It was a Groundhog Day moment.
This was my third year backpacking in the late fall along Algonquin Provincial Park's Western Uplands Trail with college students. It was the third year of bad weather—cold temperatures with a mixture of rain and snow. It was also the third year I had to take a group of students back to the parking lot two days into the seven-day trek.
Stephanie had complained about stomach pain shortly after we left the access point off the main highway that cuts through the park. The more we hiked, the worse it got.
I’ll be honest, I’ve become a bit jaded in taking students out fall backpacking. It’s become commonplace for some students to pull the pin a day or two into a full-week trip. Last year, I took five students back to the parking lot on day two and I questioned how all could become mysteriously sick or hurt, and not want to continue on. The year before, a student bailed on day-three due to an ankle injury. I later found out the doctor’s note she had provided me was fake.
Maybe it’s just a phobia of spending a long period of time in the woods, especially when it’s cold and wet. Maybe it’s just that some lack the passion for being out there. Of course, maybe some of them truly get sick or injured. Stephanie’s stomach pain could be legitimate. You don’t mess around with that type of injury. So, the decision amongst the group was that Stephanie needed to be evacuated. The process was easy enough. There were two other leaders on the trip. They would continue on the trail with their students, and my group would take Stephanie back to the parking lot, then hike the loop counterclockwise, and hope to meet up with the others in a couple days.
The temperature dropped to -7 degrees Celsius the first night. A brisk wind skipped across Maple Lake and froze the students' fingers while they hastily cooked their evening meal before dark. Most escaped to the tents early, wrapping themselves in summer sleeping bags and every piece of clothing they packed. It snowed that night, and ice formed around the edge of the lake. Everyone was eager to hike. It was the only way to keep warm. Just after 8:00 a.m., the two groups and leaders were heading north, and my group was backtracking south.
By noon we were back in the parking lot. Another instructor came to pick Stephanie up. Ed joined them. He twisted his ankle on the way back and made the decision to end his trip as well. Gear was re-sorted in packs and my remaining students continued on, all a little apathetic about the students who left. Their indifference to the others made sense. The other two groups were well on their way and my group was starting over again. They were separated from the others—and they didn’t want to be.
We reached the first lake just after dusk and used our headlamps to pitch the tents. Everyone seemed in a sullen mood, wondering if Stephanie and Ed were being examined at the hospital—or sitting at home, on a comfortable couch, drinking a beer.
I used the satellite phone to check in. Ed’s ankle was wrapped and he was sent home. Stephanie, however, had suffered greatly and was still in the hospital. The pain in her stomach ended up being a ruptured cyst in her ovaries. Taking her out was the right decision—and it was something we all should never have second-guessed.
(To be continued…)