Wednesday, June 11, 2014

John Muir Trail: Day 30 — Glen Pass to Charlotte Lake

Note:  Pam and I were worried about Kai and did not take a single picture on this day.

In the early morning hours Kai took a turn for the worse.  We didn’t have a thermometer, but just from feeling his head his fever seemed high.  He complained of a headache behind his eyes and sharp pain in his lower back and abdomen.

I got up at the first hint of light, grabbed a water bottle, a snack bar and a map and jogged back over Glen Pass.  We’d passed a ranger station at Rae Lakes, and I figured that if I could find a ranger we could radio a doctor or somebody who could inform me about the incubation period and specific symptoms of hantavirus.  It we could just rule out that possibility I wouldn’t be so worried.

As I ran up and over the rocky pass I felt numb, like something about me wasn’t real.  I kept trying to tell myself that there were a million things that could have made Kai sick.  He’d had plenty of fevers before and he always got better in a matter of days.  I’d never even worried before.  Kids got fevers all the time and they didn’t die.  But then my mind would fixate on that small space beneath that boulder on Mather Pass, and the scent of rodent urine would fill my nose as if some of it had gotten stuck there, and I’d think back to my old classmate Jason Hauser, to a specific party in college where a bunch of us had been dancing in a living room and he’d been in the center of it all on a coffee table making everyone laugh… how a few years later he taken a breath that smothered all that life out of him.

I couldn’t stop thinking about how it would feel if that happened to Kai.  How nothing would ever be right again.

I passed a handful of hikers on the pass, and I stopped to ask them if they knew anything about hantavirus, but most of them knew about the same amount as me.  You get it from mouse excrement and it starts with flu-like symptoms.  Nobody knew the incubation period or anything more specific about the initial symptoms.  So I kept running.

It was only about three miles to the ranger station, a small wooden cabin tucked into a cluster of pines near the lake, and I reached it in the early morning.  But when I climbed onto the porch and raised my hand to knock I spotted a note tacked to the doorframe.  It explained that the ranger was away on extended patrol and wouldn’t be back for several days.  I knocked anyway, several times, but nobody answered.

I found a piece of paper and wrote a note explaining our location and situation—we were trying to learn more about hantavirus so we’d know whether or not it was a valid concern.  Then I ate the bar I’d brought, sucked down half a bottle of water and started jogging back over Glen Pass.

I returned to Pam and the boys late in the morning, and Kai was still sick.  Pam had used the tent to make a shaded area for him, and he was just lying there looking miserable and weak.  Pam had been forcing him to drink water, and she’d gotten some food in him.

“How do you feel?” I asked him.

He looked up at me with glassy eyes.  “Not very good.”

“Where does it hurt?”

“Just the same.  My eyes and right here.”  He pointed to his lower back and sides.

Pam and I walked off a ways and tried to figure out what we should do.  There was another ranger station at Charlotte Lake, about three miles further along the trail.  “I can go try to find a ranger there,” I offered.

“Maybe we should get Kai off this mountain,” Pam said.  We were still perched on a rocky shelf well above tree line, everything around us steep and jagged.  “If we have to evacuate, this isn’t a very good spot.”

We looked at the map together and realized that we could reach a better place to camp in less than two miles—flatter terrain, an escape route over Kearsarge Pass to Onion Valley, and the ranger station just a short distance away at Charlotte Lake.

“We can carry all his stuff,” Pam said.  “And we can just go really slowly and help him out.”

We packed all our stuff, ate a quick lunch and gave Kai another dose of ibuprofen.  Then we started slowly down the trail.  We’d taken everything out of Kai’s pack so he could carry it empty, but that made him mad.  “I don’t want it empty!”  He looked sick as a dog, yet he was still embarrassed for anyone to see him with an empty pack and think of him as a weak little kid.

“Kai, you’re sick.  It’s okay if your pack is empty today.”

“I don’t want it empty!”

We ended up stuffing his sleeping bag inside and fluffing it so the pack looked full.  Then he carried it without complaining.

We walked slowly, and as we went Kai seemed to perk up a little, which gave me hope that it was just some little bug that he’d fight off soon.  But every once in a while he’d wince and put his hand to his abdomen.  “Are you still getting those pains?” I asked him.

