The Great Escape

An evening snowshoe across a frozen lake to see the northern lights turns into a fight for survival.

By Ron Joseph
Illustration by Patrick Corrigan
[B]y around 4:30 p.m. in winter, darkness descends in Maine and cabin fever creeps in. This was particularly true one evening in 1978 at a remote northern Maine logging camp on Clayton Lake, sixty-five miles west of the closest town of Ashland. The logging camp became my winter home while I worked as a wildlife biologist studying deer in two thousand square miles of forested wildlands with no paved roads, gas stations, convenience stores, or electrical lines. As the only English speaker in the bunkroom, I was welcomed by twenty-five French-speaking Quebec loggers. The lumberjacks were keen on practicing their English, and, as a twenty-six year-old, I was eager to learn French and forestry from them.

When our conversational English and French lessons lingered too long after dinner, the French Canadian cook shooed us out of the dining room and sternly motioned to take the lessons to the bunkroom. “It’s ‘Toss my slippers down the stairs, please,’ ” I said in response to a Quebecer who before dinner had said to a friend, “Toss me down the stairs my slippers.”

Around 8 p.m. half the loggers were already asleep and the other half were getting ready for bed. An Atlantic Monitor wood stove, made in Portland in the early 1900s to heat drafty one-room schoolhouses, was so hot, its cast iron sides glowed pink. The bunkroom was a stifling eighty-two degrees. With outside temperatures hovering around twenty degrees below zero, condensation on all ten windows instantly turned to frost. To escape the heat, I snowshoed beneath the stars across Clayton Lake to marvel at the aurora borealis. The brightness of the northern lights was especially beautiful this night.

Invigorated by fresh air and inspired by the light show, I snowshoed down the lake toward an opening in the silhouettes of a spruce-fir forest for an unobstructed view. The awesome display of undulating ribbons of blue, yellow, and pink seemed to touch the cathedral of trees before rising in slow motion toward the heavens.

Mesmerized by the night sky colors, I hadn’t realized my snowshoes were approaching the outlet of the lake, where wind-packed snow insulated dangerously thin ice. Without warning, my right snowshoe broke through the ice and I sank to my hip in frigid water. Unable to feel the bottom of the lake, I couldn’t push myself out of the hole. My left snowshoe miraculously remained on top of the ice. The weight of a column of collapsed ice and snow anchored my snowshoe, and all efforts to free myself failed. I was in serious trouble.

Looking back across a mile of lake to the logging camp, the indoor lights were out. Everyone was asleep.

In life and death circumstances, crazy and random thoughts can race through one’s mind. My first thought was how embarrassing it would be to be found dead by loggers in the morning. Growing colder and more exhausted by the minute, thinking clearly and acting decisively was critical before hypothermia played tricks with my mind. Fortunately, I remembered a pocketknife in my Johnson wool pants.

Holding onto the ice shelf with my left mitten and left leg, I removed my right mitten with my teeth and tossed it with a headshake onto the frozen lake. Shivering violently, I reached into my ice-cold pocket and grabbed the knife. My mantra: “Don’t drop the knife, don’t drop the knife.” I opened the blade with chattering teeth, fearful that I might slide into the water if I let go of the shelf with my left hand. To pump myself with adrenaline, I yelled out into the darkness, “I can cut the snowshoe harness!” Acting swiftly, and repeating one last time, “Don’t drop the damn knife,” I reached into the water up to my right shoulder.

While Neoprene harnesses are difficult to cut, I managed to sever the one looped around the heel of my boot. By shaking my numb right leg, I dislodged the snowshoe and tugged it from the water with my bare hand. The snowshoe tail gave me a foothold in the shards of ice that had formed by my splashing fits and I clawed and fought my way out of the icy water.

Motivated by thoughts of heat from the very wood stove that had driven me out, I started to trudge back to the safety of the bunkroom in frozen wool pants that felt like heavy wooden boards.

Somehow I made it back to the logging camp, and stepping back into that warmth, I decided it would be better if I didn’t utter a word of my ordeal to the lumberjacks.