Here's how it goes......
It is the morning of July 17, 2001. A group of scouts is hiking to Bloomington Lake from the trailhead located in Willow Flat Campground. This scout group consists of myself, five other mismatched boys, and our leader, Cecil, who is a seventy-year-old man. With all the spunk he has it’s impossible to tell though.
The day is beautiful and clear, and it seems to only get more so as we climb higher and higher. We are experiencing a kind of ubiquitous euphoria that makes us go all the faster up the mountainside. Cecil seems to have missed this cloud of energy though and he soon lags behind us, which doesn’t worry us too much. We’re used to having Cecil walk into camp half-an-hour behind us anyway.
The trail becomes steeper, the rocks become looser. We are focusing all our energy on making it to the top of the ridge. The sun glares down upon us as if trying to scorch six helpless little bugs. Finally Stewart insists that we take a break. Secretly we all feel like giving him a big hug, but as scouts we’re “tough” and “didn’t need a rest” anyway. Besides, it would be “wimpy” to admit that we’re tired at all in the first place.
We take off our heavy packs and sit down to enjoy the thrill of being four-thousand feet above the valley floor. The sky is a deep, flawless blue, and the smell of the giant evergreens is so fresh that it breaths new life into each of us. We all agree that this is well worth the work it takes to get here.
Refreshed, we get up to leave. As the rest of the group is restoring their packs to their already sweat-soaked shoulders, I scan the mountainside for Cecil. After a few moments I spot him five-hundred feet below us on the trail. I yell and wave down to him, and he sees me and does the same in return. Feeling better that he hasn’t had a heart attack I turn up the trail and move on with the rest of the group. We’ve got a lake to get to!
An hour of more drudgery passes on and we have finally summited the ridge. We are now descending into the alpine meadow on the other side. The sight of the lake basin mixed with the feeling of finally going down hill is enough to make us almost fly! Running, yelling, and kicking up a massive cloud of dust we stampede down the hill like a herd of young bison. Now only the ridge hiding the lake from view remains to be passed, and in our current state of excitement it soon is.
Bloomington lake comes into view, a shimmering, glittering gem set in a ring of solid gray granite spotted with white snow. The cliff walls are broken by giant gashes made by the slow and silent violence of a glacier thousands of years before, the glacier that bled its dying self into the lake. I stand transfixed at the sight of such a spectacle. To the others though, the deep blue-green of the frigid water seems only to taunt them saying, “Swim, swim! I’m not as cold as I look!” The backpacks come off , the swimsuits come on, and my soliloquy is soon ended when Carl is thrown, kicking and screaming, into the lake to “test” the water for us and make sure we will all live once we’re immersed in it. His head breaks the surface and it is decided that since he is still alive it must be safe to swim. We jump in.
We swim for a while and only after finding out we’ve turned blue and cannot feel out extremities, head back to the shore and eat lunch. There aren’t many things boy scouts love more than food, and we show it by tearing into our lunches with the ferocity of six hurricanes. We don’t notice the hurricane building miles to the north of us.
Suddenly I remember Cecil! It has been four hours since we saw him last, far more than his usual half-an-hour! I announce this to the rest of the group and am met by five blank stares. I decide to run down the trail and look for him to see if he’s in trouble. Passing a few people on the way, I ask them if they’ve seen an old man walking up the trail. None of them have.
When I turn around to head back, the sky is quickly turning to thick, black, boiling clouds. SWISH-BAM!! The thunder is amplified a hundred times by the rock walls surrounding the lake. The rest of the group has decided they no longer want to stay at the lake for obvious reasons, and I meet them going out as I come in. We start searching and yelling for Cecil. The storm is racing us laughing its thunderous laugh, and daring us to linger. I look for his footprints in the dirt on the trail and eventually I find them, but in our hurry to get out of the storm we miss seeing where the footprints turn onto another trail leading around the other side of the lake.
Running along the trail and following Cecil’s footprints in the opposite direction, we bolt for the trailhead, the storm in hot pursuit. We are all formulating our own versions of how he died and we are scared to death. He only has one bottle of water, and the storm is growing in intensity.
At last we make it back to the trailhead, leaving the storm to rumble itself out in the high country. Waiting, watching, and worrying, we stare back up onto the mountainside for any sign of Cecil. When an hour passes I decide that it’s time to go for help. Stewart and I leave for the front of the campground to find a forest ranger.
I spot a lady in a green forest service uniform driving up the road on a four-wheeler and I start running and waving to her. At first she waves and smiles at me until she sees the urgent look on my face. I reach her and she asks what the trouble is. I tell her the entire story including the fact that we haven’t seen our seventy-year-old scoutmaster for almost seven hours.
“You’ve.....lost.....your scoutmaster......and he’s SEVENTY!?” she says disbelievingly with her eyebrows raised.
“Um... yeah.” I reply meekly.
I seem to have convinced her and she immediately sends out a call on her radio, activating the search and rescue unit, and calling a helicopter in. (The helicopter was busy fighting a fire up by Soda Springs.) She tells me to go wait on the pine rail fence across the road for another ranger named Ray to come get me. Stewart leaves with her to go back to the rest of the group.
I sit on the fence feeling very anxious and embarrassed. Fifteen minutes later a large white forest service truck pulls up and out steps a very interesting looking ranger. He his very tall and has a short gray beard and moustache, and long silver hair pulled back into a ponytail. All of this makes him appear as though he hasn’t left the forest for a very long time. He is very nice though and he introduces himself as Ray. I repeat the story and describe Cecil to him leaving nothing out.
“You’ve.....lost.....your scoutmaster......and he’s SEVENTY!?”says Tom blinking his eyes rapidly.
“Um...yeah.” I answer thinking that somehow I’ve just experienced Deja vu.
“Get in the truck!”
I get in with no questions asked and he tells me we’re going to the ranger station down the canyon to call the sheriff’s department in Preston. He peels out and drives down the road. I worry about Cecil’s life until Ray leans over and says, “I’m not going to kill you so don’t worry.” Naturally I do as I watch the speedometer climb past sixty.....seventy.......now eighty, eighty miles per hour down the dirt road in Cub River Canyon! I look down and see my hands forming a white-knuckle grip on the door handle.
All this time Ray is speaking into his radio with different rangers including the lady that’s with the rest of my group. In a few minutes the lady says something and he flips a U-turn and heads back....... going just as fast! In five minutes we get back to the trailhead, and who should be there but Cecil!
Jumping out of the truck, I run yelling at Cecil. “ WHAT THE HECK WERE YOU DOING?!!!”
“ Oh, I just couldn’t find you at the lake so I waited for a while in case you came walking in. You never did so I left.” Cecil says calmly.
“ You were never at the lake.” I say.
“ I was. I just followed a different trail around the other side, and I must have missed you.”
“OH, DUH,” all six scouts cry in unison, “WE NEVER THOUGHT OF THAT!!”
“Didn’t you hear us yelling for you?” I ask.
“Of course I did. I just thought you were yelling at me to hurry up, so I ignored it,” says Cecil.
We’re all fighting feelings caught between wanting to strangle him and hug him at the same time. Ray just throws his head back and laughs. He laughs at having called the county search and rescue, a forest service helicopter, and almost calling the sheriff’s department to search for a seventy-year-old-man who was only missed on the trail by a few minutes and was therefore “lost”.
He is still laughing today a year later at the same trailhead. We meet him here, by chance, coming back from Bloomington Lake again..... this time with Cecil.