He nodded but kept walking.

We reached a flat open area at the turnoff for Charlotte Lake in the early afternoon, and we stopped there, finding a shady place for Kai to lie down.  He looked better than he had in the night, and his skin felt less feverish to the touch.

“Maybe we got ourselves all worked up over nothing,” I said to Pam, and she nodded.

“It could just come and go in waves though.  Sometimes viruses get worse again at night, you know?  Or maybe it’s just the medicine.”  She was right, but I think both of us felt a little more hopeful than we had hours earlier.

Noah lay beside Kai with a book and kept him company, and Pam watched over them while I jogged the short distance to Charlotte Lake.  But when I found the ranger station it was all locked up and nobody answered when I knocked.  I talked to a couple men camped near the lake, and they told me that three nurses were camped just a quarter mile further up the trail, taking a rest day after completing the Sierra High Route…  Three nurses out here in the middle of nowhere at that very moment!  What were the chances?

I walked up the trail and found three tough-looking ladies with cropped hair sorting through gear.  “Are you by chance the group of nurses I heard about?” I asked, feeling embarrassed.

They all looked up at me and one of them answered.  “Yeah, we’re nurses.”

“I’m so sorry to bug you, but I’ve got an eight-year-old son that’s been really sick, and my wife and I got ourselves freaked out that it could be hantavirus.”  They listened kindly while I explained how we’d taken shelter on Mather Pass and then explained Kai’s symptoms a little.

“I think hantavirus is probably pretty unlikely,” one of them said, and I could have hugged her.  Then they conferred with each other a little while.  “You’re smart to think about hanta, because it does happen, but it’s rare.  We don’t really have experience with it and don’t remember all the details, but I’m thinking the incubation period is longer than three days.  I’m thinking weeks, not days.  Just let him rest and keep an eye on him.  You’re in a good spot with the ranger station right here, and you could evacuate if you need to, but I think he’s going to be okay.”

“I can’t tell you how much better I feel after talking with you,” I said.  “I’ve just been building this thing up in my head and making myself crazy all day.  I probably totally overreacted.”

“Well that’s your job, Dad.”  One of the ladies smiled at me.  “And it’s good you’re taking it seriously, but chances are he’ll be okay.  Stay here though and keep an eye on him for a while just to be sure.”

I thanked them again and started to leave when one of them asked, “How are you doing with food, being slowed down and all?”

I looked at the ground, a little embarrassed.  “We’re actually really low.  I was planning to ask the ranger if they had any sort of emergency stash.”

“Well here.  We can give you a little.”  And they all jumped into action, opening their bear canisters and digging through them.  “We could have given you a lot more earlier today. Our friends came in with a resupply, and we ended up sending a bunch of stuff back.  They left just an hour ago.  But we’ve got a few things.”  And the things they gave us were like treasures from a dream—shortbread cookies, packets of Nutella, crackers, olives, electrolyte drink mix…

“I can’t thank you enough,” I said.  “This is so nice.”  I stood there feeling like I should do something for them in return, but there was really nothing I could offer.

“No problem,” one of the ladies said.  “You just watch over your son and then enjoy the rest of your trip.”

I walked back up the trail feeling lighter.  For the first time all day my head felt a little clear, like I could really see things and my thoughts didn’t buzz like static in my head.  Everything was probably okay.

I was about half a mile from Pam and the boys when I spotted a ranger walking towards me, having a conversation on a walkie-talkie.  She paused as we got close to one another.  “Have you seen a dad with a sick kid?”

“Yeah...  That’s probably me,” I said.

“Where’s your son?  He’s not by himself is he?”

“No.  He’s with my wife and other son, just up the trail here.”

“Somebody radioed us after finding your note at Rae Lakes, and we’ve been looking for you.  You should have stayed put.”

“I’m sorry.  After I left that note we decided we should probably get down off the mountain.  My son actually seems to be doing a little better.”  I was starting to feel silly.  All day I’d been the epitome of a nervous dad, actually more like a mother hen, certain the sky was falling down to crush my son.  I explained to her that the thing that really got us worried was the possibility of hantavirus.  “We really just want to radio someone who can tell us if that’s even a valid concern.”

