A small piece of broken grass is all that announces the passing of sharp hooves along this high creek. Two feet away the earth is churned up and broken grasses leave a clear trail heading south. I am always amazed at the fact that ten deer can run through the woods and leave little or no sign, while one person on the same trail will leave enough sign to last for weeks. Tracking through heavy timber is usually very hard. Pine duff and leaf litter combined with sticks and stones often make for very hard tracking. Today, however is an exception. The trail is hours old but scuff marks and broken forest debri make it easy to track this person even at a run. I follow the trail through heavy timber for about a mile when suddenly the trail turns downhill toward the river. Following this track had gained me insight to the person I am following. He is about one hundred and fifty pounds and long legged. In great shape considering the twelve miles I have been following his erratic trail and obviously not the brightest when it comes to wilderness travel or direction. Since daylight he has changed direction of travel eight times. He is now traveling back toward the river where he was three hours ago. If he keeps to the line of sight traveled, he will cross his and my tracks near the river . I pick up the pace and make a decision to cut across country to the narrows between a rock outcrop and the river. If he keeps going downhill at this angle he will either have to cross the rushing river or pass through the narrows.
An old elk trail makes travel fast and efficient for me as I race headlong through the forest. Gatherings of light and shadow alternate throughout the wilderness as I sit upon the rock outcrop. Heavy breathing and rapid heart rate pound in my ears as I try to catch my breath after the long run. My plan worked. Thirty feet below me a lanky man staggers through the forest. His face is scratched and he is filthy. His clothes are torn and his facial expression shows worry, fear and exhaustion. I work my way down toward an interception along the trail he travels, careful of my footing on the steep slope. The man looks up and immediately begins yelling, "help!help! Help me! " He runs up too me and in a fast talk and rapid hand gestures tells me he is lost and starving, and lost and he was so cold last night and he mentions he was lost. I offer him some water from my canteen and a bag of trail mix. He guzzles the water and immediately feels faint. I explain that too much water too fast will usually do that. He asks if I can go for help. Maybe send search and rescue, a chopper .. Anything!! I tell him that I am HELP.. I am a tracker for search and rescue and have been tracking him since yesterday evening. I explain that no choppers are coming, we will have to head down the trail along the river. From there we will follow the creek directly to his truck which was only about a half mile from where he slept under the overhang last night. I also explain that he would have been much warmer had he moved uphill away from the creek where colder air settles in the night. He told me that he has been hiking trails in the mountains for ten years, from Colorado to the Alps, and has never been lost.
"Until now I add." He also explained that he may sue the state of Montana for not marking the trails properly. I ponder leaving the man to his fate and hoping the wilderness will be merciful in its dispatching of this experienced woodsman. But the moment passes and I lead him back to a world, where well marked trails and designated campsites make it possible for "experienced wilderness travelers"to traverse our majestic places without fear of what those mean old mountains may do to them.
Oh, and by the way, wary traveler, grizzly bears don't only stay in places marked by the forest service as "bear areas." And unmarked trails are still trails. You can follow them out the same way you follow them in. And rock slides and avalanches don't just happen where signs are posted. So be careful, and have fun.