Three Days

December 29, 2008
By Jacquelyn Peterschmidt, Valparaiso, IN

It was three days before anyone noticed the absence of Kristin Ryder. She did not know this from the rise and fall of the sun; in fact, there was very little definition between day and night during winter in northern Canada. Rather, it was the digital watch on her wrist that kept her sane through the seventy-two hours she was alone.

It started as a trial for her new snowshoes. A rather stupid idea in December, but Kristin had always been a risk taker. She had everything she needed for half a day in the open, plus extra rations in case she was stuck for a day. She started off on a well-known trail. Her snowshoes worked well in the deep snow, apart from a few mishaps when she slipped hip-deep into a snow bank. She got the idea of walking quickly.

Halfway into her adventure, Kristin was confronted with a split in the trail. She could not get the map due to the triple layer of mittens she wore. However, she expected the split and took the left path. This was the first mistake; had she taken the time to strip a layer off her hand, the highlighted route on the map would have pointed her to the right. Kristin was still not in any danger. The left path took a little longer to find its way back to the trail head, but at the very worst, she would be out for an hour longer than planned.

The second mistake was made in a small clearing. Under less snow, a bright red sign would direct hikers to make a harsh right and loop back to the start of the trail. Kristin headed straight for the opening in the trees on the other side of the clearing. More signs would be apparent at the opening in the forest, if just four inches of snow melted.

Kristin hiked for another hour before checking her watch. She should be back at her Jeep by now. Her flashlight was running low on batteries, and even though she had another set in her pack, it was worrisome. She was not prepared to stay the night in the subzero temperatures; the cold was already penetrating her clothes.

Half an hour later, Kristin was lost. The map she finally took the initiative to get out showed no landmarks she could see, and the path she was on had deteriorated to an animal trail. There was nothing she could do to get herself back on track. Her watch told her she had been outside for five hours, and the cold creeping into her boots reinforced the fact. Kristin made the decision to try and burrow down in the snow.

A survival manual she had read in school long ago spoke about snow caves. The basic steps were very clear: find a drift, dig into it, make a ventilation hole. Kristin believed it to very easy when she read it. Now, when the skill was needed for her survival, she was faced with fatigue and absence of a shovel.

Kristin had no problem finding a drift. They were everywhere. She located one protected by a large tree and stomped around next to her prospective entrance so she could take her snowshoes off. She stuck the shoes in the snow a few feet away and took a deep breath. This was going to be difficult, she knew, but the construction of a snow cave was her chance to get out of the cold.

Her muscles were warm already. Kristin had no problem digging a hole large enough for herself a few feet into the snowbank. When the snow began to transform into a denser variety, made only by the weight of three feet of snow on top, she began to have problems. She resisted taking a break, convincing her tired body that once the cave was done, she would eat a granola bar. It was an hour and a half before she had a suitable space to spend the night in.

It wasn't overly large, and more long than wide, but Kristin could sit comfortably. The ventilation hole she had made in the roof was the part that required the most thought, but Kristin had managed one two inches in diameter. It seemed too big for the small space, but the warmth trapped in the room kept her warm. She pulled her coat off, a huge effort in the small space. Her body was not against the sudden drop in temperature. She stuffed the bulky fabric into the opening of the tunnel to insulate the room further. This proved to be a bad move, since her food and water was in the coat. Her stomach protested to the denial of food, so Kristin pulled the coat back into her cave and oriented it so the pockets were accessible.

Kristin devoured the chocolate chip granola bar and longed for another, but she was already energized and found it easier to deny her body the food. With her stomach turning the food over, she found it easier to think.

Obviously, she was desperately lost. There was no hope of starting tomorrow and getting back to the Jeep. She had enough granola bars and instant meals for a day, if she ate whenever she wanted. She could draw those out for three or four days. Water was abundant, if in the form of snow. The verdict was simple: Kristin could stay here and hope for rescue for four days. The only question was, how to attract attention?

In the far north, many people had small planes. They were kept in the driveway like boats were further south. She had to make something able to be seen from a distance. Kristin's tee shirt was bright pink, and large enough if she ripped the seams to increase surface area. That was the first task: get noticed.

The second was find shelter. Kristin had that in her snow cave. She also had water in two water bottles, and snow all around. She was not injured in any way, except for tiredness. She did not need heat; it was comfortably warm in her little room. Food was the most difficult problem to solve; she had eight granola bars. If she stayed in her cave, she could sleep most of the time and not burn as many calories. She would not be as hungry. This, she determined, was better than going out and running around without the promise of finding anything to eat or even finding her way back to her cave.

Kristin had plans for all her problems now. The only real effort would be getting her shirt off. She stripped off her sweater and tee shirt and sat shivering in only a camisole until she got her sweater back on. She fumbled with the seams, trying to find a weak spot. It was an older shirt; there had to be something. Finally, just when she was losing hope, Kristin's fingers came upon a loose string. She grabbed it in her teeth and pulled. A satisfying ripping filled her little room as the entire left side of the shirt fell apart. With more leverage, it was easier to tear the right side.

Kristin now planned to run out in just her sweater (putting her coat on for a thirty second excursion seemed silly), lay out her shirt, and pin it down with her snowshoes. She took a deep breath, then pulled her coat aside and wriggled through her tunnel.

It was cold, she knew. The sensation of the freezing weather was somehow separated from her consciousness. The adrenaline rush brought on by the life-or-death action kept Kristin from feeling the pain when she dug her bare fingers into the snow to get her snowshoes out. The process took longer than she expected; her fingers were slow to react and stiff when they did.

Kristin rushed back into her cave as soon as she could. After the sudden rush of excitement was gone, she noticed her the pain in her fingers. The snow still stuck to them had melted, leaving them wet and freezing cold. She absently rubbed them together, trying to get warmth back to the fingertips. She was still breathing hard, not from the exertion, but from the pure excitement of finishing her task. A wide smile crossed her face.

Kristin now had nothing to do. She had made the decision to stay in the snow cave. She sat reveling in the glory of completing her few goals for a few minutes before a sudden pang of tiredness struck. Kristin tried to curl up comfortably on the hard ground of her cave, but it was impossible in the small space. She settled for a strange position, in which she had one leg tucked up to her chest and the other poking out the entrance.

She didn't know how long she slept; the endless dark and absence of an alarm destroyed all sense of time. Her watch said three o'clock quite plainly when she woke for the first time, but Kristin didn't know if this was the morning or the afternoon. With slow, imprecise movements, she changed it to twenty-four hour time.

With the change, Kristin knew it was three in the afternoon. She ate a granola bar, then rolled over and went back to sleep.

Kristin's seventy-two hours in her cave were spent in slight delirium; her waking hours were spent timing everything, from how long she could hold her breath to how long it took for snow to melt in her water bottle. When that grew tedious, she devised a complicated point system for catching water drops on her tongue. She slept for most of the time, devoid of any sense of the passing hours apart from her watch.

The rescue was quite uneventful; men in red snowsuits dug into her cave and pulled her body out. She suffered from hypothermia and slight frostbite in her fingers, but was otherwise unscathed by the snow.

In the hospital, Kristin was told the events leading to her discovery: her friend informed the police when she was not back by the next day, a search began on foot, and a volunteer with a plane saw her shirt while searching in the air. Without the proper equipment to rescue her, the police had to requisition a helicopter from the next town over. She was told it was a miracle she survived.

Kristin agreed.

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