Retreat from the Wilderness: Mice and Misadventures

Fishing and relaxing were the enticements for a weekend sojourn in British Columbia.

Fishing and relaxing were the enticements for a weekend sojourn in British Columbia.

My husband had been telling me for months about an idyllic yurt tucked into a pristine landscape of rustling aspens and ponderosa pines on a private lake in a remote corner of British Columbia’s Okanagan. He had gone there several times to savor the wilderness and relax, pole in hand.

It sounded like a lovely getaway. We took care to select a date when the days would be warm and glorious, the nights balmy and star-filled.

The morning of our trip, the sky is gunmetal gray, and it’s growing darker by the minute. “It’s hours from Seattle — surely the weather will be different there,” I note, cheerily.

“No, actually, since it’s farther north, it will be worse up there,” Eric says, a deep frown on his face. I hear my sun-worshipping husband mutter under his breath as he schleps our bags out to our waiting SUV.

The rutted dirt road to the yurt wound through dense stands of aspens, ponderosa pines and Douglas firs.
The rutted dirt road to the yurt wound through dense stands of aspens, ponderosa pines and Douglas firs.

Hours later, as we struggle up a steep mountain pass on the Coquihalla Highway, a near-Biblical deluge of rain pummels our truck. Eric points dejectedly at a blank– Etch A Sketch wall of clouds and points out what I am unable to see: in this case, a soaring granite cliff, a thousand feet (305 m) high.

I imagine that there could be many things here. Maybe an alpine ski area, a glamorous resort … a roadside circus … I steal a glance at him, wondering if he’s pulling my leg.

We turn off at a dirt (did I say “dirt?” how about “mud?”) road barred by a padlocked wooden gate. Behind the gate lie miles of rangeland and our private retreat, which Eric has characterized as a slice of luxury in the wilderness. Ahhh, I sigh. Our raft trip is almost over, and we can relax by a cozy fire in our own hideaway, enjoy a candlelight trout dinner and trade backrubs.

I haul myself out of the truck to unlock the gate. My legs are cramped from the long ride, and I slip and slide in the chocolate-batter mud. Splattered and wet, I fling myself back into the truck. My eyes scan every hilltop pasture, round every forested bend, for our lavishly-advertised hideaway.

“Settle in, it will be a ways,” Eric says, as we approach a barbed-wire gate. I sigh as I struggle to remove the pole from the vice grip of the wire loop and try to untangle the strands. We dodge mud-caked steers running crazily up the road and bump through knee-deep potholes to arrive at another fence. And another, and another: a dozen fences over the course of an hour.

Any feelings of freedom now begin to dissipate — there can’t be this many fences around a penitentiary — and I’m starting to feel claustrophobic. What would happen if there’s an emergency way out here? I pull out my cell phone. No signal.

Finally at the yurt, we slog through pouring rain to bring in our belongings. It’s a cheery, rustic place, with a tiny kitchen to the right, a wood stove to the left and two sets of bunk beds straight ahead. We pull foam mattresses off the bunks onto the floor, creating our own double bed.

I explore the kitchen and find the promised jerry cans of drinking water. A fuzzy green growth inside has created what would be a nice home for a pair of goldfish.

But Eric has a solution. He brings in a single liter bottle of carbonated water. “We’ll have to use this,” he says matter-of-factly. “That?!” I gasp. “For our entire time here?” “We don’t have a choice, do we?” He has a point there. We didn’t bring a filter, and I don’t think my socks qualify. We’ll have to practice ascetism.

“We’ll be fine,” Eric says. “The best part of this place is the fishing — you’re going to love the trout! I’ve always grilled it on the campfire outside.”

Eric shows off the biggest trout he has ever caught.
Eric shows off the biggest trout he has ever caught.

I begin putting things away, and Eric goes outside to split firewood and retrieve the grill. I run outside when the chopping sounds cease, replaced by a string of swear words. Eric stands with an axe in his hand, shirtless, rain running down his head in rivulets. “All the firewood is wet!” he pronounces, “and there’s no grill!”

It’s too dark and rainy to fish anyway. “What should we have for dinner?” I ask, my heart sinking. My champion fisherman husband believes in bringing along only the basics, to complement the numerous fish he always catches.

After a meal of soapy-tasting dehydrated soup, we settle in for a series of Scrabble games, the only entertainment we brought, in the golden glow of the yurt’s propane lanterns.

“Shhh … do you hear that?” Eric says. “What?” “SHHHH!”

There’s a small rustling sound, then a mouse climbs up from behind the cabinets and emerges onto the countertop. The nocturnal visitor disappears as quickly as we can leap out of our chairs.

“Rodents are a part of life in the country,” Eric says with a smile. “There must be mouse traps around here — this place is always beautifully outfitted.” We empty drawers and cupboards in our search. No luck. “I can’t believe it,” Eric says.

“Just leave this up to me, I can trap him,” I say, enthusiastically. I construct a cute little ramp up to the lip of our cooler, then place a chunk of cheese inside. When he leaps in for the cheese, we’ll have him.

