I took the dog out to the South Carolina mountains this weekend to get away for a few days. My girlfriend and most of my close buddies were out of town, and I didn’t feel like celebrating my birthday alone at home.
I picked a pretty secluded cabin on a river in Laurel Valley, S.C. No cell reception, no WiFi, but my dog Fitz could play in the water and there were hikes nearby. Seemed perfect.
On Saturday I drove up to a hike on the Foothills Trail, which is a 100+ mile hike through lower Appalachia, though they have plenty of shorter off-shoot hikes from the trail. I picked a 2.7 mile hike to a waterfall overlook, figuring it was a good distance and we could do the there-and-back in less than 3 hours.
The trail was awesome – it was really pretty, wooded, green, and totally secluded. Nobody else anywhere. My dog loves to run wild, so it was perfect since I could let him off leash without worrying he’d encounter anyone out there.
When we got to the end of the hike out and approached the lookout, Fitz ran ahead. He was blazing the trail the whole way, and he thought that it extended beyond the wooden railing, so he ran around it and fell straight off the cliff.
The drop was about 60 feet to the base/river, but he fell about 40 feet. Luckily it was pretty wooded – briars, branches, and trees – so he got held up in a thicket 3/4 of the way down.
I was able to sort of look down and see him, and that’s how I knew he was alive.
The drop was way too steep for me to climb down. Probably about an 80 degree slope. Not quite straight up and down, but way too treacherous for anyone to traverse without equipment (or skill). I, of course, had neither.
After a few minutes of sheer panic, I grabbed my pack and started running back out on the trail, figuring I could be at my car in 1.5 hours, drive to somewhere with cell signal (likely within 10 miles) and get help, then hike back down 1.5 hours and wait for the rescue.
That, at least, was the smart plan.
After a few minutes of running I got the brilliant idea that if Fitz fell down the cliff towards the water, all I needed to do was jump into the river and swim to where he was, and then climb up to get him.
So I changed course and ran down the mountain towards the water, hit the river and immediately jumped in and started heading against the current (figuring if he was at the bottom of a waterfall he was upstream).
The river was calm at places, deep at places, and whitewater at places. Now don’t get me wrong – it wasn’t the Colorado – but this wasn’t a tiny bubbling brook either. But all full of adrenaline, panic and dehydration, I did what I thought I was supposed to do, and turned into Bear Grylls.
For 1.5 hours I climbed, swam and jumped upstream. There were parts where I could walk on river rocks, parts where I had to climb boulders and smaller waterfalls, parts where I had to wade waist-deep through whitewater, and parts where I was full on swimming, in sections too deep for me to touch bottom. I fell countless times, walked through poisonous plants and got bitten by every dang bug out there.
Now, you may be asking, “But Evan, if Fitz fell towards the river just a few minutes of hiking away from where you started, why did it take you 1.5 hours to go up river?”
Good questions, my friends.
BECAUSE I WAS IN THE WRONG STINKIN’ SECTION OF THE RIVER.
I knew it was taking way too long but I kept thinking, in my panic and delirium, that he’d be just around the next bend. And once you’ve gone that far, and dehydration and fatigue consumes you, the thought of stopping and turning around doesn’t register. I felt like if I turned around I’d be giving up on my dog.
But then reality set in. There’s no way I could be heading in the right direction, and the best way to fully understand that was a really tall, really dangerous rock/water wall in my path. I don’t know if I could have climbed it in healthy condition, but there is no way I could have made it over given how I was at that moment. So I turned around, worried I just wasted 1.5 hours and now had to waste at least 1.5 more before getting back to where I started.
If the trip against the current was tough, getting back down was even harder. At this point I had only had river water to drink for 2+ hours, I was panicked and I was dead tired. And now I’m being pushed from behind down the river. So I was falling everywhere, and I have plenty of pictures to show you how my body fared.
Of course, now my worry turns from Fitz to myself. I’m not equipped for this stuff. I rarely exercise, I am out of shape and get winded easily, and I have no true outdoor training. Nobody knows I’m even here and if something were to happen – something as small as spraining an ankle – I might be stranded out in the middle of nowhere for two more days until the cabin owner realizes I never packed up and left. Fitz might be dead by then, and hell, if I fall and hit my head on a rock, I’m dead too.
Luckily I’ve been river rafting a few times (thanks, Whitewater Center!), so I remembered that when you fall out of the boat, you stick your legs down-river, keep your head and feet up, and do your best to bounce off of rocks. So that’s what I did, and it kept me from breaking any bones.
After 1.5 hours heading back down stream, now getting nervous I’d miss where I left my pack and travel further down the river than I was supposed to, I saw people at the river bed. A husband, wife, son, dog. I started screaming for help. Mind you, I had been screaming most of the last three hours, but because the trails don’t go along the river, and because the mountain was seldom traveled, and because the river noise made hearing anything difficult, nobody heard a sound from me.
But these people did. The father came towards me, a bit nervous about a strange man, half submerged in a river, screaming for help and coming towards his child. Finally he got to me, gave me water and after I caught my breath, heard what my issue was. His family then hiked with me back to my pack, and then up to the lookout to check on Fitz.
