Special Forces Training
The C-130 flew through the night over mountainous terrain with few lights of cities. JJ slept some. Occasionally, he would realize he was on the plane from its vibration and look out the window. He lost track of direction but thought that they were heading south. His long time underground had made him slightly disoriented. They arrived some time before dawn at a remote air force base. From the heat and humidity, JJ guessed that they were in Georgia or Florida. A van was waiting to pick them up. JJ removed his sweatshirt on the way to the van. He was relieved when he found that the van had air conditioning. A butch looking young woman named Carla Fuentes sat next to him in the van. She said she was looking forward to Special Forces training and had found the Academy to be a bore. "I'm Cuban, you know. I can't wait to get out there and use my Castilian. Cuba, Mexico, South America, the Philippines. I'm ready to go anywhere. Besides, living in Miami with rich parents has been a drag. I'm so glad to be rid of them."
"I'm not. Mine are dead." JJ spoke matter-of-factly. He wasn't looking for sympathy, just stating the truth. "They died in the blast."
"That's terrible, JJ. You did say your name was JJ?" JJ nodded in agreement. "I bet you really wanna get those bastards that did it. Actually, I don't really care about Cuba. Castro is old hat. I'd really like to go to the Philippines. I've studied the Moslem religion enough to infiltrate Al Qaeda, even as a woman. Do you think Al Qaeda did it?"
In spite of Carla's buoyant nature, JJ started to cry inside. "I don't know. I really don't know and don't care. I'm just here to do a job the best I can. Maybe we will find out one day -- maybe not." His voice cracked and gave him away.
"I'm sorry," Carla said, and she went silent, staring straight ahead, a tear forming in her right eye. They didn't speak again.
The sun came up and through the van windows like a lightning bolt. It'd been over two years since any of them had seen the sun. The power and glare of it was unbearable. JJ found himself closing his eyes and pressing his head back into the headrest, allowing only the faintest of light to penetrate beneath his eyelids. It was as surreal as the life he was now leading. From time to time he would glance out the windows not facing the sun to see where they were. A lot of piney woods with some hills thrown in for good measure -- Georgia? JJ was getting pretty hungry and thirsty when they arrived at the gates of Fort Bragg.
The first stop was mess. JJ was tired from the trip but not as tired as he was hungry. With a full stomach, he joined the others for orientation before they were sent to the Special Forces division.
Special Forces training was like basic, except now soldiers who believed in and were skilled in the ways of war surrounded JJ. A few days of the regimen and the little flab JJ had acquired at the Academy was gone. After six weeks of advanced survival and weapons training, JJ was shipped out to the Coronado, California for Navy Seal training. Underwater work was difficult for him at first because of all the equipment and the physical stamina required to work in freezing water. More than once, JJ swallowed seawater before he had an opportunity to change air supplies. The choking, suffocating, strong flavor of seawater lingered long after he had successfully coughed up and spit out the offending inflow. He learned that if you are going to make it you either have to rely on your own resourcefulness or that of your buddies. In one exercise where he shared an air supply with Carla for nearly a half-hour as they swam underwater to a designated target boat, JJ realized how dependent he was. He had no desire to swap spit with Carla, but in that exercise they were more intimate than lovers.
The physical conditioning was especially rough. Here is where JJ excelled. He was able to lift more, go longer, and sleep less than the other soldiers in training. After a hard sprint under heavy fire between buildings, he was still steady enough to lay down accurate fire in spite of his heart trying to come on his chest in exertion and excitement. In these games, no one could touch him. Unfortunately, like in Iraq, death would come from a bomb tripped unawares or a sniper's bullet unseen. No amount of physical training could prepare him for that. JJ was glad that he wasn't going into combat. It wasn't that his work wouldn't be dangerous; it was that many military assignments in trouble spots around the world now had to deal with snipers and sabotage bombing on a regular basis. Body armor had improved a great deal, but not every soldier used a bomb suit for regular duty. If a sniper hits you, you likely would not survive. If a bomb hits you the chances of losing limbs or brain damage is very high. There was nothing valorous in these cowardly ways to fight that had become more the norm than head-to-head combat.
JJ's skin turned brown and tough. He gained weight, but it was all muscle. He was growing too, two inches since the last time he measured. He now stood 5 foot 11 and had shed his teenage look. In the mirror, he could see his Uncle Jim peering back at him. While shaving, he sometimes talked to him when no one was in earshot. "Uncle Jim, I know you can't hear me, but I want you to know that I'm doing the best I can here in Special Forces training trying to live up to your ideal of what a soldier should be. On Mom and Dad's graves, wherever they may be, I swear I will do my best for you and them." JJ always felt better leaving the barracks on mornings when he had a pep talk with his Uncle before maneuvers. Each day he felt like saving somebody. When the opportunity arose, he did.
One morning on sea maneuvers, they had to jump from a fast-moving launch into choppy seas. When Carla jumped, she slipped, hitting her head on the edge of the boat as she fell into the water. She had on scuba gear with weights to keep her down, so she quickly disappeared beneath the waves, leaving a bloody trail behind. The launch driver didn’t see or hear what happened, but JJ did. He wasn't supposed to leap in the water himself for another hundred yards, but he hit the water as soon as he saw her head hit the edge of the boat. When he got his bearings underwater, the launch was gone and in its wake above he could see the plume of blood about thirty feet behind where Carla had gone down. He swam back to it as fast as he could and dove. He followed the blood trail down and down. She was sinking fast. He caught up with her at about 50 feet. She was unconscious and had lost her mouthpiece. Blood was still pouring from her head wound. He grabbed her by her ankles and pulled her up to him. He forced the mouthpiece in her mouth and began swimming for daylight with one arm around her waist. It was a struggle, but he made it to the surface with her. By that time, the launch driver had figured out what happened and turned around. JJ could see him bearing down on them. Carla was still unconscious and JJ wasn't sure if she was breathing. He was scared, but not scared enough not to act. When the launch driver pulled up alongside, he reached up and pulled himself in with one smooth motion. And then, with a good grip on Carla's tank harness he pulled her in the boat with him and began CPR, holding his hand over her head wound to stem the bleeding.
