It's a cold, blustery Christmas Eve, the kind of night Maine is known for. The temperature is well below freezing, and with the help of the biting, abrasive wind, the night will have an effect on a human body as that of minus 36 degrees, cold enough to freeze a bare hand solid in minutes. Tomorrow morning the earth will hold 18 more inches of snow, with wind-swept banks rising five and six feet high in soft, enveloping mounds.
It isn't fit outside for man nor beast, but inside the homes near Rangley, Maine, around fireplaces and wood stoves, people are warm. For them, this is just another winter. In spite of the cold, people are trimming Christmas trees, wrapping presents, singing carols and enjoying the warmth that is the spirit of Christmas.
In one home, a small, four-room cabin, sits a lone woman. A large log burns hot in the wood stove, a lamp glows near the window, and a small two-way radio--a common fixture in homes in this area-cackles occasional messages. The woman is crying.
Outside, less than three miles from the cabin and 1,200 feet up a mountain, lies a young man. Buried beneath a layer of snow and pine boughs, he is sleeping, but barely. His left ankle is swollen, the result of an accident earlier today on the snowmobile that now lies next to him. His heart beats very slowly, as his body is in a mild state of hypothermia. The young man's name is Nicholas, and this is his story.
Nicholas Caulfield is 18 years old. He had planned to enter the University of Maine after this, his senior year in high school, to get a degree in wildlife management. He had taken the entrance exam last month and found out just this morning that he had failed it.
Disheartened and embarrassed, he took off on his snowmobile. "I'm going to get the Christmas tree," he told his mother, though he knew he should wait for his friend, John Favreau, who was to join him for the traditional trip. . . and though he knew he should never, never go up into the mountains alone.
The climb up the mountain was easy and fast, the sled moving quickly over the hard packed snow. Nicholas stopped at his favorite peak for a while and looked out over the town below. He watched groups of people carrying bundles of presents from house to house, a small-town Christmas Eve tradition. Nicholas loved living in a small town and he loved the mountains. He just didn't know what he would do--could do--if he couldn't go to college.
Nicholas was thinking of how he could maybe just move out to the mountains and live alone. He wouldn't have to worry about college or a job or if he was good enough for anybody. He could live among the mountains, and he was always good enough for them.
Looking at a large oak tree, he wondered at the great strength of it, with many branches covering half an acre, all held up by a single, massive trunk. He thought of something his mother once said, "People are like trees, Nicholas. Keep a good, strong trunk and you can do anything, survive anything. And also," she said, "it doesn't matter if you're an oak or a pine, everybody is good for something, Nicholas."
Back on his snowmobile, Nicholas, taking advantage of the packed snow, went farther than he really needed to, but several hours later he found just the right tree, cut it down, leashed it behind his snowmobile, and started down the mountain toward his home. Having traveled the mountain range hundreds of times, he sped down the slopes and over the ridges.
It was on the second-to-last ridge he would have to cross that he encountered trouble. He jumped over the ridge and began a descent when he saw the deer. There were two, a doe and her fawn, standing about 30 yards down the icy hill in front of him. He released the throttle, leaned to the right, and turned the sled safely away from the animals.
This maneuver put him in a direct path toward a group of large birch trees, and with very little time to react, he jumped off the careening vehicle as it smashed into one of them. He tumbled downhill for many yards and would have gone for perhaps hundreds more had he not spun wildly into another tree.
Very shaken but still conscious, Nicholas took off his helmet and felt his left leg. It was broken, probably in two places. Standing would be difficult, walking impossible. His snowmobile was about 40 yards up the steep slope from him, and with only one good leg, it would take all the strength he had to pull himself up the icy incline.
Nicholas could splint his leg, he figured, using a few branches from the Christmas tree and its rope leash, but first he would have to get up to the sled. Then if he could start the engine, he might possibly ride the snowmobile home. It had started snowing--lightly at first, but quickly growing heavier, and it took him nearly two hours to reach the sled.
A closer look at his snowmobile destroyed any hope of riding it, as its small engine had been crushed by the impact. He would have to wait and hope that somebody might see him while passing through. It was only 4p.m., but the sun had already gone down over the mountain. The splint he had applied was keeping his leg stable, and the cold was actually keeping the swelling down, but the pain was getting worse, helping him to forget the hunger in his stomach. Two inches of snow had already fallen, covering his tracks, and for anyone to find him would be pure luck. The wind had picked up, and though Nicholas knew that his mother would call the police when she didn't hear from him by sundown, he wondered if anybody would come out to find him in this storm.
Few people would survive a night like this. With only a small wool blanket, a box of waterproof matches and his hatchet, Nicholas decided to shelter himself the best he could. The sled was on its side, making for a fairly good block against the wind, which was increasing madly. He unfastened the seat, which was about three feet long, and placed it beside the sled--his bed for the night. Reaching over the back of the sled, he pulled the Christmas tree toward him and began breaking branches from the trunk, placing them over the sled and the seat to form a lean-to, leaving room for him to crawl inside. He removed the engine cowling as a cover for his head.
Nicholas crawled under the boughs onto the seat and wrapped himself in the blanket, then he pulled the cowling over the opening of his shelter. He was now out of the wind, and the snow roof might actually insulate him. There was hope growing inside of Nicholas that he might indeed live through the night.
