At Risk

When the contact comes out with his mules, he finds us building a horse ford across the White River. He doesn’t like bridges or stepping-stones because, he says, pussy hikers should get their feet wet, but he likes horse fords. We’re establishing an apron of rocks above and below the ford, and the ford itself is a level gravel bed, clean and without cobbles. Sugar and Doctor Pepper work the stream together with rock bars, suckering the stones loose and moving them into the aprons. Brett and Titan are bucking fallen cottonwoods with a crosscut saw. Jim, Blue Eyes, Charlie, and Michael ply the copper-smelling subterranean passages beneath the boulder field for gravel. Hoss is in the caves with them. He’s my coleader, keeping on eye on Jim because Jim hasn’t been doing the work. They scoop and carry gravel in their hard hats. Hemmings and Jon haul it in yoked buckets to fill in the muddy swales on the stream’s northern bank. That mud eats gravel endlessly, it seems like, but we’ll get there. The water is glacial runoff and it takes all the feeling out of your hands and your feet, but otherwise the day is hot.

The contact gets off his horse and stands, swarming with blackflies, and points to nearby Baldy Peak. “On the other side of Baldy, we got a small plane what crashed into the hillside. I got a whole pack train coming up behind me,” he gestures down the trail. “We’re gonna be packing them out in five-gallon buckets, it looks like.” We both look at Baldy Peak, a slabby granite face that juts out of a scalloped ridgeline of glaciers and avalanche barrens strewn with uprooted pines. This is all wilderness. It’s stupid and illegal to bring a plane through here, but there’s another lake, Airplane Lake, not far from here, named for another crash.

The worst part of this project was that the contact hired us, originally, to rebuild the trail to Airplane Lake. He said, “It’s a piddling little trail. You’ll see it on the map.” I took his word that there was such a trail and hiked my crew eight miles into the backcountry and took out my map, and there was no such trail. It was a stream, which looked like a trail on the map, and because it was designated wilderness I couldn’t build a trail without a survey first. So I picked my own projects, and the contact never brought it up, that I wasn’t doing what he’d hired me for, and I never brought it up, that he’d hired us to do something you couldn’t legally do.

“Jesus,” I say, “you want help with the bodies?”

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