In an instant, Lt. Jack, the launch driver, was at his side with a first aid kit. JJ concentrated on Carla's diaphragm and mouth-to-mouth. Before long, Carla was spitting out seawater and convulsing. JJ had to hold her down so that Lt. Jack could finish taping on the bandage. Carla's skin was whiter than he ever thought it could be. She was still unconscious, but breathing. He couldn't feel a pulse. He didn't know how long she had from all the blood loss. Lt. Jack radioed for a chopper and headed for the beach. It only took them about five minutes to run up on the beach. By that time, JJ could feel the beat of the helicopter as it arrived over his shoulder. The medics took over after that and quickly carried Carla off into the open door that closed while the craft hesitated a moment, and then lifted effortlessly out of sight.
Remembering how she looked, JJ returned to the barracks and told the others. They all sat around talking about how that funky little firecracker from Havana was going to be missed. JJ couldn't sleep that night thinking about Carla. He tossed and turned all night. He didn't feel like getting up for Reveille but he had to. As he headed for the shower he was surprised to see Carla in her bed. She was heavily bandaged and the whole side of her face was blue, but she was sleeping soundly. She didn't join the rest of them for calisthenics, but she was there in the cafeteria when JJ arrived. He sat down next to her.
"I thought you were dead. You took quite a hit and were so pale when the copter picked you up that I thought you weren't going to make it."
Carla smiled as much as the tight bandage would allow. "They told me that I was 5 quarts low, and began pumping me full of blood while they were stitching up that gash in my head. I came to from time to time and they told me that I had suffered a concussion but that otherwise I was okay. This morning I woke up in my cot with a terrible headache. I took a couple of aspirin and came over here. The headache's gone, but this bandage sure is tight."
It wasn't the bandage. When she changed it later that day she had no less than 50 stitches where the edge of the boat had neatly sliced a deep gash to the bone above her left eye. The tightness was from the stitches and the swollen tissue from the solid bump she got. She wasn't allowed on maneuvers for three days until they learned that she would have no lasting effects from the concussion.
About a week later, JJ was going through his duffel looking for a pair of socks when he saw a neatly folded piece of white paper. He opened it and what he saw made him smile. Carefully lettered on the paper was, "I love you, C." JJ didn't know quite what to make of it. He always thought of Carla as a lesbian, a butch -- one of the guys. This was a new twist. He folded the paper back the way it was and put it where he found it. Like he never found it. He never thought of Carla the same way again, even though he didn't respond to her overture. When he found the paper again later, he threw it away.
JJ's training passed quickly. He was a natural, a natural soldier and natural team player. The Special Forces relied on teamwork and worked in small teams. Teamwork required specialists still able to pick up and carry out the mission when another member of the team was lost or wounded. Before he was through, JJ learned all the parts. It made him a better man for the lonely activity he was about to undertake. One final challenge awaited him before his graduation. And then he would be on his way.
Sub Arctic Trial
There were 10 of them again, this time flying north. Carla was conspicuously absent. After a 10-hour flight in the vibrating C-130, JJ was most pleased when they finally landed at a remote air base in northern Canada. He guessed Alberta or Saskatchewan but wasn't sure. Trees closed in on the runway from all sides, but they weren't tall trees like in the states. They were probably stunted from the short growing season. It was sunny that morning, but in late September there was a heavy chill in the air. It was a welcome change from the brutal heat and humidity of a summer in Georgia. It reminded him of early mornings on the California coast. They were escorted to a small Quonset hut for supplies and briefing.
"Okay, listen up!" The Major was talking. "You guys are here for one reason, to test your initiative and survival skills in sub arctic terrain. You are lucky. You'll be given a warm, waterproof jumpsuit, good boots, mittens, a map, a Swiss Army knife, two granola bars and five matches. Your counterparts in tropical and desert trials don't get any of that. Your task is to follow the map to your destination in the shortest amount of time. Let me warn you in advance. Do not travel at night; it is too dangerous. Do not rip or otherwise get your waterproof suit wet; you may die before we can get to you. Make sure you drink plenty of water. Surface water is safe here. Melt snow in your mouth if you have to. You each will be injected with chips keeping track of your vitals and letting us know where you're at. Rest assured, that if you are in trouble -- serious trouble -- we will rescue you. However, that is not our purpose. Our purpose is to see how well you survive in a hostile environment with few resources. Good luck."
With that, all of the candidates lined up for capsules to be placed under their skin to locate them and keep track of their vital signs. It hurt a little bit, but nothing like the probes during the exam he had in St. Louis. After they received their tracking and monitoring chips everyone picked up a jumpsuit and tried it out. JJ checked all the pockets, but only found the knife, matches and granola bars. He divided the matches up and put them in four separate pockets, just in case he got wet. The jumpsuit was warm, very warm. He left it mostly unzipped while they waited for their transport. Five Blackhawk helicopters arrived, and JJ knew he was going for a ride.
JJ was escorted to a Blackhawk with Charles Krueger. Charlie had been in Special Forces training with JJ. JJ recalled him being a good adversary in war games -- especially computer war games. More than once Charlie had taken him out. It was a good thing it was only on the computer. As anxious as he was about what was going to take place, he chatted with Krueger a bit as the helicopter took off over the unending miniature forest to the north. It was relaxing to talk.
"What brings you to a place like this, Charlie?" JJ joked.
"I'm from North Dakota. I've hunted days in blizzards that weren't fit for man or beast. But I always enjoyed the warmth of the fireplace after a long day in the cold. Haven't stayed out overnight though since I was in Boy Scouts. Not looking forward to that."
"Me neither. I'm from Virginia. The cold wind on those mountaintops can get to you, but nothing like the subzero temperatures here."
"No food, either. Animals can make themselves scarce in cold weather. Got to eat to keep warm."
"Thanks Charlie, I'll remember that." They both fell silent, each planning silently what they would do, but still, uncertain what that would be.
They were in the air nearly an hour when a mountain range appeared in the distance. It was a low range, nothing like the Virginia mountains. But JJ could see rocky outcroppings and a variation of trees on the upper and lower slopes. Just beyond that range was another, creating a valley between. A bright blue stream reflecting the sun's angled light, wandered through the valley. They were ordered to get ready to jump. Charlie was the first to go.
