Essay: A Carry-Out on Eagle Creek

First posted in August 1998

I'd like to tell you a little story about an event that happened earlier this summer. I was on my way up Hazel Creek, a large creek (or a small river) located in the southwestern corner of the Park, just north of Fontana Lake. My pack on my back and fishing pole in hand, I was looking forward to a Saturday stroll along the river, fishing all the best spots, before spending the night under the stars. Off the clock and enjoying the day, I made my way upstream, passing through the historic remnants of Proctor, a former logging community that at one time supported over 1,200 people. Logging The town of Proctor was cut off from the rest of the world by the flooding of the Fontana reservoir in the 1940's. Once complete with a movie theatre and post office, Proctor's sole residents these days are hikers, horsemen, and Park Service employees.

Not much more than a mile upstream from where Hazel Creek flows into Fontana Lake, I heard a Park dispatcher's voice from my radio. An individual with an injured knee needed assistance on Eagle Creek. Visions of fishing and camping faded from my mind as I realized that I was one of the closest employees able to respond to the incident. Eagle Creek is the next major drainage into Fontana, just to the west of my location. I turned around and headed back down the creek.

After a short trip down the lake, I found myself at backcountry campsite #90, a lovely, wide-open spot on the mouth of Eagle Creek. An on-duty ranger and I proceeded up the Eagle Creek Trail, on the lookout for the knee injury that had been reported by hikers in the area. Less than a half mile up trail we encountered a unique sight... a young man, perhaps 5'6" or 5'7" in height, about 140 lbs or so, carrying a much larger young man, perhaps 6'1" or so, and weighing at least 200 lbs. The larger man had his arms around the smaller man's neck, and the smaller man was bent over so that the larger man's feet wouldn't drag the ground. A crude, but well constructed splint of sticks and bandages was on the larger man's knee. It seems the injured party had made it out on their own.

The two young men told us of their ordeal. The two of them, and a third individual, had planned to spend a few days in the Lake District of the Park. Their hike had begun the day before at Fontana Dam, and they had had hiked the 8.1 miles from the dam to backcountry campsite #96. All had gone well that first day.

The gentleman with the injured knee informed us that he had shattered his kneecap in a snowboarding incident the previous winter. He had received reconstructive surgery and several months of rehabilitation, and had received clearance from his physician to undertake a lengthy hiking trip. Nevertheless, his knee had given out this morning in a deep and swift stream crossing. Unable to walk on his own, his friend had carried him an impressive two miles to our current location. The third member of their party was in route, carry out the large packs they had carried into the backcountry the day before.

The on-duty ranger spoke to our dispatchers via radio, asking that they contact the local EMS/Rescue Squad. He then hoisted the injured man upon his own back, allowing the smaller gentleman to have some much needed relief. They headed down toward the lake, where the EMS unit would be arriving shortly. I proceeded up trail, watching for the third member of their party.

After a few minutes, I encountered a second unique sight... another small young man, maybe 5'6" or so, between 140 and 150 lbs, carrying two large internal-frame packs, one strapped to his back, the other strapped to his front. This was obviously the third member of the party, so I stopped to speak to him. Much to my amusement, he lamented about how he had been unable to manage carrying all three fully loaded packs out on his own. He had left the third pack at campsite #96 with another party of hikers. He also commented that the group he had left the pack with had seen his friend's horribly swollen knee, were well aware of their predicament, and had made absolutely no effort to help. They took one look at his friend's injury and said something to the effect of, "Gee, that looks like it really hurts... have you all done much fishing around here? Did you catch anything?" Needless to say, this information irritated me a bit. I thanked him for the information, made certain he thought he could continue to manage the two packs on his own, and continued upstream to retrieve the third pack.

Upon entering campsite #96, I saw a group of young men, probably in their late teens or early twenties, enjoying the pleasant warmth of the day. A couple were swimming in the river nearby, another was returning with his catch of fish, and the rest were meandering around the campsite. I asked one of them about the pack I was looking for, and was directed to a huge internal-frame pack, loaded to the brink with everything you could ever possibly need (whether it be in the backcountry or preparing for a nuclear disaster!). Donning the heavy pack, I made conversation with one of the boys and found they were from Mississippi. I asked him why none of them had made an effort to help the other party carry our their injured friend or their packs. He told me that they weren't traveling the same direction and that the thought had never really even crossed his mind. I suppose I shouldn't have been too terribly shocked by his reply, but I was. "Did it ever occur to you that you might twist your own knee sometime? Do you think you'd like it if other hikers found it too inconvenient to help carry you out?" The boy looked down at the fish he was about to clean, then back at me, and told me he'd never really thought about it on those terms.

To make a very long story short, I retrieved the pack and met the group back at the boat for our trip across the lake. The young man with the injured knee made it back to his home in Atlanta safe and sound, and no doubt made a prompt appointment to see his orthopedic surgeon. And while I can only speculate, I hope that the boys from Mississippi learned a valuable lesson in backcountry ethics.