There and Back Again: Windfall Lake

BY ALEXA CHERRY

On Jan. 23, I arrived at the Lodge on main housing prepared for a relatively leisurely outdoor experience. The “Windfall Lake Cabin” event had been advertised as little more than an overnight camping trip, with a 3.3-mile hike either way that was not, from what I had heard, particularly physically taxing. Having not thought much about it apart from what to pack, I anticipated a pleasant walk that would leave me time for friendly conversation and my own thoughts before we arrived at the cabin.

Some of these expectations were abruptly dashed when I was handed a headlamp and told that we would be hiking to our destination in the dark. After a moment of reflection, I decided that I was okay with that; it would just mean that I had to pay closer attention to where I was going. All seemed well, until we got out of the van at the top of the road leading up to the trailhead and the experience truly started.

Now, don’t get me wrong. What followed was one of the best experiences of my college life, so far. But in a couple of ways, it was also the worst – though the factors contributing to what made it so were out of the event organizers’ control. I say that all seemed well until we got out of the van because until we were standing on solid ground, it was not apparent that the “solid ground” was in fact nonexistent. What we stood on, and proceeded to walk on for the next 3.3 miles on increasingly uneven and hilly terrain, was ice – standing water that hadn’t drained off the road or the trail, and had frozen in sheets easily 3 or 4 inches thick in places.

Naturally, none of us had brought ice crampons, picks, or anything else suitable for navigating the equivalent of what was probably a casual stroll in Antarctica. So in case you didn’t gather the full picture, let me reiterate: we were approximately 13 people (maybe a little more, maybe a little less), walking an unknown trail in complete darkness on solid ice in the rain, with only headlamps to guide us. My headlamp, for one, was fading fast.

People fell on ice or in mud, or both – some people up to 16 times or more, by their count. Anyone without entirely waterproof footwear or gear fell in large standing puddles at least once. At one point, I fell off a bridge, rolled under it, and had to claw myself back to solid land while a muddy morass similar to the bog in the Lord of the Rings trilogy sucked at my arm and tried to end my trip prematurely. When we thought the rain was letting up, it would promptly come back twice as hard. Things looked entirely grim, as far as we could see into the pitch-black forest surrounding us.

Despite these adversities, however, and almost because of them, this experience quickly became one of my favorite things I’ve ever done at college. Spirits remained high for the majority of the time. There was so much ice that we really couldn’t help each other maintain balance very well, but the people in front let people behind them know what was slippery and how to navigate it. Each fall was met with a chorus of “Are you okay?!”, and comfort was taken in the knowledge that we were all equally as wet, dismal, and probably lost – after all, as it turned out, none of us knew exactly where the cabin was or how far down the trail we had to go to find it. Two and a half hours into the hike my fellow Whalesong reporter, Daniel Piscoya, began to proffer his thermos of hot Earl Grey tea to our cold, huddled masses, providing a significant spike in morale. Brittni Wisner, one of the CAs who had arranged the event, was perky and enthusiastic to the end, even though some of us accidentally forged ahead at a fork in the road and she thought we’d gotten lost in the woods or fallen into a bog. I developed previously non-existent skills in “ice surfing” and was told that I should take up real surfing, a statement I will cling to until I live somewhere warm enough to put it into effect. A mutiny was almost held 4 and a half hours into the hike when we reached a sign that initially read “2 miles to cabin”; however, before any of us could collapse in complete despair, someone looked closer and saw that there was a decimal point involved, dropping 2 miles to 0.2 miles and giving us enough hope to plow through the last leg of our journey.

“But Lexi,” you might say, “that sounds awful!” Well, I’m not going to lie – it was. But at the same time, that’s what made it so great. If the hike had been, as I thought, a leisurely stroll in a drizzle, I would probably not be writing an article about it right now. It would have been pretty unremarkable. Instead, however, it was one of the most intensive and team-building experiences I’ve had at UAS – better than any orientation or leadership seminar I’ve attended, probably. Everyone worked together to keep spirits high and look out for each other. We cheered when we reached the cabin, and it was unanimously agreed during the much-improved hike back on Saturday—during the daylight, where we could finally see the rivers and pseudo-canyons we’d crossed in the dark on the ice and when it only took us 3 hours to get to our destination instead of 4.5—that any similar events in the future should take place when it was not dark and when there was no ice.

Honestly, though, if they had the exact same event next week, I’d probably sign up. The destination was worth the journey, after all. Since getting there was so hard, arriving at the cabin felt like the biggest accomplishment of my life, and it was nice to wake up to a misty lake and a one-room cabin reeking of cedar (even if the bunkbed was so hard that it left a bruise the size of Argentina on my hip). This was the trip on which I learned my phone can take panoramic shots—something I’d previously thought exclusive to iPhones—and was finally suitably grateful to my mother for insisting that I bring a men’s XXL Helly Hansen raincoat to school with me. I did not look glamorous, but at least I was dry. Or as dry as you can be after walking in the rain for roughly 5 hours, anyway.

So thank you, Student Housing staff, for putting on this event! We sang hiking songs, we yelled through the woods when and if we got separated, we calculated our risk of being in a horror movie scenario and dying horribly, and even when we thought we’d missed a turn and would be wandering aimlessly through the forest for the remainder of the night, it was still better than doing homework. Props to everyone who accompanied me on this intrepid adventure. I hope to see your names on the sign-up list for next time!

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