They were hovering about 100 feet above the side of the stream over a small field of grass just before the heavy brush began. The lieutenant in charge handed Charlie a paper and told him, "Here’s your map. There's a front coming in; be sure you have good shelter for tonight."
Charlie repelled down the hundred-foot line, landed safely on his feet in the grass and waved them off.
JJ watched Charlie become a small speck by that sparkling stream as the helicopter continued north over the next range into the next valley where there was another stream for him to be dropped. The lieutenant followed the same routine and JJ repelled to a soft landing in the grass. Waving the helicopter off, it was easy for JJ to get his bearings. The sun was low in what appeared to be straight south, putting it to be about noon. There was very little wind, and it was about 60°. It was too warm for the jumpsuit, so JJ carefully crawled out of it, pulled out the map, and read it. The map had him following the stream downstream to the east until there was a break in the range to the south. From there, he was to cross the pass to another stream in another valley. It looked so simple on the map--only about 25 miles. But when JJ started walking, he realized it wasn't going to be easy. The ground along the creek was soft and mushy. Hammocks of grass kept tripping him up and low-lying brush made going very difficult at times. By, what he figured was 3 p.m., he had made only a couple of miles towards the pass. Fortunately, he could see it ahead. Behind him in the west, an ominous cloud was forming. It was only a matter of time before darkness and the front would overtake him. Time to hunker down for the night.
JJ found some close growing willows and decided that's where he would hole up. With the Swiss Army knife saw blade, he cut a few willows halfway through and tipped them over, making a fair lean-to it about an hour. He gathered up all the grass he could find and made a bed under the lean-to. And then he stuffed grass in the cracks between the willows. The cloud in the west kept growing and it bothered him. He went down to the stream, and looking over the edge of a hammock saw a nice Grayling swim by. Slipping his hand gently in the frigid water, be caught up with it and grabbed its tail. It thrashed a lot harder then he thought it would, but, at about two pounds, it was a nice catch. With its long dorsal fin, it was one weird looking fish. JJ looked forward to tasting it.
It only took him about five minutes to clean the fish and another ten minutes to catch and clean another. In another ten minutes, he’d gathered firewood. With a single match he soon had a roaring fire and enough coals to cook the fish. While he still had time, he began digging at the roots of the hammocks near the water and found several nice, fat, grubs. Finding a pocket in his jumpsuit that wasn't used, he put them in, along with some nice soft loam, so they would stay alive for a while. He also found some nice tubers that appeared to be like those he saw in the survivor book. He popped them on the coals until they were brown. They were stringy and not too pleasant tasting, but made a nice offset to the strong flavor of the Grayling. It was good and JJ ate his fill. He wished for a little salt, but to be eating was a lot better than having flavoring without food.
By now the wind was whipping up around him and he knew he couldn't save the fire. He wrapped about two pounds of cooked fish in grass and put it in the pockets of his jumpsuit. He took a big drink of the fresh, ice cold water, face down, and then walked off a bit from there to take a leak. The wind blew his pee far from where he aimed it. It cut through him like a knife. It was time to get into the jumpsuit for the night. There were snow flurries in the air and the wind was howling as he stuffed more grass in the willows to shield him from it.
JJ didn't sleep much those first couple of hours as the snow blew in around him and he worried. After a while, it began to pack hard against the willows and form a natural shelter. He was warm enough; it was just the howling wind that bothered him. Before long, fatigue and the digesting fish overtook him, and he fell asleep. Bright sun, lighting up the snow around him, woke him up. The whole valley was covered with two feet of new, powdery soft snow. It was bitter cold, he guessed it to be about 10°F, but he was dry and warm in his bed. That made it hard to get up; but he had to pee, so he did. The snow and the hummocks made it really difficult to walk, so he didn't get far. The stream was frozen over and covered with snow. He was glad that he had caught the fish the night before. Melting small amounts of snow in his mouth, JJ wet his whistle. He was hungry, so he bit off a bite from one of the granola bars, ate some fish and left the rest for later. He kept thinking that a hot cup of coffee would go good right now.
Realizing that walking was going to be difficult, JJ turned to the willows to make himself a pair of snowshoes. He began cutting up his shelter to create them. A machete would have been better, but the Swiss Army knife worked for what he had to do. After finding supple willow for the frame and cutting it off with a saw blade, he began notching it so it would bend, and tying it with strips of his shirt. Within an hour he had fashioned a fairly good pair of green wood snowshoes. His hands were very cold by the time. Slipping them into his mittens, he was glad for their warmth. Packing everything away carefully and taking one look at the map, he set out.
Even with snowshoes, going was difficult. He was afraid of walking on the snow in the stream because it was moving swiftly and he knew there were places where the ice could be too thin to walk on. He had to stop often to repair the shoes. The struggle of his walking made him extremely warm, so he unzipped his jumpsuit to keep cooler. He knew that all the energy he expended would require food and water. The snow, while cold to his tongue, was untainted and a source of fresh water. The fish in his pockets was a reminder that he still had food. His world was now a sea of white. The sun was blinding off the snow. Cutting another strip of cloth from his shirttail, he cut it with slits for his eyes like he saw the Eskimos do. Looking through the slits reduced his vision considerably, but reducing glare would keep him from going snow blind. With his vision partially impaired by the slits, he almost stumbled on it…
A snowshoe hare was struggling in the soft snow in front of him where he had stepped on it with his snowshoe. He reached down, and grabbed the rabbit by its kicking legs, lifted it up, and gave it a karate chop in the back of the neck. It stiffened, and was dead almost instantly, blood oozing out of its nose. JJ couldn't believe his luck. First, the trout, and now the rabbit! He stopped and decided to clean the rabbit while it was still soft and easy to clean. Taking out his Swiss Army knife, he quickly skinned the animal, cut it open and let the guts out, and then cut it up in pieces small enough so that he could stow them and cook them over a fire in the evening. There was that smell -- that awful smell -- that accompanied cleaning a rabbit. JJ didn't know it, but that smell was doing more than bothering him. Having finished his work, he was pushing aside some snow to find some grass when his eye caught movement in the distance.
