In August of 1995, my husband and I took our first real vacation together. We’d been married for three years, but to this point, we’d only managed a long weekend here and a long weekend there. Finally, after much planning, we had it. The perfect, week-long vacation: trekking the Wonderland Trail – a ninety some odd mile trail circling Mount Rainier. We packed our backpacks, loaded everything up, and drove to the ranger station to secure a backcountry camping permit. The ranger asked if we’d seen the weather report. We said no, got our permit and bolted. Our first camp was at Lake Muir. We set up the tent under sunny skies, fixed dinner, watched the stars come out, then hit the sleeping bags.
The clouds rolled in and it began to pour. We woke in the morning to a steady downpour. The floor of the tent had accumulated an inch of standing water. Our sleeping bags were dry and our sleeping mats were closed cell foam. No worries. We donned our rain ponchos, made breakfast, loaded up and headed out. The wind picked up. The temperature dropped. And the rain fell. We hiked through brush and trees and persistent gray cloud cover. By the time we made our lunch stop, we were both soaked to the skin. Rain ponchos couldn’t compete with vegetation dumping water down our pant legs, or catching the poncho edges and exposing us to the slanting rain. We were exhausted and miserable. We diverted to a campground with the hopes of putting up a tarp and starting a fire so we could dry off. Except that every scrap of wood everywhere was sodden. Another group of campers had a roaring fire going and invited us to warm up. We tried. They told us that they’d just come from the campground we were aiming to achieve by nightfall. It was snowing. Sideways.
We looked at one another and realized we were in trouble. I had hypothermia. My husband was on his way to having hypothermia. Neither of us had the skill or equipment to deal with snow in August. Our fellow campers were abandoning their vacation. They offered to drive us into civilization. We took them up on it and piled into the back of their open bed pickup truck. Yeah. You see the problem there. We froze our butts further. They dropped us at a fast food place in Enumclaw where my father-in-law met us. He took one look, tossed our stuff in the car, tossed us in, and cranked the heat up on full.
Neither of us had a dangerous case of exposure – or hypothermia. We were cold, miserable, soaked and just beginning to exhibit classic signs – uncontrolled shivering, and impaired judgment. We hadn’t progressed to slurred speech or lack of coordination, though it felt like neither could have been far off. We’d escaped with a mild case and it still took us each about three days to recover. For the first two days, I felt a bit like the sticky inside of a garbage can.
The freak storm lasted the three days it took us to regain our strength. Several people had to be rescued from the mountain and we still refer to that aborted vacation and brush with hypothermia as “The Time Mt. Rainier Tried to Kill Us.” Take away lesson on that one? 1. Don’t go to the mountain without Goretex. 2. When a park ranger asks you if you’ve seen the weather forecast, don’t say no. Say no, why?
Fast forward to the middle of September. The storm is still a sore memory. We feel a little stupid at that point for having gotten caught in it at all. Regardless, we’re out in the September sunshine in downtown Seattle to meet a lady who wants us to adopt a pair of kittens. We walk into her condo and my husband gasps. Two white kittens with black smudges on their foreheads, one male, one female came to greet us. The female looked exactly like his childhood cat, Lightning. The lady tells us that they were born to a feral mom she’d been feeding in her backyard. She’d intended catch mom and the kittens, get everyone fixed and home them all out. When that freak storm in August had blown up, she realized she’d run out of time. Out into the storm she’d gone. Mom cat had abandoned the nest of kittens. The babies were cold and wet. Two were already dead of exposure. She’d scooped up the survivors, brought them into the warm house, dried them and fed them, then she’d gone out to bury the dead ones. One of them moved. In a panic, she scooped him up, tucked him inside her shirt and raced him to the vet who got the kitten into an incubator. He survived. He was the male kitten in my arms purring while his sister purred at my husband.
We looked at one another. The same storm had tried to get all four of us. Erie and Copernicus came home with us where we stayed warm together.