By Francis Marion- First Published May 29th, 2016
I could hear the roar of the Canoe River and its tributaries as they made their descent hundreds of feet below me. I couldn’t see them from the logging road we were on but their flight was so steep and so rapid that it filled the valley with mist and noise as the various creeks and the river itself made the first leg of their inevitable journey south and west to the Pacific.
The road and surrounding vegetation were damp as the mist from the creek filled the air, climbing upwards with the tips of giant spruce and pine towards the ridges that birthed the torrent below while simultaneously mingling with the sun and creating hues of yellow, blue and purple in the spaces between the trees and the sky.
Standing on the road I rubbed the sleep from my eyes as the moisture slipped past my nostrils, filled my lungs and cooled my skin. Buzzard sat next to the truck and camper in a lawn chair glassing white dots on the upper ridges of the valley that surrounded it all.
“They’re on the south slope this morning feeding towards us. We’d better suit up and get going before they move off the mountain.”
Photo of a photo. The headwaters of the Canoe on the way up.
The pain was excruciating. I couldn’t take it anymore. My neck and back felt like they were breaking – I couldn’t turn my head to look beside me or move quickly without serious consequence. My physician said there was nothing wrong with me but this didn’t feel like ‘nothing’ so I broke my own rule and made a trip to the chiropractor. Maybe it was just stress and he could set me straight?
I sat in the waiting room filling out forms while praying that the Tylenol would take hold long enough to get me through this. A half hour later I was sitting across from the owner of the clinic. He was scratching his chin and looking at me rather seriously, “Francis we’re not going to touch you today. I’m sending you for X-rays.”
I protested. The pain had been going on for years and was now reaching a crescendo the likes of which I hadn’t experienced before. Besides, I’d done X-rays in the past and they had come back normal. I wanted relief. But he refused. I acquiesced and did as I was told. He said to come back in a week. Same old story.
I laced up my boots and picked up my rifle. I thought, “I’ve got everything.” I put my pack on filled with water, food, rope, first aid, and other essentials and grabbed my ski poles. We’d opted to follow a small creek a short distance up the mountain to where it bordered a slide that came down the eastern spine of the hill. We could see an old game trail going up the slide through the spotting scope and figured it would be the easiest way to reach the upper ridge next to the goats. From there it should be an ‘easy’ scoot across the front of the mountain to where a nice billy had been feeding since the early part of dawn. The trick was getting there without spooking everything in the countryside as we made our assent. It wouldn’t be easy.
Behind us, from the logging road, we could see the top of Mount Robson, the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies. I felt like we were being mocked. What the fuck were we thinking? So I grabbed another bottle of water from the camper, turned towards the creek and put one foot in front of the other. Too late to turn back now.
Photo of a photo. Mount Robson staring at us through the trees in the sub-alpine.
“What do you mean you can’t help me?”
“Mr. Marion I’m sorry but if you look at the X-Ray you’ll notice that where you should have several joints in your vertebrae near your upper back and neck you, in fact, have none.”
“How the hell is that even possible?”
“I don’t know,” he replied, “but I would suggest you go and see your physician.”
A week later I was back sitting in my doctor’s office with a package of X-rays from the chiropractor. I handed them to the doctor who looked at them with a shrug.
“What do you want me to do about it,” he asked? I almost stroked the useless son of a bitch.
I replied, “Maybe you should send me to see a specialist?”
“But we’ve tested you for arthritis and you don’t have it.”
“Send me anyways.”
The first few hundred feet through the old growth is dangerous. With no trail to follow and with everything wet from the moisture in the air you have to tread carefully. Poles are of little use there as you crawl over moss-laden rock and log. Everything is slick and steep. It is slow going and deliberate and I wondered to myself if it was worth it.
For hunters, goats are not the panacea for what ails us as a group. Most will tell you that in North America that honor is reserved for sheep or elk. Goats are often thought of as a consolation prize and little more. But to me, they have always represented something different. The places that goats occupy are the highest, the steepest and the most beautiful. They are the most challenging of all our game species to hunt. It was the only reason I wanted one so bad. It was the reason I had to kill one here on this mountain. That was, so long as the mountain didn’t kill me first.
I stood at the top of the stairs outside my office looking down. It was twenty-eight steps top to bottom.
You got this tough guy. No problem.
I grabbed a hold of the railing and turned sideways to start my descent. But there were cantaloupes where my knees once were and my ankles had long since turned to grapefruits. I resigned myself to sliding down on my ass like I did when I was a little kid going down the carpeted stairs into the basement of my parents home.
Our shipper/receiver rounded the corner as I hit the bottom and started to stand. She shook her head at me and told me I should go home. I asked her what difference it would make? I could be a cripple there or I could be a cripple here. At least at work, I had a purpose. My body was fucked but my brain wasn’t. She shook her head and went back to work. So did I.