It was just a speck in the white landscape, but it was moving fast and growing by the minute. Downwind, and directly in the east where he was headed, the speck turned into a bear bounding through the snow in his direction. JJ didn't have time to finish wrapping the rabbit in grass, he just stuffed it in the nearest pocket and started off south at right angles from where the bear was following the creek and coming at him. As he struggled with the hammocks and the shoes, he made little progress. The form of the bear grew and he could see that it was a big grizzly. It was clearly following the scent of the dead rabbit. JJ had only made about 200 feet up the slope to the south when the bear arrived where JJ had cleaned the rabbit. The silvertip made quick work of the guts and threw the skin in the air as if in disgust for not having found any meat. Keeping his eye on the bear, JJ was working his way east now, trying to get downwind. He was going ever so slowly, hoping that the bright sun would keep the bear from seeing him. It didn't work. The bear was now fixed on him and starting to move. He clutched the Swiss Army knife tightly, but knew it couldn't help him much. He had to think of something quick.
Taking a leg of the rabbit from his pocket, he threw it as far as he could upwind, past the bear. It worked. The bear turned and ambled over to where the leg had disappeared in the snow. JJ kept heading in the other direction, his eye over his shoulder, watching to see if the bear was following. It took some time for the bear to find the leg and eat it. It was enough time for JJ to put some distance between him and the bear. It wasn't enough. Over his shoulder, JJ could see the bear coming again, this time, cautiously sniffing his trail every few steps. JJ waited until he got close, almost too close, before he turned and threw another leg. The grizzly reared up to a standing position, and almost caught the leg as it flew by. He immediately dropped again to all fours and bounded back after the leg deeply buried in the snow a couple hundred feet behind.
JJ was getting desperate now. He didn't have time to fix his snowshoes and they were starting to fall apart in his efforts to move quickly. To the right and up high on the range was a rocky outcropping. He decided to head for it. Setting his steps carefully, he started for it. He was about halfway there when he saw the bear coming again. By now, the wind had blown most of the snow off the rocky northern slope, so he decided to ditch his shoes. He just got out of the snowshoes before the bear arrived. He knew he couldn't outrun it, especially uphill, but fear overcame him and he took off up the slope through snow and loose rock. Thinking maybe that it was food, the bear focused on his snowshoes, merrily ripping them up and throwing them in the air. It was a sadistic pleasure to be sure, but one that gave JJ enough time to get away. By the time the bear looked up again, JJ was halfway again to the outcropping and climbing for his life.
The bear soon got tired of playing with JJ’s snowshoes and turned once again to him. All JJ could think of was, that if the bear was not sated in this harvest season, he would surely think of JJ as food. He was ready to stab the bear in the nose if he ever got that close. He was scrambling now in the hopes that would never happen. By the time he reached the outcropping, the bear was working his way up the slope, following JJ's trail. Even with his mittens on, JJ climbed up the rocky face quickly. He looked for and found a spot where there was a vertical slope on all sides and climbed to the top. There wasn't much room on top, but this was where he was going to hold his ground. He didn't have long to think about it, the bear was once again close and heading right for him.
The grizzly could stand nearly 10 feet tall. The rock that JJ had climbed up upon was about 14 vertical feet. Without hesitation, the bear jumped up and caught hold of a nub just 3 feet from the top and pulled himself up. His head was just below JJ and he could smell the rotten rabbit guts on the bear's breath as he struggled to get to the top. JJ pulled out the knife and stabbed him in the nose. The blade went in about a half-inch, the bear yowled and rolled backward off the rock and rolled down the slope. He ended up in a soft patch of snow about 100 yards below, whining and pawing at his nose. It was some time before he had enough courage to come back up to where JJ was again. This time, he had learned and didn't try to climb the where JJ was again. Instead, he wandered around below, panting, yowling, and growling. Laying siege to JJ's superior position.
JJ took stock of his situation. He didn't hear any helicopter, so they weren't coming to get him, even though his heart rate must have been off the chart. He was hot ad sweating from all the exertion and fear, so opened up his jumpsuit to let a bit of the frigid air in. He didn't dare take anything out to eat because he knew that the bear could smell it and might try to climb back up to him again. The sun was low in the west and sunset was not far off. Positioning himself so he could see the bear, he lay down on the rough rock and relaxed as best he could. It was a standoff.
JJ watched as the sun slowly set across the barren, white landscape. He enjoyed the moment for what it was, a peaceful time in late autumn before the winter would come and take this land completely. He didn't envy the bear, having to eat enough so that he could make it through the winter. If he had to stay here on this rock for the whole experience, he would. JJ decided, then and there, that he was not going to be bear food. Still, he got more edgy as it grew darker. Finally, all he could see was a dark red line on the western horizon as the bright blue of the sky turned darkly to black. Feeling around his perch for handholds, Jason secured himself as best he could and settled in for a long, cold night. He made sure he ate some more snow so that he wouldn't get dehydrated. Zipped up his jumpsuit, and tried to relax.
JJ forgot one thing. He had to pee. So, he unzipped his jumpsuit again, and, careful not to fall off his perch, he positioned himself to pee off the rock. It was an unexpected relief -- he had held it in so long. He could hear it splashing off the rocks below. The smell and sound of it put the bear into frenzy. JJ could hear his panting and whining as he circled the rock endlessly, stopping to sniff JJ's urine on every trip around. Feeling better, JJ curled back up into the spot he had picked and zipped back up again.
Occasionally during the night, the bear would stir, pant, grunt, and whine as he circled the spot where this creature was keeping him away from food. His nose kept reminding him not to climb back up on the rock. JJ tried to stay awake, afraid that the bear would try to climb back up again or he would lose his grip and fall off the rock. The stars were immense and amazing above him. He tried to pick out constellations that he had learned in Boy Scouts. Exhaustion overtook him, and it wasn't until he felt cold sometime near morning, that he woke up. He had to pee again, but was afraid to get up for fear of alerting the bear. He held the pee and shivered until dawn. He was glad to see it, and happier still not to see the bear. He waited until the sun was fully up and he had time to scan the entire area before he decided to pee. The grizzly had trampled the whole area below the rock. JJ could see several places where he had marked the rock. JJ was hungry, so he took out a piece of the fish and ate it. It was good, so he popped a couple of grubs. They weren't good, but more protein than the fish. He waited to see if the smell of the fish would bring the bear -- it didn't. Relieved, JJ decided to leave the rock. The sun was warm and to the south he could see large evergreens. It was where he had to go anyway.
