P. and I sized each other up. City boy, I thought. But he seemed nice enough, and fit, and most importantly, I had no choice. We were going to spend the next few days together whether we liked it or not.
Our assignment was to hike into a backcountry cabin in [insert name of Famous National Park here] and monitor a wilderness fire. We would have a canoe to paddle over and collect fuel samples, calculate rate of spread, and draw maps. In other words, a pretty sweet assignment.
Everything started off fine. We had a late start because, well, this was the government. But we only had five miles to hike to the cabin, so what could go wrong? With his long legs, P. quickly put some distance between us. This was OK with me however, because although he had our only map, radio, and canister of bear spray, I had all the food. He had the skinny look of someone who needed to eat often, so I was sure I wouldn't lose him for good.
I quickly determined that my government-issued backpack was the most uncomfortable item I had ever worn. To distract myself from the pain, I started talking to myself. Some people might call it whining. Those people are just big meanies. I was fully engaged in this activity when I came around a corner to find P. huddled over the map.
"This doesn't seem right," he fretted. "That cabin should be RIGHT HERE." He crashed off into the woods, only to return defeated. "They said it was only a faint trail, so that hikers didn't find it, but it's not here." This was before firefighters carried GPS units, but we could both read a map. It clearly showed a small black square denoting the cabin. "Well, let's go a little bit farther," P. said tentatively. It was already starting to get dark.
Finally we halted in the middle of the trail. "Let's go down to the beach and make a fire," I said, fully knowing that this was highly illegal in [Famous National Park]. P. perked up. "Here's a fusee!" he said. We sat around our tiny fire and second guessed ourselves. "I'm going to go find it," P. said bravely. Because he was on the move, he took the bear spray and radio. I inched closer to the fire. Every squirrel in the brush sounded like an enormous grizzly looking for dinner. Why did I have to read those bear attack books, I wondered to myself.
Finally, a loud crashing in the bushes signaled P.'s return. He looked miserable. "I couldn't find it," he moaned. "I decided to swim, because I knew there was a boathouse where they keep the canoes. And, I sprayed myself with the bear spray." He plopped down in the sand. "We have to call somebody," he said.
We looked at each other and cringed. The only thing worse than calling someone and admitting we couldn't find the cabin was to actually have to be rescued by the rangers, but at least in that case you probably would have an interesting, debilitating injury that would decrease some of the shame of it. Plus, who were we going to call at 2 in the morning?
"I know, we'll call the fire lookout," I said. As I recall, I made P. do it. The lookout answered the radio immediately. "Oh, the map is wrong," she said cheerfully. "The cabin isn't where it shows it at all." The correct location was an hour's hike back down the trail. We carefully hid the evidence of our illegal fire and started walking. P. hung back for once, making me go first to be bear bait. "Hey bear," I yelled as we traversed head-high brush. P. didn't make a sound as I stomped along sending some unkind thoughts in his direction.
At 3 am we stumbled into the cabin. P. conscientiously took some notes on smoke volume before we collapsed into the bunks. "Let's not tell anybody about this," he said. And as far as I know, the lookout never told, either. We spent the next few days canoeing, taking notes, and hiking out without incident.
I never saw P. again, but, even though it was years ago, I'd like to think that he, too, sometimes remembers the Night of the Lost Firefighters and it makes him smile just a little.