Luckily Fitz was still exactly where I left him 3+ hours before. Scared, barking and crying like crazy, but alive and seemingly OK.
The man told me to stay where I was, talk to Fitz to make sure he knew he wasn’t alone, and rest. He and his family would hike the 1.5 hours back to the car, drive to get signal, and then a rescue would come.
So that’s what I did. For 45 minutes I talked to my dog, doing my best to keep him calm from 40 feet away and out of eye-shot. I was worried he’d try and come to my voice or climb down the rest of the way and get in a worse position, but luckily he stayed put.
After the first 45 minutes I heard a sound from the bottom of the cliff and looked down to see a man and his dog approaching where Fitz was. It was a guy out to fish for trout in the river, and he happened to choose a spot close enough to hear Fitz bark. He couldn’t reach Fitz but he could tell he was alive and there was no visible blood.
Once he saw me and we communicated from the 60 foot gap, he hiked up to my position and then lead me down a path to the river, where we could then swim 100 yards to just below the cliff where Fitz was stranded. I then climbed about 10 feet up, as far as I could go, and spent a few minutes coaxing Fitz to come towards me. Finally he turned his body downwards and basically skidded the 10 feet into my arms. The man helped me down the remaining feet and we put Fitz on the ground, and thankfully, he was totally fine. No broken bones, no blood. A few little scratches, some bad dehydration and a good deal of panic, but he was OK.
Once I had Fitz and knew he could walk we hiked back up to the lookout. I knew that the rescue was eventually coming and didn’t want to not be there. First of all, that would be rude when nice strangers went out of their way to help me (I’m a Southern Gentleman, of course). But also I was worried they’d think that in my delirium, I tried to climb down to get Fitz and now both of us needed rescuing.
So we sat up at the top, no water but at least a place to sit, and waited. After about 30-45 minutes it began to rain. At this point it is almost 4:30 p.m. and while it gets dark late in the summer, I was getting nervous that between the rain, a setting sun and the fact that most of the trail was covered by trees, I wouldn’t be able to find my way out if we had to hike back on our own.
I decided it was safest to hike towards the car. I had my dog, which was the most important thing. And if they were coming for us, they’d either bump into us on the trail or in the parking lot.
At this point Fitz is in MUCH better shape than I am. He’s tired and dehydrated but happy, and he’s a dog so doesn’t really know what the heck is going on to begin with. We began the hike back but it was taking forever. I needed to stop a few times, sometimes to sit, sometimes to lean on a tree. Both of us needed water badly.
It was slow going, but we made it about half way back to the top when a Knight in Camo Armor zipped around a corner on an ATV. A firefighter who had bumped into the husband out looking for a cell signal came looking for us. A nice Southerner with his Glock 45 on his hip, and a bag full of first aid and water. He was off duty riding through trails nearby and just happened to cross paths with the dad. He checked us out, gave us water and tossed us on the back of his 4-wheeler and drove us out of there. When we got to the top the dad was there, as was the fire department. About 15 guys with ATVs, a gurney and climbing equipment. Turns out that the dad drove about 15 minutes to find cell service, couldn’t, so stopped at a trailer on the side of the road. The old man let him use a landline to call 911 and the fire department called their rescue squad. When the dad was driving back to hike down to me, he bumped into the off-duty guy driving back from ATVing, and that guy went out to find me before the rest had shown up to the scene.
In the parking lot they gave me more fluids and checked both Fitz and me out. We talked about a trip to the hospital for an IV, but I just asked for some Gatorade (they only had Green Apple, the jerks), and once I was sufficiently hydrated, they let me drive back to my cabin, which was close by.
Fitz and I drank a bunch of water, I showered and put rubbing alcohol on all of my wounds, we ate some food and packed the house up. We were supposed to stay another night but I needed to get back to civilization… I needed to call my parents and my girlfriend to tell them we were alive, and I needed to be close to a phone/hospital in case I was wrong and either Fitz or I were in worse condition than I thought.
It was probably ill-advised but I had to get home. So we drove 2.5 hours back to Charlotte. After about 30 minutes I was able to find a gas station, gas up and get a cell signal. I finally was able to get Google Map access (probably should have printed directions), and I sent a text out saying I was alive.
We made it back to Charlotte at 10:30 p.m., about 9 hours from when the incident first occurred.
Fitz is totally fine. On Sunday, our first day back, he slept most of the day while I watched NASCAR and the Olympics and dressed my wounds. On Monday and Wednesday he went to daycare, and I’m assuming he did fine, since none of his surrogate family from The Barker Lounge called to warn me of any issues (though he did spend more time Wednesday night barking at the bedroom mirror than usual…).
I’m doing fine too. I have bandages and ointment on all of my cuts and gashes, and my bruises, while painful, aren’t debilitating. I haven’t slept much – when I close my eyes I just see that damn river – but otherwise I have no complaints.
It is amazing Fitz survived that fall, amazing I didn’t kill or hurt myself on my moronic rescue mission, and amazing both of us are in pretty good shape. It was also amazing to meet good people – people willing to put their needs and wants aside to help strangers in trouble.
And while corny to say, if the only gift I get this year is that both my dog and I were able to live to see me turn 34, well, this will be the best birthday of my life.