As we walked to meet Pam and the boys, the ranger introduced herself as Suzanne and radioed her partner, telling him where to meet us.  With growing embarrassment I gathered that they’d both been on a wild goose chase, up and down the mountain looking for us.  And when we arrived at the clearing where I’d left Pam and the boys I felt even sillier.  Kai didn’t look one hundred percent healthy, but he certainly looked a lot better.  He no longer looked like a hollow-eyed waif on the grim reaper’s doorstep.

A few moments later Suzanne’s partner arrived.  He looked worn out and a little irritated as he repeated the first word’s Suzanne had told me.  “We’ve been looking all over for you.  You should have stayed put.”

“I’m so sorry,” I said sheepishly.  “We didn’t know you were looking and we figured it was best to get down off the mountain.”  I told him how we’d taken shelter on Mather Pass a few days earlier, and how Kai had seemed really sick in the night and throughout the morning.  “We just got scared about hantavirus and wanted to talk to someone who could help us figure out if it was a valid concern.”

He kept his eyes on me and his face softened while I talked.  Finally he smiled.  “I understand.”  Then he turned to Kai.  “We’ll let’s take a look at you.”

He went through a detailed first responder assessment like I’d learned in a backcountry first aid class several months earlier, and Suzanne wrote down their observations.  Afterwards they radioed an emergency dispatch station and after sharing all their observations with the nurse on the other end Rick finally asked the question that had been haunting us.  “There’s concern that the subject may have come in contact with hantavirus.  Do you have information on the symptoms and incubation period?”

We waited for several minutes while the nurse contacted a doctor and reviewed resources from the Centers for Disease Control.  Finally we got our answers.

“The early symptoms are flu-like.”  The nurse’s voice crackled over the radio.

Kai had flu-like symptoms.

“There’s uncertainty about the incubation period,” the nurse continued, “but observations suggest it’s between one and five weeks.”

I took the deepest breath anyone ever breathed.  It had only been a few days since we’d sheltered on Mather Pass... only half a week, far less than five weeks, and Kai was already looking healthier.

“You guys have a choice,” Rick told us.  “We can get a helicopter for you today to evacuate Kai.  One of you could go with him.  There wouldn’t be any cost.”

Pam and I looked at each other and shook our heads.  “We don’t want to evacuate unless it’s really an emergency,” Pam said.  “Maybe we should see how he does tonight and then make a decision.”

“He looks so much better.”  I was embarrassed as much as relieved.  “I’m sorry you guys ran all around and we wasted your time.”

“You didn’t waste our time.”  Suzanne smiled at me.

“That’s why we’re out here,” Rick added.   “And you’re not out the woods yet.  It sounds like he’s doing better but things can change quickly.  Why don’t you camp near our cabin and we’ll see how Kai’s doing in the morning.”

“Thank so much,” I told them.  "I really appreciate everything you guys have done."

We made our way down to Charlotte Lake as the sun set, and we settled into a campsite just a few hundred yards from the ranger cabin.  I opened the small packet of shortbread cookies and divided them between us, and it felt like opening the best present on Christmas morning.

In the middle of the night I woke and rolled over to look at Kai.  His breathing was relaxed.  He looked peaceful.  I touched his forehead, and it wasn’t feverish.

I stayed there propped on my elbow looking at him for a long time.  Finally I kissed him and lay back down.

I was a mother hen.  An over-reactor.  A handwringer…  A dad.

“Thank you,” I whispered.

Read the full series by clicking on the links below:
Day 1 – Day2 – Day 3 – Day 4 – Day 5 – Day 6 – Day 7 – Day 8 – Day 9 – Day 10 – Day 11 – Day 12 – Day 13 – Day 14 – Day 15 – Day 16 – Day 17 – Day 18 – Day 19 – Day 20 – Day 21 – Day 22 – Day 23 – Day 24 – Day 25 – Day 26 – Day 27 – Day 28 – Day 29 – Day 30 – Day 31 – Day 32 – Day 33 – Day 34

J.S. Kapchinske is the author of Coyote Summer.