axe back to Stan and Grace and found her in the sleeping bag and Stan sitting on the snow machine.
“You have to get in there with her,” I said, almost incredulous as we had both been through the same training.
He just stared at me and it took me a moment to realize that he hadn’t undressed her.
I threw down the axe and wood and flopped onto the ground beside her. She was turning blue and her lips quivered. I pulled off her hat and sat her up and started removing her wet coat.
“Go grab another bag!” I yelled at Stan who jumped up and ran off.
He came back a minute later with another bag and began opening it. He laid it on the ground next to the now soaked one as I unzipped it and started peeling off her clothes.
Stan just stood there before turning his back as I removed her shirt and pants. I knew I should remove her underclothes, but I was even too abashed to do that.
I took off my coat and my sweater and used it to dry her off as much as I could before slipping her into the dry sleeping bag.
My hands were now wet and numb and I looked up to Stan who still wasn’t looking. “You need to crawl in and warm her up.”
Stan just shook his head and said meekly, “I can’t. You do it.”
I wasn’t in much better shape than Grace was, but I was better than nothing. “Get the fire started,” I said hoarsely as I began to undress.
Stan started on the fire and I could feel myself clinging to edge of consciousness. I was so warm, but I shivered so violently. I knew this was the delirium of hypothermia.
Grace’s body was so cold and I mustered all my energy and tried to warm us up. Stan got the fire going and I scooted us as close as I dared, at one point melting a patch on the outside.
I was shivering and so was Grace. A little color had returned to her lips, but her skin was still cold. My legs had gone fairly numb, though pin pricks of pain let me know they were still there.
Our would hadn’t lasted long and I told Stan to unload his toboggan and pad it. While he did that, I crawled out of the sleeping bag and put on my now thawed Carhart snow pants and mukluks, which were amazingly dry on the inside.
We lined the sled with the wet sleeping bag which had pretty much frozen by now, along with another sleeping bag. We carried Grace over and set her in the toboggan and covered her with another sleeping bag and raced home as quickly as we could.
It was nearly a half an hour before we made it to Stan’s place. The house was dark and no one was home. My snow pants had frozen into a sitting position and I had to work to get off the machine.
We carried Grace to the stairs leading down to the basement and I had to sit down and scoot down the stairs since I couldn’t really bend my legs. We got her inside and into the guest room. I couldn’t get back onto my feet, so I had to scoot across the floor on my knees.
I told Stan he had to get Grace into bed. He turned bright red and shook his head. I wanted to smack him, but I was too exhausted and asked him to help me get her onto the bed and then go get one of his sister’s night shirts.
He did and I removed her from her from the sleeping bag. He hands and toes had curled up and I knew that was not a good sign. Stan returned and called from the hallway, unwilling to come into the room.
He tossed the shirt in and I scooped it up and began dressing Grace. She stirred a bit as I put her arms through the sleeves and got her under the covers. She was better off, but she wasn’t out of the woods yet. She needed a lot more heat, so I told Stan he needed to get in bed with her and warm her up.
He refused and ran off upstairs. I slumped to the floor, feeling myself slipping in and out of blackness, the little voice in my head screaming for me to get up and get out of my wet clothes.
I was suddenly aware of Stan flopping something down onto the bed as it brushed past my head. It turned out to be his mother’s electric blanket that he covered Grace with and plugged in.
I crawled to the bathroom on my hands and knees, despite the fact that my pants had thawed, I couldn’t feel my legs or feet.
The journey seemed to take forever and I remember telling Stan I was going to take a shower and him saying he was going to find his mom.
I undressed and turned on the water. It quickly steamed up the room and I was aware enough to turn the temperature down before climbing in. I sat on the floor of the shower and let the water fall on me.
I could feel the blood moving in my legs and for some reason, I’m not sure if it was something I’d read or thought was wise, but I propped my feet up onto the wall and lay in the bottom of the shower.
I woke and found that the water was now tepid at best as I had used all the hot water. My legs screamed and in the light I could see little bruises all up and down my legs. The hot water on my skin and been enough to damage it.
I turned off the water and weakly got up. My clothes were still wet and I hoped Stan had some I could borrow. I wrapped a towel around my waist and called for him, but no one answered.
I was weak and stumbled to his bedroom, but he wasn’t there. I went and checked on Grace. She was still pale, but the color had returned to her lips and she breathed more easily.
Sitting on the edge of the bed, I checked her pulse which was still shallow, but steady.
The room began to spin and I laid down for a second.
I woke up with Grace cuddled up next to me, though her hands were still curled up. I was aware of someone shaking me and looked up to see Stan standing there.
I immediately looked down and thankfully my towel was still on.
Stan had found his mom and she was going to be taking Grace to the hospital in Fairbanks. She recall her saying what a great job we had done and that our actions likely saved her. I wanted to tell her that her son had been a coward, but I was too exhausted.
I got some sweats and a shirt from Stan before getting my stuff and driving home.
My legs hurt for over a week until the little bruises started to go away and I held those painful memories for months to come.
Stan and I were never the same either. Our relationship was already strained and we only grew farther apart when he took credit for saving Grace. He was already in a bad place and I thought the attention might help him recover, but we both knew it was a lie.
And I am glad to say that Grace recovered. I saw her a couple of times over the next two years, and she said she didn’t remember much other than me carrying her out of the ice, then awkwardly trying to climb into the sleeping bag with her and waking up and cuddling with me and crying because her hands hurt so much. She’d had to do some physical therapy, but the last time I saw her she was on the cheer team for her school.
Hypothermia is no joke and I am surprised we didn’t come out of it worse.
One thought on “Growing Up Alaska: Overflow”
Terrifying. I wish everyone dealt with emergencies as well as you did.