JJ thought about going back for the snowshoes. He couldn't take the chance. Still, he didn't know how he would do once he reached the deep snow again. Conflicted, he started off southeast, saying to himself that he could make more snowshoes if he had to. He moved quickly, constantly looking back to see if the bear was following him again. There were no tracks in the snow ahead and that made him feel good. So did the sun. It was calm and warm and the sun was rapidly melting the snow. It was soft underfoot and he was making good time. Finally, about 10 in the morning, he reached the trees. They were spruce and quite tall. Soon, there were hemlock, pine, birch, and a variety of other trees as he descended into a canyon at a much lower altitude than he had been. He heard chickadees; saw the tracks of mice, snowshoe hare, and wolves. This was territory he could deal with. Much more opportunities for food than in the high tundra.
The stream that ran from the high ground down into the canyon became a raging torrent, fed by the melting snow, as it raced through evermore-rocky terrain. The sound of the water splashing about was music to JJ's ears. Still, he did not feel like bursting out into song for fear that the bear would hear him. A tune came to his head, but he sang it silently and kept his ears tuned for the sounds of the forest. JJ wasn't on the trail outlined in the map, but, even without a compass, he knew he was headed in the right direction. All he had to do is follow the stream down and pick up the trail that he was supposed to be on. At least that was his thinking.
Soon, he had to stay away from the edge of the canyon because it was becoming too rugged and rocky. He stayed to the higher slopes under the trees. The going got rough again because the snow was deeper there and he often floundered in snow nearly to his waist. He thought about making snowshoes again, but with the bear on his back and not much left of the day, he decided against it. His struggling made him warm and he was sweating in the jumpsuit. He didn't dare take it off though, because it kept him dry. Had to keep moving. Sometime, just after noon, he stopped under a large pine tree and sat down to eat the rest of the fish and take the last bite of the granola bar. He savored the bar, chewing it slowly and looking out over the winter wonderland before him. He felt good. He was warm. Still had the back and front legs of the rabbit to cook that evening, and the last granola bar. He checked his matches and found that the rabbit had fouled one of them when he had quickly thrust it in that pocket. A bear will make you make that kind of mistake. He was glad he had separated them. No time for a fire now. Must get up and get going again.
There was the rustle of tree limbs to his left and JJ was startled. A great gray wolf burst from the brush and froze. They were only 15 feet apart. JJ, with his back to the tree, and the wolf, frozen in place, staring at him. JJ stared back, thinking of how he could get the knife opened before the wolf attacked while he looked into those beautiful, blue, wild eyes focused on him like he was game. They must've stared each other for five minutes. Finally, the wolf threw his head back as if to announce his superiority, and loped off. JJ was more amused than frightened. He knew that the wolf would not attack alone unless he was very hungry. He also knew that the primary food for Arctic wolves was mice, and he was far too big for an easy meal.
JJ moved on. The terrain got more hilly and rugged, so he found himself climbing quite often to follow the stream. By what he figured was about three o'clock, he looked for a place to stop for the night. Knowing that the bear may be following him, he thought about trying to sleep in a tree. That thought didn't appeal much because it would be cold and he would have to tie himself in. Instead, he opted for a hollow in a rock wall overlooking the stream. It would shelter him from the north wind, and, with a fire he could keep any animal from trying to approach him. There wasn't any firewood in the hollow, so he had to search all around to get some, tramping the snow down in the entire area. Finally, after about an hour, he thought he had enough wood to last the night.
With some dried pine needles for tinder, he got a roaring fire started with the second match. It wasn't long before he had the rabbit cooking on a stake. It smelled so good he could hardly wait for it to finish cooking. He cooked the two legs while he was chewing every last morsel from the bony body. It was so good to have hot food after two days. He gathered up pine boughs and made a fairly good bed up against the rock. Careful with his wood he kept the small fire going. He had nothing to melt water in and the stream was too far away, so he ate some more snow and settled in as it grew darker. He was warm in that hollow and soon the rabbit in his belly and exhaustion in his limbs put him to sleep.
Startled awake, JJ looked and saw that the fire was nothing more than embers. It was cold, but he was still warm from sleeping. He had to pee, so he got up and walked over to the edge and took a leak. He remembered what had awakened him. It was wolves howling. He heard them again, off the distance, an eerie sound. Closer, he heard the occasional hoot of a snowy owl. Except for the wolves, these were familiar sounds of the wilderness night. The stars were bright overhead. All was peaceful and calm. He built the fire up once again and felt its warmth. He curled up and went back to sleep.
Light was piercing his eyelids and he had to pee again. The fire was out. Everything smelled smoky. He was hungry, but JJ resisted the urge to eat the last granola bar. Instead, he reached for the grubs, now dead, and swallowed them, one by one. They weren't tasty, but they were protein. Reluctantly, he rolled out of the pine boughs and stood up. The sound of chickadees told him it was still morning. He stretched, looked around, and felt good and ready to face another day walking. He took a few steps to the edge over the water, zipped down his jumpsuit, and relieved himself. He had just finished, taking in the scene in front of him, when he heard a loud grunt off to his right and behind him.
JJ turned slowly, zipping up his jumpsuit as he did. Just as he thought, it was the grizzly about thirty feet off, standing up and posturing, his nose in the air sniffing to see if it was safe to come closer. JJ didn't have much time to think except that he knew he couldn't outrun a grizzly. The canyon was high here, about 20 feet to the water below. The water below was calm, hopefully indicating that it was deep. Thinking of that scene from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, he jumped.
The water was deep, and cold--freezing cold. It shocked him to the core. Underwater, he had to tell his arms and legs to move. His Seal training took over as he found his arms and legs pumping in a furious pace. Waterlogged, he barely made it to the other side, pulling himself up on some rocks. He could hear the bear yowling on the other side, but he didn't have time to look back. He climbed up over the rocks as best he could, discovering that he didn't have his mittens on -- hands numb. His boots were full of water and he could feel the feeling going out of his feet with every step as they sloshed around inside the boots. He was scared, scared more than he’d ever been in his life. Somehow, he climbed the bank on the other side to more level ground and took a quick look back at the grizzly pacing back and forth on the other bank trying to figure out how to cross the chasm to him.
