I can’t remember a time when I felt more of a sense of urgency. Last Sunday, I called 911 at 7:30 pm. They were supposed to be at the destination of their raft trip at 4:30 pm. The group assumed that they could cover five miles of river in a couple of hours, hiking and floating down to one of our favorite swimming holes, “Rainbow Pool,” just outside of Yosemite National Park. The sun would set before long and if there was going to be a search and rescue, I wanted it to start before sunset. They could be injured. They could be stuck. They only had swimsuits, air mattresses and an inflatable tube. The Sheriff’s Deputy arrived in an hour later at 8:30 pm with some light still left from the sun setting. He informed me that a helicopter could not be used until the morning, but that a search and rescue team was springing into action and they would start searching that night. He was wrong.
I waited with the Sheriff Deputy at Rainbow Pool until 11:00 pm, when the “liaison” for the search and rescue team showed up. He was there to ask questions in preparation for the search to start the next morning. I was very disappointed, because all I could think of was these four in swimsuits going through a cold sierra night. Something must be done asap. Sure it wasn’t freezing, but it wasn’t a warm summer night either.
I quickly excused myself, expressing gratitude for the concern that the two showed for our predicament, thanked them for showing up and let them know that I had to do my own search and rescue that night. I hauled back to our campsite, changed into hiking clothes, put four sets of clothing in a backpack and headed back to Rainbow Pool, the original rafting trip destination to start hiking back up the river canyon… With a headlamp and semi-full moon, I hiked up the trail, up the river as far as I could until the trail ended in poison oak and brush on the steep bank of the canyon. Being by myself, I knew that I didn’t need to fall into the river with a heavy pack of clothing and I also didn’t need to fall down any of the steep inclines along the trail and add another person to the list of lost.
When the trail ended, I finally gave up and returned to camp at 1 pm, slept til 5 am, to get up, with plans to begin searching again. The Search and Rescue Team (SART) asked family members not to participate in the search as we could get in the way of their plans. So at about 7 am the helicopter arrived and the search teams were deployed on foot and ATVs. By 9 am, three rafter plus Eve the dog were found and picked up by the helicopter. We heaved a sigh of relief and were confident that Nathan, the fourth member would soon be found. Nathan went ahead of the group as a scout to get help, later to be told by SART never to leave the group. We expected Nathan to be found quickly as well. When the sun set that night and after 9 helicopter passes through the canyon were unable to locate Nathan, we began to fear for the worst. How could he not be seen? Did he fall onto rocks in the river and hit his head? Did he get stuck in rocks and get sucked under and drown? Did he break a leg? Was he injured and desperately wondering why no one was coming for him?
We were praying and worrying and haunted by thoughts of what might have happened to Nathan. The SART team confided later that they thought they would be bring him out in a body bag.
Nathan’s Air Force training helped him soldier through the second night, sleeping while protected from the wind with some bark and leaning against a fallen tree. Two nights, sleeping under the stars in only a swimming suit. Hiking through poison oak and sage brush, navigating waterfalls, rocks and rapids, Nathan was covered in scratches, soot and dirt from surviving in the wilderness for two nights, losing one of his sandals and his hat, he was left with only one sandal, his swimsuit and a GoPro in his pocket. He was a sorry sight to behold.
At 6 am he got up and hiked the final distance to Rainbow Pool, a public day use campground that is very popular and the original intended destination of the river raft trip. Fortunately there was someone there at 6 am. Nate asked for a ride and informed the man that he had survived the last two nights in the wilderness. Nathan looked pretty rough and the man asked him if he had any knives on him… 🙂 and agreed to give him a ride.
At 6:45 am, as we were waking up and preparing for the massive search and rescue operation, mobilizing 75 people for the search, with helicopters and intense coordination, we looked out the window of our RV to see this tall shirtless, hatless, one sandal-less 36 year old ambling our direction in the morning light. Jonathan was the first to see Nathan and he screamed, “You guys, you guys…”
I thought he saw a bear, only to look out and see what he saw, Nathan, all 6’7″ of him, walking into camp.
I cannot begin to describe what it was like to see everyone running out of the RV, with faces contorting from joy and emotion and relief that Nathan was alive and safe. We hugged, we cried, we thanked God that Nathan made it out alive.
The previous night I prayed and prepared for the worst. If Nate was brought out in a body bag, what would I do? What would I say at his funeral? “Nathan died like he lived, with a heart to rescue others…” I know of others who have lost their children through death at an early age, so I couldn’t presume upon God to spare me, but I prayed that He would and He answered my prayers.
I’m so grateful to the Search and Rescue Team who inconvenience themselves go out into inhospitable places to seek and to save that which is lost. They are amazing people! So as we gathered for a picture at the end of this ordeal, I commented, “I hope I never see you people again!”, they understood what I mean. That we would not repeat the same mistake that lead to an unwise choice, needing rescue in the wilderness. They smiled and acknowledged my heartfelt gratitude with a little sarcasm. I can’t begin to express how my heart beat so rapidly and the emotions surged inside of me when I realized that members of my family were at risk of death in the sierras.
After the officer in charge did his job of listing the things never to do again in the wilderness, we all agreed and thanked him for all that he and his crew had done on our behalf. After three days in isolation, we came up for air to see that social media had been tracking our crazy adventure online.
Thanking God that He spared us one more time, and I have a greater appreciation for the sense of urgency that God has to “seek and to save the lost.”