It was a warm start to the hike. Mika was already panting as I walked around the car to open the door to release her from the confines of the old BMW interior. (I am a gentleman, after all.) I managed to park under a shade tree, just to the left of a few carloads of hikers donning all sorts of hats and trekking poles, spilling out onto the grassy field. They divided themselves into two groups, one made up of 20-30 year-olds and another of vibrant-looking 60-somethings. A few looked a bit lost, not sure of where to start. One of the younger set seemed to gather his bearings and led the group to the trailhead at the far end of the field. As for Mika and I, we decided to take the trail in reverse. Thatâ€™s the thing with hiking Kellyâ€™s Runâ€”you can go in one direction and have a manageable descent to the cooling waters, followed by a steep, grueling climb out, or you can go the opposite direction and have a manageable descent to the cooling waters, followed by a steep, grueling climb out.
We headed to the west, taking the grass path across the spine of the ridge, stopping at the normal 50-yard mark for Mika to relieve herself. (Dogs have little concept of making progress.) Back underway, we continued to run up to the peak of the park, then out across the fields, before plunging down the bluffs overlooking the Susquehanna. By the time we reached the abandoned road for the final leg of the descent, it became very evident that Tevas are wonderful footwear for leisurely activities, but when cross-country running and hiking they will leave you blistered and sore within minutes. We pushed on through the pain, my plush partner matching my pace until we reached the crossing at the mouth of Kellyâ€™s Run. It had been about 2 miles in 90-degree heat and Mika welcomed the cool relief that the stream provided. (Apparently there is an instinct deep within the genetic makeup of all Norwegian Elkhounds to seek out refreshing waters, wade in them up to their fuzzy bellies, and ignore eye-contact from owners when urged to â€œget moving.â€)
After much cheerleading, we started up the path along the stream. We only managed to run about 100 yards before we encountered three more hikers. As we passed one of the more portly of the trio he offered words of encouragement. â€œDonâ€™t worry, heâ€™s friendly!â€ he said with a weak smile. I looked at the other end of his taut leash to see a large Chihuahua snarling, lunging, and snapping at first me, then Mika. Neither of us were convinced by his tepid reassurance, so we kept moving, ignoring the foul beast. We could only run another 1/8 mile up the stream before we needed to scale some rocks the trail traversed. Valuing my shins more than my pace, we slowed down and eased over the nasty bits. There was a moist green skin on the rocks that told me what to expect: no traction. It seemed like the humidity of the wet Spring had not yet dried the algae on the rocks. My Tevas slithered up and down each outcropping we encountered. (Tevas also offer terrible wet traction.) We had a few more stream crossings as the trail snaked its way up the hill. (And more than a few minutes spent cooling fuzzy bellies each time.) There were even sections where I had to give Mika a boost as her paws struggled to find grip on the rock.
At the last point where the trail meets with the stream I met up with the older group of hikers I had seen in the parking lot. The first couple came upon Mika lapping away with her spoon-shaped tongue and offered her the morale booster of â€œGet movinâ€™, Tubby! Blah ha haaaa!â€ (I will assume it was directed at her.) She gave him the sideways glare that you only get from a dog that has just run over 2-1/2 miles of trail. As that couple disappeared from our sight, the remaining 60+ age group arrived. I spoke with them for a couple minutes, answering their questions about the trail and about Mika. Since they were not from the area, and this was their first time at Kellyâ€™s Run, I explained that they will get their feet wet as some point on the way, due to the erratic path that the route is forced to take. I also gave them the suggestion to return the way that they came, since the return leg shown on the map is nothing short of hot and boring compared with what they are about to experience along the cascades of water they were about to follow. They seemed keen to follow my counsel (or simply polite), and as they turned to head off, I offered them one last instruction: â€œDo be careful of the rocks! They are the slickest that Iâ€™ve ever seen them.â€ A couple of shy thank-yous, and they were off. Mika and I panted our way up the hill and eventually made it to our now stinking-hot car.
It was two days later that I heard the news that a hiker fell to her death on the trail that day. While I cannot be absolutely certain it was her group that I spoke with, there are far too many coincidences for me to be certain that it was not. The trailâ€”while technicalâ€”is not particularly treacherous. There are a few drop-offs, but nothing more than 3-10 feet in most places. From what Iâ€™d gathered, her group was made up of experienced hikers. There was no real reason for the outing that day to cost her life, but it did. I have been fortunate to have hiked in several areas around the globe, through everything from wide dirt roads in the hills of Honduras to perilous footholds over the cliffs of Hawaiâ€™i. There are some times when you know the going will be difficult and the risks extremely high. You do the calculations of survival and make a decision: go or no-go. When you take that risk and succeed, the reward seems great. It is great. However, if you fail in your attempt, you are forever remembered as the subject in the phrase â€œSome idiot tried toâ€¦â€
There are also times when it seems no decision needs to be made. The path is blazed for you and the going is relatively easy. You assume that all is well. Such was the case this past trek, as I never considered turning back. My return was assured. When a hiker fails to make it home from a trip like this it strikes me particularly hard. There was little risk, little reward. No one was being an idiot, yet a body still needs to be recovered by the rescue crews. Maybe it was the algae on the rocks? Perhaps heat-related fatigue was a contributor? We will never know for sure, but the only fact we are certain of is that she is gone.
We presume we hold our destiny in our own hands. If we just make the right choices and follow the safest path, then we will be around for a long, long time. We always wear our seatbelt. We check the â€œSide-Impact Airbag Protectionâ€ on the order form. We sleep well, knowing that our loved ones will be kept safe from harm. The fact of the matter is, no amount of science or math will ever immunize humanity from our own fatality. We can do our best to prevent, but sometimes this isnâ€™t enough. Life is incredibly fragile. We are mortal beings, yet our pride often prevents us from admitting that our fate is not ours to decide. This same pride keeps us from admitting that life will continue on for those we leave behind. The survivorsâ€™ lives may be altered and painful, but still unceasing. No matter how good or loved we are, we are never as precious as we deem ourselves to be. Perhaps it is this reason that fluke accidents such as this one are so difficult to accept?
May your wandering soul find rest, Alice.
Jansen Herr lives in rural Lancaster County, Pennsylvania with his loving Norwegian Elkhound, Mika. When not writing, he occupies his time attempting to save old European rolling stock from the jaws of the crusher, as well as from himself. If not ruining fine machinery, he is likely found in the saddle of an obscure motorcycle. He also attempts to play bass, cook, and is usually successful staring at walls.