JJ was in for it now. All he could think of was to run. With every step, his feet got number until he couldn't feel anything below his knees. Everything else was bitter cold. Only his running kept him from shivering. Still, he had to get the water out of his boots. Climbing the bank on the other side until some trees hid him from the sight of the bear and the pine needle and leaf-covered bank was bare of snow, he stopped, sat down, and with numb fingers, unlaced his boots. There was a sucking sound as he pulled them off and the water poured out. He pulled his stockings off, and as quickly as he could, with no direction in his toes, forced them back on. He couldn't lace them back up, so he wrapped the laces around the boot and tied them at the top, shaking just to make a bow. He shoved the wet stockings into a pocket and tried to get up. He couldn't find his feet, and fell down. He tried again, and fell again. He crawled on all fours, on unfeeling hands in the snow and tried again. This time he made it up and started staggering onward. He walked up the bank, away from the canyon and the yowling bear. He kept telling himself, "Keep walking,; keep walking,; keep walking..."
JJ walked and stumbled in agony and cold for fifteen, maybe twenty, minutes. He didn't pay much attention where he was going, just that he was. Then, a miraculous thing happened. He began to feel his feet again. It was hard to walk with his hands stuffed in his armpits, but he had to keep the cold away from his hands. It was still cold that morning, perhaps 25°, but the sun warmed him and he could feel his wet clothes getting warm on the inside from the exertion. They were still wet, but they were warm and that's all that mattered. Finally, after about an hour, he found a rocky outcropping with a sunny south side out of the wind, and stopped for a moment to take stock of his situation. He leaned up against the rock and felt its warmth. His hands were still smarting as the numbness wore off, but he could now operate the zippers on his jumpsuit. The first thing he reached for was the granola bar. He devoured it like it was his last meal -- it probably was. He could feel the heat it generated as his stomach eagerly attacked each bite.
The matches were gone. His mittens were gone. JJ carefully laid the stockings on the rock in the sun. If they would dry out, he could wrap them around his hands for mittens -- hell, he could wrap them around if they didn't dry out! JJ stamped his feet. He could feel the roughness inside his boots. They were still wet, and not very comfortable without stockings, but they would have to do. He pulled out the map and took a look. He would have to cross the stream again to get where he had to go. That was unsettling. But at least following the stream on this side would get him in the general direction, even if slightly off course. He put the map away, zipped the stockings off into two pockets leaving a lot hanging down so they would dry, shoved his hands in his armpits, and walked off.
The snow had melted considerably, so going was easier. The sun was warm, and by noon it reached nearly 40°. JJ stayed away from the stream for some time so that the bear could not track him by sight. He was downwind, too. He kept his eyes open for a particular kind of rock as he passed outcropping after outcropping. Finally, he came to one that looked good and approached it. The rock was weathered and cracked from freeze damage. Pulling some loose pieces away from the wall, he unzipped the pocket where his army knife was, and took it out. Choosing a blade that he wouldn't use for cutting, he struck the rock hard. Sparks flew. Quartzite or flint, it didn’t matter. That was all he needed. He put a couple of pieces in different pockets, and moved on, still looking for char.
With the sun bright and the snow melting, the forest came alive. Chickadees and sparrows were chirping. He could hear ravens cawing in the distance. The tracks of wolf, hare, mice, and cottontail were gradually fading away in the softening snow. Still, there was nothing to eat. The granola bar would have to do for the day. He covered two or three miles this way. Finally, the stream turned decidedly south and he would have to cross it. He worked his way down the slope closer to it and looked for a place to cross. There wasn't any. JJ didn't relish the idea of crossing that stream again and getting wet. He was still wet but warm from all the walking. He looked up and down the bank for a solution to his problem. Not seeing any, he decided to walk back upstream.
Fifteen minutes later around a slight bend, JJ found what he was looking for. A small tree, growing too close to the bank, had had its roots undermined and was leaning across the stream. About seven inches in diameter, it looked strong enough to hold him, but it was clearly dead and its bark was sloughing off. There were two branches about midstream, and, by the time he’d get to the other side, the spindly top was fifteen feet above the sloping bank. He estimated it to be about three o'clock, so he would have to go now or have to wait until the next day. Determined to make his rendezvous, he decided to go.
After thinking through his moves, JJ unzipped the top of his jumpsuit and pulled his arms out of the sleeves. They hung from his chest on either side and are not in the way. He could feel the chill in the air and knew he would have to move fast. Lining up like a sprinter, JJ took off running up the sloping tree toward the branches. The rotting bark gave way under his feet but his momentum and balance kept him on course. His feet were slipping and he was losing it when he got to the branches. He fell forward, facedown on the main trunk, and grabbed hold of a branch with each hand. The dead tree was rocking up and down and creaky as he looked down at the rushing water six or seven feet below. He knew it would be tougher from here on as he rested a moment, both legs dangling down on either side of the main trunk.
The branches were worse than he thought; JJ didn't dare put any weight on them for fear of falling into the water. The left branch appeared to be stronger, so he got a good grip on it and tried to swing the sleeve around the trunk. He couldn't do it, so, balancing his breastbone on the trunk he grabbed both ends of the sleeve and tied them together around the trunk. It was the only safety net he had, and he wasn't sure if it would work.
Slowly, JJ inched forward up the trunk on his chest until he had his legs wrapped around it and he had left the two branches behind. He thought of his childhood training, climbing trees. The bark kept sloughing off; leaving a smooth hard surface that kept getting smaller and digging into him. Inch by inch, he worked himself upward until he could see that he was over the other bank. It was a good feeling, but he knew he could slip off at any minute. There was little to hang on to, so he decided to swing around to the bottom and crawl upside down.
