This is the story of the lostest I have ever been.
In 1944, a small group of students from UVM used the New Year’s holiday weekend to ski from Bolton up to “Bryant’s Upper Camp”. Mr. Bryant, who owned and logged the property there, had had visions of establishing a small ski area above Bolton Lodge. He had equipped a snug cabin, carved out a ski trail and slope nearby, and cut an access trail from the Bolton road. He used a team of horses pulling a chain attached to each end of a big log to groom the sleigh trail up to his camp. He had hoped to attract small groups from New York City, who could come by rail to Bolton and then be hauled by horse-drawn sleigh to this facility. Mr. Bryant had big plans for his little “resort”, as something different from the big ones. His plan never worked out, possibly because the advent of WWII prevented from promoting his ski area, but he allowed some of us from the UVM Outing Club to enjoy the well-equipped but unused cabin.
One Friday, we skied up to the cabin where we celebrated New Years Eve rather quietly. New Years Day greeted us with bright sunshine, so John Gowen and I decided we would follow the newly-cut trail over to the small open slope that had been cleared less than a mile away. There the two of us spent the day racing down the steep slope and climbing back up to the top for another run, again and again. We had expected the others of our group to join us, but they never showed up.
At the bottom of one run, we decided to head back to the cabin for supper before it got dark. I figured out that it would be easier, rather than climbing again all the way up the slope and retracing our steps, to just take a shortcut by following a contour along the bottom of the slope until we got to the cabin. If we missed the cabin, we would certainly come to the main trail from Bolton that we had used the day before, and we could follow that to the cabin. The rosy glow under the clouds in the western sky confirmed my sense of direction.
With me in the lead, we started into the surrounding forest. We didn’t get to the cabin or its trail as quickly as I had expected, but I pressed on, for it was quickly getting dark. Then a spruce branch brushed my glasses from my face. I felt around for them in the snow until my hand got too cold to feel anything and I had to abandon the search and my badly-needed glasses.
The hillside began to flatten out. There was no longer a contour level to follow and we came across a network of old logging trails. It had gotten very dark and much colder. We could barely see, but the trees were a bit darker and the logging trails a little lighter. The colder snow started to squeak under our skis, and when I put my leather-mittened hand against a smooth tree trunk, the mitten immediately froze to it and left a small piece of leather as I pulled it away.
One of the logging roads led us to a small shed. We entertained the idea of stopping there, building a fire, and staying until it got light enough for us to find our way. The only problem was, neither of us could produce a match to light a fire, so we had to continue our trek. It was only by moving that we were able to keep warm.
The cloud cover had cleared off. Without my glasses, I couldn’t see any stars, but John said he could see enough to navigate. I decided that south was the best way to go. I didn’t know where we were, but south and downhill would eventually get us to the Winooski Valley and Route 2. Our skis were not gliding easily over the frigid snow. We tried taking them off, but we immediately sank up to our waists. Other times we had to remove our skis and use a knife to scrape off the ice that had formed on the bottoms.
After about two more hours of this working our way south and downhill, John called out, “I see a lake, a big lake!” By now I was thoroughly confused. There was no lake between Bolton Mountain and the Winooski Valley. In fact, there was no big lake anywhere in the region. But, surely, John was seeing a lake. It was big enough so that, even without my glasses, I could see it too. Then I remembered having read about a big CCC project that had built a dam to create the Waterbury Reservoir. That must be the big lake we were seeing! If it was a lake formed by a dam, all we had to do is to go south on the lake and we would get to the dam and a road. We were no longer lost!
So we skied down a long creek gully onto the lake and started looking for a dam. That was the longest mile I have ever traveled. I was looking for lights. I knew there had to be lights if there was a dam and a road. Twice I went into side channels, deceived by stars shining through trees that I thought looked like a building with lights on. I knew a frozen lake had to be level, but I was so tired it felt uphill any way I went. And when I finally did see the string of lights on the top of the big dam, I headed for it in what I thought was a straight line. (Later that morning when it was daylight, I saw my ski tracks wandering all over the place.) And when I reached the grade of the earthen dam and started to climb up it, I was so tired I fell over backwards.
The night watchman at the National Youth Administration (NYA) camp that had replaced the CCC camp of the construction workers found John and me huddled against the big boiler that provided heat for the camp. He took us into the kitchen, fed us four cups of hot coffee and warmed up two plates of the turkey à la king that had been the New Years dinner for the boys in the camp. (We had had no food or water since lunch, and by then it was five in the morning.) He fixed two cots with blankets for us in the bunkroom, and we slept soundly until the boys all got up at seven. We had breakfast with them, and then called a taxi from Waterbury to take us back to John’s car in Bolton.
But that was not quite the end of our odyssey. When we got to John’s car, he remembered that his car keys were in his knapsack, miles away in Bryant’s Upper Camp. John was feeling very uncomfortable by then, for he had what was later diagnosed as a bad case of frostbite on his feet. Somehow I felt really good, so I volunteered to ski back up to the cabin and get our knapsacks. About a mile up the Bolton Road, I met the rest of our party returning to their car. They asked what I was doing, and when I said I was headed to get our gear from the cabin, they told me I looked awful, I would never make it, and I should go back to John’s car while two of them went back for our stuff. They were right! About a half hour later, the coffee jag that was making me feel so good wore off and I collapsed.
John’s frostbite resulted in a couple of days in the hospital. I had only slight frosting on my wrists where my mittens and jacket sleeves did not quite meet.
I had worried during the long night that we would be causing concern for the others back at the cabin by not appearing for supper or any time during the frigid night. I learned later that they had not worried at all! My reputation as a woodsman had convinced them that we surely could never get into any serious trouble.
Later in the spring, I hiked back into that ski area to figure out just what went wrong. I found I had been 180 degrees off in my bearings. That red glow that I had seen in the western sky was actually in the east. It must have been the only break in the clouds where the glow of the sunset showed through. So rather than going south as I had thought, I had led us north. We must have gone all the way around Ricker Mountain to the east several miles before we headed south, probably to Cotton Creek which led into the Waterbury Reservoir – somewhere around fifteen miles of wandering in the wilderness that night. I felt stupid, of course, but I also felt pretty good about myself – I had been able to survive such a life-threatening situation.