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Walking away from grief

A 100-mile, 11-day trek to fulfill his late wife's wishes for her ashes takes Montana nature writer Gary Ferguson back to the wilderness he thought had betrayed him when she died in a canoe accident.

November 13, 2010|By Thomas Curwen, Los Angeles Times

The Kopka River, north of Lake Superior in central Canada, sounded ideal: two passages through boreal forest, a lake between them and a lake at the end. They had been told about the rapids and planned to carry their canoe around the rough patch, but brush and fallen trees blocked the trail. They pulled ashore, and from a small rise saw another place they could land, about 20 yards from the rapids.

They started out, and two loons broke the surface of the lake beside them. Jane laid her paddle on her lap and turned her face to the sky.

"Thank you, universe," she shouted.

The river was calm and dark, reflecting the morning sky. Its banks bristled with fallen trees; one jutted into the water, and Gary steered around it. As they neared the shore, the current picked up speed, and they weren't able to land.

"Let's straighten up," Gary said, thinking they could pull out ahead.

But more fallen trees blocked the shore. They tried to slow down; the river was too high and too fast. Then it turned, and the rapids opened before them, a flood of water dropping down a craggy chute, 75 feet wide, half a mile long.

They plunged forward. Waves dashed against them. Gary took frantic cues from Jane — J-stroke, J-stroke, cross-draw — trying to keep from hitting any snags.

"Paddle hard!" he yelled. If they had any hope of maneuvering, they needed speed.

They dodged one boulder and slammed into another. The current spun them around, and their canoe flipped over. Gary was underwater. He broke for the surface, gasping for air, then smashed into a rock. It felt as if someone had clobbered him with a bat.

He tried to protect himself, but the current was too strong. He plunged over more rocks, was sucked under, spit out, thrown sideways and headlong.

As he flew over one cascade, his right foot jammed into a crevice. He toppled over, and the ankle snapped, freeing him, and he landed in a pond. He looked around and saw their empty canoe.

He grabbed the gunwale. Through the pain, he could feel the bones in his foot rubbing against each other. He looked upstream, waiting and hoping that Jane would make it through.

"Jane!" he screamed above the roar of the river. "Jane!"

Nothing.

He limped up the bank to an overlook to try to find her. He fell, nearly tumbling back into the rapids, and after an hour climbing along the cliff, he decided he had to get help. He was exhausted, and even in a wet suit, feared hypothermia. He splinted his leg with a tree limb, and using a paddle as a crutch, started downstream.

Then he heard something behind him.

Whe-ooo quee. Hoooo-lii.

Loons.

But never this loud. Something had caught their attention. Perhaps she had made it. He hurried back to the pond, and in the water were two birds. They were beautiful, he thought, and then he had a premonition: Jane was dead.

He wanted to run but couldn't.

He had to swim across the river where it emptied into the next lake, and the current swept him far from shore. He didn't know if he could continue. Then two more loons bobbed to the surface. They startled him, and the surge of adrenaline carried him to the bank. The highway was about three miles away. He saw a boat of fishermen. They circled and pulled him aboard.

That afternoon Ontario Provincial Police dispatched a helicopter, and Gary was flown to a hospital in Thunder Bay, where he gave a statement to a detective and answered questions about Jane's disappearance.

"Any disputes or arguments at all on this trip?"

"No," Gary said. "It has been a great trip."

Around 2 a.m., the detective drove him to a motel.

Gary hobbled into his room on crutches. He didn't want to call anyone and alarm them. He held out hope that Jane would be found alive. He lay down on the bed, tried to watch TV and slept.

One hundred and forty miles north, an officer sat vigil in a police car on an empty bridge over the Kopka, siren wailing and lights striping the forest, a beacon for Jane to find her way.

Three days later, her body was recovered.

On a Friday morning in August 2009, Gary, then 53, put months of planning to rest and stepped out of the house he and Jane had built. He passed the canoe she called Juniper. Retrieved from the Kopka, it lay half buried by the grass.

He turned left on the highway and walked south into the mountains. By evening he had climbed Mt. Maurice and made camp at 9,500 feet on the shoulders of the Line Creek Plateau, panoramas sweeping south into Wyoming and west to the 12,000-foot peaks of the Beartooth wilderness. He placed a jar that contained Jane's ashes in front of his tent, thinking she might like the view.

She had given up so much for him, quitting jobs to follow his ambitions, tending to their marriage and friendships in ways he often overlooked. He doubted he had been as supportive of her. He wanted to say he was sorry and tell her he appreciated all of it. He hoped this journey could be his amends.

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