JJ swung his feet to the right, gradually, until he was hanging by his arms and legs. He continued to shimmy up the trunk until he heard a loud, "crack!" And the trunk broke off back by the branches. It seemed to fall in slow motion. When its top hit the other bank it broke in many pieces and he was sliding down it backward. He raised his head just as his shoulders hit the snowy bank and it broke again. All the pieces were falling in the river, including the big one his sleeves were tied around. As it slid down the bank, it pulled him, headfirst, with it. JJ reached up and pulled the sleeves over the broken end just as it hit the water. He had dug his heels into the snow and came to a stop with his head just six inches from the water. Lying there, panting he took stock and let the blood pounding in his ears subside. His shoulder hurt where it had hit, but otherwise, he seemed okay except for his precarious position with his feet up the bank and his head down.
Gradually, JJ worked his heels around until he was lying next to the bank and sat up. He slipped into the sleeves of his jumpsuit. One was torn by the elbow, but it felt good after his arms had been exposed and scraped in the climb. Making sure nothing was broke; he stood up and started downstream. It was getting late, so he knew he had to find a place for the night. He knew the stream was filled with fish, so he stopped by some rocks and crawled out onto them. Just like before, he saw a large fish swim by. Waiting a few minutes, another came by and he slipped his hand around its tail and pulled it out. It was a Northern that must've weighed five pounds and thrashed so much he thought he was going to lose it. Hanging onto the rock, he held it upside down by its tail until it calmed down. Rising from his knees, he carefully stepped off the rock and onto the bank. The bank was steep and covered with snow so it took him some time to climb up away from the stream. Thoughts of the bear returned, so he retraced his steps back to the rocks.
As quickly as he could, he scaled and cleaned the fish. He did it all on a rock over the water. This time, he cut the fish up into small pieces so that he could throw pieces to keep the bear away from him and carefully stowed the pieces in several pockets. He threw the guts and head in the water, and with his bare hands, splashed fresh water on the rock until all the scales, and, hopefully all the fish stink, into the fast-moving cold water. That task done, JJ looked up the river for the bear and started up the bank. The exertion helped, and by the time he reached the top and into the woods his numb hands were coming back to him. He shoved them into two pockets and tried to leave as little trail in the melting snow as possible.
He looked for a place to spend the night and couldn't find anything suitable. Finally, when it was getting dark, he holed up in some close growing spruce that provided a natural windbreak and some warmth from the settling cold. Cutting branches from nearby spruce, he made a cushioned bed above the crusty snow and covered himself with it. He didn't have time or energy to make a fire. He didn't relish raw fish, but ate some anyway before it froze. Covering himself with spruce fronds, he curled up for the night, hoping that the aromatic scent of the cut boughs would throw off the grizzly’s keen sense of smell.
Sometime after midnight, JJ heard a wolf howl close by and awoke. He didn't recall falling asleep, but the day's ordeal had caught up with him. His jumpsuit was still wet in some places and the cold was creeping in. He shivered, beat himself with his arms and kicked his legs, but he couldn't stave it off. The insidious cold. It crept in until his feet were numb and his hands felt like ice against his body. He couldn't sleep and the strong smell of spruce didn't help either.
Suddenly, JJ awoke to bright sun. He was warm. All he remembered was being so cold. His jumpsuit finally felt dry. It was late. He guessed midmorning. He looked around him to see if anything was moving. Except for small birds chirping in the sunlight, nothing was. He had to pee. He got up slowly and walked away from his bed a bit and relieved himself, watching carefully. After that, he ate some snow and chewed on a piece of fish until he gagged. Still, he swallowed it for fear of leaving any scent in the snow. After a quick look at the map, he was off, again moving as quickly as he could while the weather stayed warm and he still had the strength. At one point he saw a tree charred from lightning and stopped long enough to cut a piece of char from it. He cut further into the tree and found punky wood. He filled his hand pockets with it. It provided enough insulation to make his hands warmer.
JJ's course took him to higher ground again and he left the big trees behind. As he crossed the ridge in the late afternoon, he looked back down the valley for the bear. He didn't see it. He was happy. He saw hare and arctic fox. They seemed unafraid of him. They weren't used to man and hadn't developed a fear. He saw a ptarmigan feeding in tall grass and snuck up to it. Once again, the ptarmigan did not fear him. He grabbed it by the neck and with one jerk snapped its neck. Supper tonight, he thought, and tied the legs to a loop in his jumpsuit. It felt good swinging at his side as he walked. Time to find shelter for the night.
In the valley ahead was a stream, similar to the one of his first night. He found a dense clump of willows and set up camp. Like before, there was plenty of dry grass for a bed in dead wood for a fire. It was close to dark so he had to work fast. Pulling out the punky wood from his pockets he made a nice bed of it on some grass. Cutting some small pieces of char he laid them on the wood. Placing the flint next to the char, he struck it sharply with the blade from his Swiss Army knife. Sparks flew and landed on the char. In a couple of minutes he had a glowing ember that grew into a larger ember that caught the punky wood and then the grass on fire. The warmth felt good, but he could waste no time. JJ piled kindling on the flimsy flame and soon and a roaring fire.
He untied the ptarmigan, stepped off to the side by the stream, quickly skinned it, and dumped the guts and feathers in the water. Before he could cut the bird up, the water was thrashing as fish fought for a meal from the guts. Pulling his army knife of, JJ stabbed in the middle of the thrashing fins and came up with a nice Grayling. This time, he left the Grayling's guts by the bank, thinking that he could use them in the morning to attract more fish.
JJ roasted the bird over the glowing embers of the fire on a stick. Made a little platform of green willow for the fish and broiled it too. The fish in his pockets was soggy and smelly, so he threw it into the stream as food for the other fish. He was ravenous and ate his fill of the ptarmigan and fish. Exhausted from exposure and dehydration, he drank deeply from the stream and curled up in his grass bed. With his belly full and the warmth of the dying fire, he fell fast asleep.
His bones ached from the morning chill and his fall, but JJ had to pee. It was still dark out but near morning. Relieving himself downstream from where he drank, he noted the stillness and the starry night. He knew that another front would come through soon bringing more winter. As he curled up in a new warm spot, he thought he heard a cough or a grunt. He dismissed it and fell back to sleep. The warmth of the morning sun in his face woke him up. As he sat up, he heard some movement off with his right and looked that way. There he was, that pesky grizzly, about 30 feet off and sneaking in.