In a small cabin three miles away, a two-way radio was bearing a message: "Return to base immediately. Repeat. Risk too great. Return to base." Laura Caulfield put her head in her hands and wept. She had already lost one man, Nicholas' father to the mountain, would she now lose her only son? Where is my son? Is he alive? We haven't many friends; who will leave their family on Christmas Day to help us? Sitting in a chair by the wood stove, she stared out the window at the falling snow.
The bright sun comes up over the mountains, casting a long, thin shadow of a fast-moving helicopter. Its pilots had risen hours before sunrise, briefed with the Rangley Nordic Rescue via telephone and fax, and had left from the Navy base 100 miles southeast of the search site. Their ground crew had risen with them and were waiting at the base to provide assistance.
"Navy Six to Rangley Nordic Rescue. Come in, Rangley."
"This is Rangley. Thanks for your help. We have nine snowmobiles searching the base perimeter now, a light plane scanning the north face, and at least 50 volunteers on snow shoes searching the lower passes. We have eight Nordic ski patrollers waiting for you to take them to the top. Over."
"Roger. It's a good, clear day. We'll be there in six minutes. Over."
Yes, it's Christmas morning, and yes, statistically there is little chance of finding the boy alive after one of the worst snowstorms in years, but those two issues are all but ignored this morning in this small town.
Laura Caulfield is sleeping now, and she can't hear the radio. She had been awake most of the night, and exhaustion forced her to nod off about an hour before sunrise. A knock on her door wakes her, and she calls to invite the person in. The door swings open and in walk seven ladies from the town. Some know Laura and some don't. "Hello, Mrs. Caulfield, good morning. Have you heard? Half the town's up looking for your boy. He'll be all right, you know. Don't worry. Where may I put this plate of muffins?"
Through a small air hole in his shelter, Nicholas can see a beam of sunlight. He smiles faintly, for he knows that morning has come, that the storm is over--and that his is still alive. He has very little strength left, but is able to remove the cowling and crawl out of the shelter.
Over a foot of snow is resting on his snowmobile, completely concealing it. He takes the blanket, dark blue with red stripes, and lays it on the snow. He does the same with the snowmobile seat and then pushes the snow off the sled. He moves very slowly and must rest about every five minutes, so these chores take him over an hour. If a plane passes by, its occupants may see these, he hopes.
Peeling thin layers of bark off the birch trees, he lights them with his matches. Adding pine needles and small, green branches, he produces a small fire with very little smoke.
Nicholas doesn't see the plane in the distance. In fact, his mother, listening to the radio in the small cabin, discovers that he is near rescue even before he does.
"Charlie Three to base, we have a sighting. On Poplar Ridge. Looks like it could be our boy. Over." Inside the Caulfield cabin, everybody is silent.
"Ten-four, Charlie Three, can you confirm? Over.
"Negative. Too much wind in that area. Over."
"Base, this is Patrol Four. We're in that zone. We'll check it out. Over."
Two Nordic patrollers, a man and a woman, glide down the mountainside toward Poplar Ridge. A long, shallow sled is between them, controlled by long handles attached to waist belts. Though they travel down and over steep and treacherous terrain and must keep control over the heavy sled, they appear to move effortlessly, a smooth, well-coordinated rhythm keeping the three together.
Nicholas looks up and sees his rescuers coming over the ridge. They pull the sled alongside him.
"Nicholas? How are you?"
"I'm alrigh, sir. I broke my leg, bu I don think I lo musss to froside. Than you of fining me. I any ody else ou ere?" Nicholas doesn't notice, but his speech is slurred and heavy. This early symptom of hypothermia is something the rescuers had expected; no man could spend that kind of night up here without the cold taking at least part of him with it.
The patrollers are relieved, however, as his condition is far better then their worst case scenario had warned, and they know the staff at the local hospital is well enough equipped and trained to help him. They begin to work, checking Nicholas' vital signs and reactions, and maintaining what body heat he has left. As they work, they encourage Nicholas as much as possible.
"Son, we sure are glad to see you. You must have had an eventful night," the man says. "There are 100 people on this range right now, and they're all anxious to know that you're safe." He then speaks into a microphone clipped to his left shoulder, "Base from Patrol Four. We've found him. He's alive and conscious.. Over."
That message is heard on radios across the mountain range and through the small town. and like any mother would, Laura Caulfield is crying.
The technicians conduct field exams on Nicholas and make reports on his condition to base. After strapping Nicholas onto the rescue sled, the woman presses the button on her microphone--the channel has been held clear for them--"This is Patrol four. We're ready to transport. Navy Six, have you found a landing site? Over.
"Roger, Four. We're 300 feet below you, due north. Have contacted Farmington Hospital; they're waiting for us."
"Thank you, Six. We're coming down."
And so, they head down the mountain, skiing through the trees where the snow isn't too deep, dodging branches which, during the storm, had fallen from their trees, trees that have survived many storms and that will live to see many more.
Technical advisory by Douglas Gilchrist, senior patroller, Sugarloaf usa Ski Patrol, Carrabassett Valley, Maine. (1991)
This article was written in 1991 and was originally published in the Southwest Orlando Bulletin, Orlando, Florida.