A day hike turns sinister when two hikers lose the trail as night falls. By Dan Naccarato.
A jolt of panic struck as we approached the wooden bridge in the diminishing September light—the same bridge that was marked on the trail map as the halfway point of our 15-kilometre hike at Silent Lake Provincial Park. Jeff and I quickly discussed our options now that our leisurely hike had taken on a sense of urgency. It would be no quicker to retrace our steps at this point, so we forged ahead in hopes that the second half of the loop would prove less challenging than the first.
We started to sprint, hurdling over rocks, fallen branches and other forest flotsam that we took for granted in the daylight but was becoming more inconspicuous as visibility waned. But our pace slowed again just a few minutes later when Jeff careened down an uneven section of the trail and twisted his ankle. As he stretched out and massaged his leg, the thin wisp of light on the horizon had vanished. Both of us had anticipated a routine afternoon hike, and weren’t prepared to be stuck in the forest after sunset.
We had eaten our energy bars early on in the hike, exhausting our food supply. And other than the half moon that occasionally peered through the trees, our only source of light was Jeff’s cellphone, which was also our only means of communication, though our signal had been unreliable for most of the hike.
For the next few hours, I held the cellphone up in front of me, pointing the lit-up screen away from me to locate the blazes along the trail, while Jeff held on to the back of my fleece so that we wouldn’t lose each other. I inched forward a couple steps at a time, waving the cellphone at every tree trunk in a 180-degree arc ahead of us until we caught the glint of metallic blue light from a blaze indicating that we were still on course.
But the excitement of spotting a blaze was often followed shortly afterward by the crackling of dry leaves underfoot, a sign that we had strayed from the path and would need to backtrack until our shoes once again found the sandy and pebbly terrain of the trail.
Yet as the night wore on, our system broke down. We had wandered a bit too far into the underbrush, became disoriented and lost the trail. Retreating several metres, we eventually stumbled upon the trail marker we had passed a few minutes earlier, then found another one to our left prompting us forward, but we repeatedly ended up in the same patch of undergrowth that we were trying to escape. Hunger and fatigue had impaired our sense of direction to the point that we found ourselves in a sort of Bermuda Triangle where all blazes seemed to lead to dead ends.
We made our way over to a pile of rocks overlooking Silent Lake, hoping in vain that our cellphone signal would return. As we sat down and tried to come up with another plan, we heard faint voices in the distance and saw a campfire burning on the other side of the lake. We shouted for help as loudly as we could, but we got no response.
By now, my earlier optimism had faded. It was nearly midnight and I was skeptical that we would find our way out of the forest that night. I suggested we take turns falling asleep for a couple of hours for the rest of the night and then continuing our hike the next morning, but Jeff refused because there had been black bear sightings in the park that week. Although the temperature had dipped to the low teens, he insisted we try to swim across the lake in the direction of the campfire, but I was less enthusiastic about the idea since I couldn’t even see the other side of the lake.
“A low steady growl to my right froze me momentarily…”
We decided to split up for a while, hoping it would be quicker to find the trail that way. Jeff took the cellphone and walked back the way we came from, agreeing to stay within earshot. I explored the area around me as best I could without light, but quickly grew discouraged at my lack of progress. A low steady growl to my right froze me momentarily, then I slowly walked backwards for several feet before scurrying in the direction of the cellphone glow that led me to Jeff.
He asked me if I had heard an animal nearby, but in an attempt to keep us calm, I told him I had been making a lot of noise so he would be able to find me. Unnerved by the threat of a bear encounter, we came to a compromise. I agreed to keep walking towards the campsite as long as we didn’t enter the water. Abandoning our cellphone lantern and using the campfire as our new guide, we chose the next most direct route to our destination—through the trees. Pine needles jabbed our skin as we bushwhacked our way up and down hilly terrain, over fallen tree trunks and along the edge of the lake, each of us trying to suppress the guilt we felt over the damage we were causing. Spurred on by adrenaline, we moved quickly and began covering a lot more ground.
The campsite that had appeared virtually inaccessible was now so close that I could hear muffled voices and see silhouettes of three people sitting around a fire. We emerged from the trees moments later, the campers staring at us like we were yetis. We explained how we had gotten lost in the woods after dark and needed some help finding our car. Trying hard to restrain their laughter, they directed us to the paved road that would lead us back to the parking lot where we began our hike nine hours earlier.
Neither Jeff nor I spoke much on the way back to the parking lot, whether due to exhaustion or a sense of relief that we escaped our ordeal unscathed. But the one thought that kept running through my mind was: How we would ever manage to top this hike?