When I was just shy of my 16th birthday, my father passed away. That summer my mom took two of my sisters and me on a quick cruise up the Alaskan coast to visit her half-sister in Ketchikan. This was quite an adventure for us being the first time we were traveling without dad or my big brother and sister who were off doing college things.
We arrived at my Aunt Alpha’s house and my sisters and I enjoyed exploring her little neck of the woods. There was a little creek running through her yard and lots of trees, bugs and other wildlife to check out.
One day my cousin dropped us off for a little day hike up the big mountain behind Aunt Alpha’s house. We were going to climb Deer Mountain. We started off in the morning with a knapsack filled with sandwiches, apples and water. We made it to the top in an hour or two and enjoyed our picnic lunch while taking in the gorgeous views. I still remember to this day turning in a complete circle and drinking in the vista of Ketchikan and her surroundings.
On the way down the mountain my younger sister, Maria, and I got silly, as teenagers do, and tried to race my older sister, Anna. We wanted to lead the way, we were excellent trailblazers! Luckily Anna was more mature than us (duh!) She didn’t take the bait to race us down the mountain and stayed walking with my mom. Maria and I were determined to be the first ones down so we started taking shortcuts. As the trail had many switchbacks, it was easy to cut the trail short and traipse down to the lower part of the trail without walking all the way to the turning point. Boy, were we flying down the hill!
This worked for several switchbacks but then our luck ran out. At one rather steep point of the trail, we tried to shave off a few steps and cut through to the lower trail but unfortunately, at this particular point on the path, the trail wrapped AROUND to the other side of the mountain and DID NOT switchback. Hmmm, where was the trail?
Were we concerned? Of course not! We were 11 and 16, we could take on the world, we hiked all the time. Being a little off the path on a day hike was no cause to worry for us.
Hey! Here’s a little stream. It MUST be the same stream that flows behind Aunt Alpha’s house, right? How about if we just keep following it down the mountain til we end up in her backyard? Boy, won’t everyone be so excited when we get home so much earlier than them?
After six hours of wandering through the woods, climbing trees, digging up mushrooms, following the creek and sliding down several little moss-covered waterfalls, Maria and I ended up on a 5′ by 5′ ledge at the top of what looked like at least a 100′ waterfall. There was no sliding down this monster.
Nope, no getting down this vertical precipice of a waterfall. Nope, no climbing back up this slippery, verdant part of the creek that we just slid down. Nope, no foraging through the thick vines and lush foliage of the rainforest surrounding us. We were stuck. We were lost.
It was getting dark (barely, thank goodness for Alaska’s looooong summer days and short nights) and, for the first time, maybe just a tiny bit, Ree and I were scared. What if there are animals in the woods, what if we can’t find the trail, what if …?
Suffice it to say, after a full night of hugging each other close to stay warm and many, many verses of “Kumbayah” and regretting ever wanting to be trailblazers, we were rescued the next day by the great park rangers, boy scouts and many fabulous volunteers of Ketchikan.
My perspective now, 35 years later? My poor mother! She had just lost her husband and now her two youngest daughters were lost on a mountain in Alaska! How in the world did she ever cope that night we were gone? As a mother now, I cannot begin to imagine her worry and grief. To her good credit, though, she never made it about her and how she was doing. It was always about her daughters. She was worried sick about US, how did WE feel, how were WE doing?
Now, all these years later I realize what a true gift she gave us on that day long, long ago. She did not squelch our spirit of adventure. When we got back there was no reason to be mad and punish us. We knew we’d made a mistake. There was no reason to scare us with what if’s and could have been’s. We’d already chastised ourselves and ran through plenty of bleak scenarios together. When we were finally reunited, she hugged us close, told us she loved us and then asked us how we managed to have such an amazing adventure on a little day hike. I just love my mom.