Today I had what I hope will be my final follow-up with my ankle surgeon.
He tells me I’m graduated: i.e., I can return to normal activity with no restrictions. My ankle has healed.
That comes with a caveat, of course: pain.
Minor twinges of pain still niggle down there when I push it. But at least, now I can push it. I have a feeling that today – nearly six months after my surgery – is when rehab really starts.
So I celebrated my graduation by reflecting on what brought me to the injury in the first place and relished some of the memories that led up to my trek in the Arctic.
One of those memories, triggered by the only photo I took that day, was a spectacular training trek with my dog, Maia.
Maia, a black lab, is one of those dogs that (a) will go where you go and not complain about it, and (b) usually out-works you, in spite of your fitness.
On this day, April 18, 2006, just six weeks before I’d start my Arctic trek, Maia and I left the Warm Springs trailhead, at the mouth of the Madison River’s Beartrap Canyon in the late afternoon for a long run.
After climbing to the plateau overlooking the river, and running nearly 7 miles, we stopped for a photo. I placed the camera on an old fencepost and took this shot.
Shortly thereafter, we reached the end of the plateau and dropped into Beartrap canyon at dusk, downstream of the Ennis Lake Dam, in the vicinity of the Kitchen Sink rapid. Getting down to the river in fading light was an exercise in careful foot and handwork through the cliff bands.
My plan was to return to the parking lot along the river, but it came with a glitch: cliffs blocked the way.
So I asked Maia to swim across the Madison with me, knowing that we’d have to do it twice – the second time near the car and in complete darkness.
She was full of energy and pluck, and she eagerly joined me on the first swim through boulders, drops, and whitewater. It was a distance of about 200 feet from one side of the river to the other.
We reached the other side – still at the bottom of the canyon but feeling like we were on top of the world – with the great enthusiasm of an adrenaline rush. She shook off the water, wagged her tail, and seemed to say, “Wow! That was intense! But cool! Can we do it again?”
So we started running again, this time by the light of the Photon Micro Light that I wore on my cap (see photo).
We were on trail now, but it was rocky and the going was slow.
Finally, we reached the riverbank opposite the car. I was exhausted, Maia was limping. It had been a long, hard run, and I wanted it to be over.
I didn’t hesitate, and jumped into the river. By the time it was waist deep, I started swimming.
Maia didn’t follow, and I couldn’t see her.
By the time I was halfway across the river, I reached a gravel bar where I could stand, and called for her.
So I swam back to her shore.
And there she lie, ears down, exhausted, and hurting.
“C’mon girl,” I told her. “I need you for one more swim.”
She slowly got up, limped to shore, and whimpered.
By now I was shivering and eager to reach the car, so I waded in and called Maia to follow.
She sat down and barked at me.
“I know,” I said. “This sucks. But our only option is to run to a bridge downstream, and back up the other side. We can either swim this 300 feet, or run another six miles.”
At that point, it seemed completely normal that I was negotiating with a dog.
I waded back to her, grabbed her by her scruff, and pulled her in with me.
And we swam.
We reached the gravel bar uneventfully. I was tired, and so was she, so I stopped and held her, like I was burping a baby, for a bit of rest.
Only 100 more feet.
So I dropped her in, and continued swimming. She followed, but eventually the current took her downstream. She was running out of gas.
I swam down to her, her dog-paddles becoming slower and weaker. I reached an arm under her front legs to hold her, and we sidestroked to shore.
She reached the shore, wobbly legged, and shook.
I reached the shore, wobbly legged, shivering, crawling on my hands and knees, and I laughed.
“I’m so sorry, girl, that was quite a ride, wasn’t it?”
Recovering from injury and surgery that affects the very core of what you love is intense. And exhausting.
But finally, I feel like I’m on the other side of the river.
And if I had a tail, you can bet that I’d wag it.
Photo, above right: Maia relaxing with Stephanie after a snowshoeing trek in Montana’s Bangtail Mountains.