A few hours later we had broken through the old growth and into the sub-alpine along the slide. It was mid to late morning in early September and the sun was starting to make it’s way higher into the sky. It was still clear and cool but we could feel the heat coming on. The bugs were on the move, something we hadn’t counted on at this elevation at this time of year. I knew they were going to be a problem in short order.
I sat across from my specialist with my feet and legs hanging off the edge of the examination table. She squeezed my knees, had me rotate my ankles and move my head up and down.
“You’ve lost a lot of mobility since I saw you last.”
“Mmmhmm,” I replied.
“How’s your stool? Is there blood? How is your eye? It looks red. You know this thing can attack your organs too right?”
“My eye sucks ass. It’s sore as hell and blurry. The drops I bought at the pharmacy won’t touch it.”
“Well, that’s because you need steroidal drops,” she handed me a prescription slip, “You need to get this filled right away or you’ll lose some if not all of your vision in that thing. You should have gone to see your family doctor.”
“He’s an asshole so I waited for you to make your rounds back through town instead.” She shook her head in disapproval. I figured it was worth the wait. She didn’t.
Doctors think they know everything.
A few hours later the noon sun was high in the sky and we were the better part of the way up the mountain. It was hot as hell and the bugs were relentless. Swarms of horse flies, black flies, and mosquitoes harassed us with every step. I’d wrapped a scarf around my face to keep them off but the horseflies had done their job. A combination of sweat and blood clouded my vision and ran through the scarf and into my shirt. The last source of water was now an easy seven hundred feet below us. There was still close to a thousand feet to go. Buzzard looked back at me and asked, “Are you all right?”
“Ya,” I responded, “are you?”
He shook his head, turned and started moving his six and a half foot frame upwards. Always upwards. Lungs tightening, reaching, struggling, legs like levers, joints like gears and focus. Upwards.
“Are you all right,” my wife asked me?
“Ya, I’m ok.”
The fire in the stove popped and sparked as it consumed wood and sap. I laid in the easy chair staring into its heart thinking of nothing. Unable to sleep, my body disfigured and consumed with pain, I decided to sit by the fire for the rest of the night. “What will it be like when I’m 50,” I wondered, “How will I get to my office all the way up those stairs if I’m in a wheelchair?”
“I really think you should try the new drug your specialist offered. Our insurance will cover most of it,” she said gently.
“It’s still expensive and besides it shuts my immune system down. It can give me skin cancer too – amongst other things.”
“I know,” she said as she ran her hands over my shoulders from behind while caressing my chest and kissing the back of my ear. She wasn’t sure what to say or do. I could sense her helplessness. I didn’t like it. Not one bit.
As we crested the ridge I dropped my pack and lay against it facing a green slope dotted with goats. Low on water and suffering under the onslaught of unseasonal heat and the horse flies that infested the hillside it took a moment to realize we’d been made. The goats were on the same slope but close to a kilometer further up the valley. We could make the stalk but it would add an easy one and a half to two hours onto our day in one direction and once we put one down there was no guarantee that it would drop in its tracks. Goats have a bad habit of dying hard and throwing themselves into difficult to reach places in the process. This would mean another six hours or more on the mountain. Without enough water or food to last the night, we were screwed.
I sat in the nurse’s station with my shirt sleeve rolled up as she unwrapped the syringe. “Have you ever self-injected before,” she asked?
“Nope,” I replied.
“Are you afraid of needles at all?”
“No ma’am, just liberals. They scare the hell out of me,” I smiled a little as she raised an eyebrow.
“It has to be done subcutaneously – just make sure it goes in under the skin and not directly into the muscle. Do you understand?”
Buzzard sat in repose with his binoculars in hand watching the goats as they fed further up the valley. There was nowhere to hide. The goats knew we were there. The sun was beating down on us and the bugs just kept coming.
“How are you feeling,” Buzzard asked me?
“Pretty good actually. My new specialist says the damage that is done is done and that some of the other symptoms like the iritis and the fatigue aren’t necessarily going to go away but if I stay on those injections the damage to the rest of my skeleton and internals will be minimal. He calls me a textbook case – that’s doctor speak for ‘you got it fucking bad’,” Buzz and I both smiled and laughed, “hopefully this drug will keep me moving, though.”
“Good,” said Buzz.
“So. Do you want to go goat hunting this fall? Can you handle it? I’ve got a bead on a good spot near Valemount the Preacher keeps talkin’ about. It’s big country but if you can handle it we should go.”
“Thoughts,” I asked him?
“I think the mountain beat us.”
“Ya, I suppose. Well then, we need to start heading back before it gets too dark and we run out of water. I don’t want to die up here or on the way down.”
“Yep,” Buzzard stood up, grabbed his pack, wiped the blood and sweat off his face and turned back down the game trail. I followed. One foot, then another.
“No goat for us this trip I guess,” my inside voice came out.
“Are you upset,” asked Buzz as we left the little white dots and the ridge behind us?
“No. They’re just goats and it’s just a mountain… it’s not personal.”