JJ had no idea except to confront the beast. He didn't have time to unzip his knife, so he jumped up and charged the sneaking bear. He yelled at the top of his lungs, "Hey!" And thrust his arms out. It worked. The startled bear jumped up, rolled over backwards, turned and ran away, upstream. He ran headlong for about 100 yards, and then slowed, stopped, and turned around to look back. It gave JJ the time he needed.
The fish guts were there by the stream. JJ pushed them in, in the grass close to the bank. Within seconds, several hungry fish came to feed. JJ quickly sent two of them with his knife and dragged them ashore. As fast as he could, he cut them into chunks, stuffing them into his pockets like before. When he finished, he looked to see what the bear was doing. It was still sitting there, looking back at him, and its nose in the air. Fortunately, he was downwind.
Not bothering to look at the map, JJ set off once again for his destination. He knew he was close, perhaps only five miles. Once again, the going by the stream was rough because of the hammocks that kept tripping him up. Through mud and crusty snow he slogged on, ever watchful of the bear that was now following cautiously, having made a thorough check of his camp after he left. Finally, after about 15 minutes, the bear started running and got too close. JJ stopped, and threw a piece of fish as far as he could to the north of the bear. The grizzly stopped running, stood up, and with his nose, surmised that something was over there, and then dropped down, and started after JJ again. JJ threw another piece of fish.
This time, the grizzly saw it in bounded off in that direction. On the slope, upward now, JJ made the best time he could. Fifteen minutes later, the bear was back on his trail. The routine established, once the bear got unbearably close, JJ would throw a piece of fish. He had about 15 pieces and no time to count them, so he hoped they would hold out. Behind them both, in the west, he could see another problem. The white wall of another front coming. He only hoped that he could reach the rendezvous point before the storm hit or he ran out of fish.
It was warm to the point where he had to unzip the jumpsuit. The slope was muddy and slippery so he had to constantly watch his footing so that he wouldn't fall. Ahead, on the ridge, he could see the rendezvous point on the map. He was sweating and scared, but he kept walking. His throat was dry and his lips were cracking, but he couldn't stop to drink. The bear kept getting bolder, running up on him fast now. Is only tactic was to confront him, yell, and throw another piece of fish. It was wearing him out. Only adrenaline was keeping him going.
Suddenly, about midmorning, the bear stopped. Maybe he had had his fill of fish. Maybe he was tired of being confronted. Maybe he just needed to rest as bad as JJ. Whatever it was, JJ trudged on until the grizzly was a small speck down in the valley. He was nearing the ridge now and only had about a mile to go to the two outcroppings that were marked as the rendezvous spot on his map. He found a piece of ice behind a rock and popped it in his mouth. It was a bit muddy, but cooled him down considerably as the water trickled down his parched throat. Rejuvenated, he pushed on. By noon, he was on top of the ridge. The storm was ominous in the west and there was no helicopter in sight.
Standing there in the bright sun, JJ could see for miles. He scanned the sky for a chopper and saw none. Looking down at the spec that was the grizzly, he could see it moving slowly toward him. He wondered how he could stay here and not move on and still fend off the grizzly. His anxiety grew as the grizzly continued to move toward him. He thought about baiting the bear with the two pieces of fish he had left. There were no trees here, so he couldn’t climb one or make a spear with a knife. He only hoped that if it came down to it, that he could stab that fish breath snout with his knife again. Better to keep the fish in case he had to run. He waited, scanning the sky.
An hour went by, and the storm was rapidly closing. So was the bear. He was walking, sniffing JJ's tracks every so often, and continually closing ground. JJ's blood pressure was climbing with every step. He hid behind what little cover the outcropping gave him. It was useless because the bear could smell fish and that's what kept him coming. When the bear got there, JJ threw the last two pieces of fish. Experienced at the game now, the grizzly ran over to each of them and sniffed. He wasn’t hungry, so he turned around and kept coming.
JJ was already out of the jump suit. He stuffed the knife, flint and map in his pants pockets, and from his spot on top of the rock, wadded the suit up and threw it below. It didn’t go far. The grizzly immediately ambled over to it and proceeded to tear it up with his claws and teeth. Watching as the cold whipped up and flurries filled the air, all JJ could think about was that he was next.
Just when JJ was about to run in panic, he heard that distinctive "whop, whop, whop..." in the distance and knew that the chopper was coming to rescue him. He clutched his knife tightly and waited, watching the bear tear away at his scent.
Suddenly, the Blackhawk came up the slope to JJ's right and crested the ridge, making a turn directly over the bear. Surprised, he rolled down the slope, finally found his legs and ran off as fast as he could, his game interrupted. In a few seconds, the ship was hovering three feet above the crest of the ridge. JJ put his head down and ran for it. He dove in and they lifted off just as a gust of flurries hit them. In a minute, he had a blanket wrapped around him, a hot thermos of coffee in his hand and they were doing 120 knots south, skirting the storm and just ahead of it.
Charles Krueger was lying in a stretcher next to him. He had two IVs in place. His face was sunburned and frost bitten. A crewman yelled above the noise, "What's that awful smell?"
"Fish, it's the only thing that kept that bear off me." JJ yelled seriously.
The crewman couldn't stop laughing. Finally, he said, "Don't you know, that you're not supposed to feed the bears." He bent over with laughter again. "We're going to have to fumigate you before we let you in the barracks tonight." He laughed again. The whole crew was laughing and holding their noses.
At first, JJ felt like reaching in his pocket and stabbing them with that Swiss Army knife. Thinking better of that move he quipped, ‘That’s nothing. If you want smell, let’s go back and get my jumpsuit! They all laughed again.
As they slipped over ridges and forests back to the Canadian base, the captain joined him.
"Quite an ordeal, eh?"
"Yes, but it looks like I weathered it better than Krueger."
"Yes, you did. He got caught in that storm and got dehydrated and hypothermic. We had to rescue him. That's why we were so late in picking you up. A couple of times there, your vitals told us you were in deep trouble, but they settled down, so we didn't come after you. We are about 15 minutes from a hot shower and meal. What you think of that?"
"That's the best thing I've heard since I got on this drafty boat."