You know the feeling: prickles on the back of the neck, finding yourself in an impossible situation, things suddenly not going to plan. In the outdoors, circumstances that force you to call on your deeper knowledge and faculties are part of the appeal, but they don’t always end the way you want. Knowing what’s out there can help you make the best decisions when your safety — and that of your partners — is on the line.
Emma Walker’s upcoming book, Dead Reckoning: Learning from Accidents in the Outdoors, is about those moments. Each chapter is a self contained lesson, drawn from close calls skiing in mountain lion country, encountering altitude sickness on Mt. Rainier, escaping a flash flood in Utah’s Labyrinth Canyon, being dug out of a snow cave in Alaska, and more. Emma calls on her experience as a raft guide, backpacking instructor, avalanche educator and avid outdoors person to conclude each chapter with bulleted tips on how to best prepare for the unexpected in all varieties of situations.
With humility and humor, Emma offers educational entertainment that will make you think a little deeper about the dangers you could encounter on your next adventure. Check out the following excerpt from Chapter 1 and preorder your copy of the book today, to be released by Falcon Books in June.
Chapter 1 — CSI: Yellowstone
Written by Emma Walker
It’s just after 2:00 p.m. on New Year’s Day, and my husband, Bix, and I are cross-country skiing into a thicket of trees in the Gneiss Creek drainage, about two miles from the Yellowstone National Park boundary. Nighttime temperatures have been dipping down to 20 degrees below zero, but now, just after solar noon, the sun bounces off untouched snow to warm our faces, still tender with windburn from yesterday’s outing.
Our plan is to camp at or near an established backcountry site about another three miles down the trail, where we’ll escape the constant low hum of two-stroke engines for a quiet night under the stars. We’re carrying everything we’ll need for a relatively comfortable night of winter camping—it’s all jammed into our 60-liter backpacks and a duffel bag lashed to a tricked-out kiddie sled.
Despite my insistence that I’m more than capable of hauling the sled, Bix is the one pulling it. Normally I’m in front, because putting the slowest skier in the lead makes it easier to stick together. With the extra weight, he is, even with his long legs, moving considerably slower than me. I don’t mind taking up the rear for once, and the arrangement works fine until he stops short halfway down the drainage, causing me to lurch forward cartoonishly, barely catching myself on my ski poles.
I’m about to launch an as-yet-unheard string of curse words when I realize he hasn’t just zoned out on the scenery for the sixth or seventh time today.
He mutters something incomprehensible under his breath, doing his best to back away from whatever he’s just seen. It would be kind of funny, watching him try to backtrack uphill on skis, the sled slamming into his boots with each step, if only he didn’t sound so alarmed.
I begin to conjure the possibilities. In this part of the world, grizzlies are typically at the top of my list of concerns, but the bears will still be asleep for another two months, at least. A bison? No—we’re too far off the beaten path; they’re grazing in a valley a dozen miles away.
I can’t see what’s got Bix’s tongue, so I ski off the trail to get around the unwieldy sled.
Before me lies one of the most gruesome scenes I’ve ever encountered. It looks like something from a slasher movie. A trail of blood and hair winds its way to a freshly killed elk, whose final resting place is less than 10 feet off the trail.
Surveying the scene in front of me, I can practically hear the Law and Order theme song. Neither of us speaks for what seems like ages, until I can’t stand it any longer.
“What did this?” I ask, though I’m already scanning the crime scene for clues.
The trail, such as it is, cuts through a clearing from the top of the gully to the bottom, bisecting a gentle hillside. A hundred feet above us is the top of a knoll, populated by shivery quaking aspens. Across the little drainage are dense trees, coated in hard snow the consistency of icing on a ginger snap. The only trees anywhere near the trail are two lodgepole pines 10 feet below us, one of which shelters the remains of the elk.
In graduate school, I spent a great deal of time and energy thinking about the complex scientific properties of snow, marveling at its viscoelasticity and ability to conduct and insulate. I know the ingredients of an avalanche—a slab, a bed surface, a trigger—and how to identify various types of snow crystals. I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about what it’s like to be caught and buried in an avalanche; this causes me to look up at the slope above us and determine, based on a rough internal inclinometer calibrated by many years of looking at slope angles, that it’s probably not steep enough to slide.
What I don’t take enough time to appreciate is the way snow can tell a story. Here’s what it tells us today:
The tracks leading to the elk carcass plunge deep into the snow, the work of an ungulate on its long last legs. They stagger downhill, marking the path of least resistance with tiny droplets of
now-frozen blood. This poor creature wasn’t giving up easily, but it didn’t have far to go.
Another set of prints runs parallel to the elk tracks. Unlike the elk, the creature that made these tracks wasn’t in a hurry. It followed the elk downhill slowly—calculatedly. The narrow, perfectly
spaced pawprints are in stark contrast to the elk’s panicked, uneven pace. They spoon their victim’s tracks down to the tree before us, where what’s left of the elk now rests.
Surrounding the carcass are prints of all shapes and sizes: magpie feet, marks that mimic the way a bear slashes a tree trunk (raven wings), timid coyote tracks. Even a good-size badger has lumbered over for its share of the bounty.
Across the gully and trailing uphill into the woods is a set of tracks matching that of the predator. Each print is the size of my fist. It could easily be confused with the print of a domestic dog, except for one teeny detail: those perfectly round toe pads don’t have claw marks in front of them. Unlike dogs, cats keep their claws retracted unless they’re, say, killing an elk.
The feline’s tracks are just wide enough to accommodate the detail that quickens my heart rate—it’s as if the creature that left them was dragging something behind it.
Something like a tail.
This isn’t a harmless, tailless bobcat. It’s a cougar. An enormous, watching-you-right-now, I-finally-got-an-elk-and-you’re-keeping-me-from-eating-it cougar.
Startled, we look around. Of course we can’t see anything. You don’t see a cougar unless it wants you to, probably because it’s about to make you into charcuterie.