An hour later, he still hasn’t taken the bait. I up the ante: An overturned box propped up by a sliver of wood attached to a string, a chunk of cheese inside.

After several too-early or too-late tugs, we finally nail the little creature. It’s dark by now and misting, but we pack the box far down the road to release him; no sense in his sneaking right back inside.

“Whew,” I’m glad that’s over, I say, as we step back inside. Then we hear a rustling. As the rain patters down we keep track of time by mice caught. Two mice later, it’s bedtime.

As we settle in on the floor next to the wood stove, Eric tells me tales of his previous trips here. “The last time I was here, I saw at least a dozen bears on the road on the way in,” he says. “I really hope we get to see some on this trip. They’re really plentiful around here, with no one to bother them.” Then he launches into a story about a woman he read about who was mauled inside her tent by a black bear.

“Aren’t the walls of a yurt fabric, like tents?” I ask. “Yep, pretty much,” he says. I scan the sheet-like walls, held up by spindly, but admittedly charming, wood latticework.

Before we go to sleep, I have to make one final trip to the outhouse, some 40 feet (12 m) away. I wade through thigh-high wet grass. The flashlight has a reassuring, honey-warm glow when I rest it on a ledge. In seconds, the light flickers, its beam grows feeble, then it extinguishes, plunging me into darkness.

The yurt, perched beside a wilderness lake, seemed like such a great getaway.
The yurt, perched beside a wilderness lake, seemed like such a great getaway.

I bang on it and shake it, but the flashlight is dead. I make a mad dash back to the yurt, my heart pounding as I survey every fuzzy form looming out of the darkness. They may look like young trees at first, but then, so could a bear, my mind races.

“Eric, where’s your flashlight? Mine went out,” I announce, bursting through the door. Eric rummages through his things. “I always pack a flashlight. I’m sure it’s here somewhere,” he says confidently.

Then, “It’s not here! I can’t believe I didn’t pack my flashlight,” he says, crestfallen. “And I didn’t bring any extra batteries,” he adds, sheepishly. As we drift off to sleep, I plan escape routes in case a bear slashes the gossamer-thin wall inches from our heads.

Morning arrives and the rain has let up. We venture outside to savor the peacefulness of the lake emerging from the mist. Then a grinding, punk rock-like whine fills the air. Apparently a hidden sawmill has started up operations somewhere behind the trees on the opposite shore. A boatload of fishermen drifts past.

“I thought this was our private lake?!” I say, dismayed. “I don’t know … maybe the other side of the lake is a public shoreline; there must be another road over there, with a boat launch somewhere,” Eric says, dejectedly.

My husband, not to be dissuaded from any opportunity to fish, announces, “It’s fishing time!” We shove off in the canoe and paddle down the narrow lake, passing beaver lodges, stands of pine and open meadows rimmed with aspens. Eric’s rod dips to the surface of the lake and he plays the fish hard, giving it line then reeling it in.

“It’s a big one!” he shouts. He struggles to bring in the plump, shimmering treasure, a 19-inch-long (48 cm) rainbow. “It’s the biggest trout I’ve ever caught!” Eric exults, with a huge grin.

At dinnertime, we eagerly take our first bites of the trophy trout. “Um, it’s interesting,” I say, trying to be polite. But there’s no denying it — the fish tastes like rancid mud. Eric fesses up: It had a strange, moldy growth on it, but he didn’t think the flavor would be affected. Our appetites quelled, we dump the dishes into the sink and get out the trusty Scrabble game for round #7.

Later, we snuggle under blankets, listening to the soothing sounds of rain. Deep into the night, Eric nudges me awake. “Leslie!” he whispers. “Did you hear that?” I listen, then my skin crawls. Something much bigger than a mouse is rooting around, chewing up paper and scrambling about, an arm’s length away, right here on the floor with us.

We listen for a while, mulling over a multi-choice quiz of what animal it could possibly be before deciding that we’re too tired to do anything about it. Huddled close together for protection, we go back to sleep.

 

It’s still dark when I awaken with a headache. I take a breath of air and choke on fumes. I awaken Eric. “There must be a gas leak of some sort!” he exclaims. We discuss what to do about it, but we’re both groggy and barely awake. We open the door, bringing in a freezing wind. Then we close the door and go back to sleep.

 

It doesn’t occur to me how dangerous it is to just go back to sleep. But right now, we are exhausted and not feeling well.

A few hours later we awaken to splitting headaches, and the air is thick with fumes. My eyes streaming, I dash outside to stand in the rain, stamping to stay warm in the drizzle.

My brave husband dashes in and out gathering armloads of clothing and fishing gear and pitches them, sopping wet, into the truck. We have to get out now, he proclaims, before the road becomes impassable.

Impassable? I ponder. Even in a 4-wheel-drive truck? Eric scowls stormily as our truck slips and slides in the now very deep mud that has turned the interminable road into a stomach-churning, hilly plunge toward freedom.

Just two days ago, I thought of this place as a little slice of freedom from daily cares. We were going to relax in sunny meadows, paddle the quiet lake, listen for loons, sit around the campfire. I smile … now, home sounds like such a lovely getaway.

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