BOWEN COLUMN: Lost in Yellowstone (Part 13)

Published 10:30 am Tuesday, September 28, 2021

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Wednesday, noon, July 14 — Day 4

(29 hours before the Grizzly)

Wednesday afternoon was a turning point, the most important of our journey.

We had reached a point in which we either would somehow stumble across a trail and get back on the right track; or we would keep moving steadily up the river and hope we see a trail from the water or another hiker who could help show us the way. I believe that the further up the Snake River we would have gone, the more we would move into remote wilderness and the less likely we would find a trail.

It was make-or-break time.

—the sighting

As evidenced by the brevity of the note I wrote earlier that morning, I could not spend a great deal of time resting there on the bank of the river, as majestic as it was. I would need to get back in the water and keep moving. Reading now between those roughly scribbled lines, we get a closer look at my state of mind at that point. Down deep there was the thought – maybe even the expectation – that this trip was about to lead into more of the unknown. As I think back on it, I can say that the chances of our plodding aimlessly for a great deal longer were more likely than not at that point.

Yet, despite that, I remember thinking that this was not a life-or-death matter. Perhaps I should have worried about that, but I felt that the worst that was likely to happen is that we would stay lost for a couple of days and that somebody would eventually spot us on the river. I still believe that is what would have happened. But the longer we were out there in those elements, the greater the chance that some other misfortune would have fallen on us. We witnessed that up close with the near bear attack the night before.

But something was about to happen that I have only one explanation for – and as I tell it to you now, you will have to make your own determination as to what you think best explains this unexpected event. I know that as I relate this part of the narrative, I cannot help but smile at the thought of what was happening behind the scenes in my and Todd’s lives. The satisfaction of the thought is something no one can ever take away.

A couple miles up the river from where we started that morning, Todd saw it. He was trudging up the river, hoping to see a trail within sight of the river. He glanced over to the west bank and saw a hiker, a man, walking up the trail. He hollered out at the man, but the man never turned toward him and never slowed down. In an instant, he was gone. That was it: Gone as quickly as he had appeared.

Todd hurried on out of the river onto the bank and tried to move as closely as he could to where he saw the man. The hiker was gone – and there was little chance of catching him – but as he looked for him, he realized that the man could not have done a better job of pointing out to us the trail we needed to take had he stopped and pointed at it. It became the biggest discovery of our trip. It could be why I am able to tell this story to you today.

No one could say with certainty what it was that Todd saw. One might say it was just a hiker on the trail. Another? He might say that it must have been an angel showing us the way, pointing to us the trail that would lead us home.

What I do know is that Todd himself did not know. Soon after the sighting, I saw Todd up ahead of me a hundred yards or so standing in the middle of one of the islands in the river. I was surprised to see him, especially this early in the day. I continued on carefully in his direction, keeping my eyes on where I was stepping to make sure to keep sure footing in that flowing water and on those unstable rocks. As I came within hearing distance of Todd, he hollered out,

“Steve, could you hear me calling out?”

“No,” I said, walking up to him with a smile, “the river’s too loud. I couldn’t hear anything.”

He explained that he had seen the hiker just a little while prior to my coming, and when he hollered out to him he did not hear him, either. He did not turn around or respond to him in any way.

“I don’t know what it was,” he said, pausing, “it could have just been a hiker. Or it could have been something else,” and he said it as if he had just seen a ghost. I found some satisfaction in that, for it was yet another testimony to God’s unseen hand paving a way for us on our mysterious journey. It was something that we had discussed at length in our drive up from Denver to this present reality. I was glad, too, that Todd realized that we were not in this thing alone. True, it may have been a regular hiker. But it was not ‘just’ a hiker. That I know.

My friend and I crossed over the swift stream that ran against the west side of the river, and we began making our way toward the site hidden back behind heavy brush and forest. That ninety or hundred-foot hike was not easy.

We had to trudge through a muddy section where the river splashed over the bank in its excitement; then we had to climb up a three-foot ledge to get to level ground. From there, you had to make your way through some high grass until you came to a vague trail to the north of the campsite. Taking that trail, we passed several tall trees and moved past thick shrubbery that hid everything behind it. It was there, behind the thick and tall shrubs, that we came to the camp.

Thinking back on all of that now, I realize that there is no way you would know to exit the river at that point and make your way up through that rough terrain to get to a campsite. That terrain looked no different than the terrain we had seen for miles up and down the river. Had we continued on, we might have taken some stabs at exiting the river and finding a trail as we went along; but those attempts would only have been little more than stabs in the dark. The only way – and I see no other – we would have a fair chance of finding a trail and finding our way back out of this remote part of Yellowstone was to see a hiker in the distance on the very trail we needed to take us home.

I am thankful today that the grace that had brought us safe thus far would lead us to just such a man, one who neither spoke nor responded.

Whether it was a hiker, or whether the Lord provided an angel at just the right time to guide us back to the trail – that is something we’ll never know. What we do know is this: The Lord had guided us back to a place where we had a chance to exit this wilderness on our own, even though we know we were never really ‘on our own.’

I cannot tell you how often that scene comes to me now. Occasionally I’ll even think of the skeptics who will say that the only reason there was a hiker out there at that precise moment and that Todd saw him is that, by happenstance, a man was hiking that trail at the moment Todd looked that direction. Nothing more.

But a man who thinks that way likely isn’t lost eerily twenty miles deep in a remote region of a vast wilderness. Lost in the wide and deep expanse of Yellowstone, and at the ultimate mercy of someone far bigger than you and far bigger than I – that’s one of the best places I’ve ever seen for a man to grow a faith.