When Zak came upon Riley, the puppy’s condition bespoke his abusers’ handiwork—three shotgun pellets embedded beneath his skin, teeth turned permanently black from malnutrition. The meeting was one of a man and a dog singularly suited to save each other. As a former US Marine sergeant, Zak was one of only a few people with the mettle and physical wherewithal to get Riley out. And in rescuing him, Zak was also attempting to save himself, conquering the currents of cruelty that swelled beneath his early life and always threatened to drown him.
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About the Author
Pete Nelson received his MFA from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has written for numerous magazines, including Harper’s, Playboy, and Esquire. He is the author of the novel I Thought You Were Dead and numerous nonfiction titles, including Left for Dead and That Others May Live. He resides in Westchester, New York.
Read an Excerpt
It was shortly after ten o'clock on a warm Sunday morning, on June 20, 2010. The news on television was mostly bad and depressing, bombs going off in Baghdad and an uncapped British Petroleum oil well belching black clouds of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. It was Father's Day, but I was not a father, nor had I ever had a reason to celebrate Father's Day — or, for that matter, Mother's Day. I'd driven six hours south from my home in Salt Lake City, Utah, because I wanted — because I needed — to get away from it all. And by "it all," I meant "people."
In that regard, I was successful. I could hardly have been farther away from people than here, navigating a crack in the earth, an hour from the closest town of Page, Arizona. I'd been moving at a good pace since breakfast, traveling down one of the Colorado Plateau's slot canyons, a unique topography created by hydrological and aeolian forces that over the eons had eroded the red sandstone surrounding me. Slot canyons are like knife slices in the earth, and some can be hundreds of feet deep and only a few feet wide. The canyon I was in (and this was the reason I chose it) was a technical canyon, meaning it could not be traversed without the use of ropes and climbing gear: carabiners, a harness, ascenders, bolts, and anchors. I was traveling down from the head of the canyon, the first mile or so an easy stroll on a sandy path, but then the adventure began. Each time I had to set my ropes and rappel down, a skill I learned in the Marines, I increased the danger, because without my gear, I would not be able to turn around and exit the way I entered, or go forward beyond the next technical traverse, and gear can always fail. Humans are more likely to fail than gear; one bad bolt-set or hastily tied knot, and I could find myself at the bottom of a hole with no way out. I'd applied pre-mission preparation procedures drilled into me in the Marine Corps. I'd built in as many precautions as possible, brought more rope than I expected I'd need, and I'd given my wife, Michelle, my location and a "drop dead" time, meaning that if she didn't hear from me by then, she should call search and rescue. Even that didn't mean I'd be safe.
Michelle worries because I prefer to explore places like this alone. The risk I face, and enjoy, exploring solo has changed little since the days when mountain men and fur trappers blazed trails in this forlorn part of the globe — if you mess up, you're screwed. A broken leg or even a twisted ankle can leave you trapped somewhere no one will think to look for you. Canyoneers must also concern themselves with flash floods, particularly in the secondary and tertiary canyons that feed into the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River. In a wider canyon, if you have enough warning of a flash flood, there are often places you can run to where you may be able to scramble up to higher ground. In a slot canyon like this, there's no way out, no way up without climbing gear, and no way to ride out a flood when constrictions amplify the force of the water. In the summer of 1997, twelve people were trapped in Antelope Canyon, perhaps the best known and easily the most traveled slot canyon in the Four Corners region, by a flood resulting from a storm ten miles upstream where the catchment saw an inch and a half of rain, with three-quarters of an inch falling in only fifteen minutes. Downstream in Antelope Canyon, it barely drizzled, a few drops falling, until, half an hour later, a surge of water ten feet high raced down the canyon, destroying everything and everyone in its path.
I chose to explore alone to get away from people and to test myself. I didn't necessarily think that other people would either slow me down or annoy me; going solo simply meant having a more pleasant journey without any awkward moments with new partners or arguments about which way to go or how to set something up. The challenge is to be self-reliant. Some people find it difficult to be self-reliant. I have never had a choice. I am self-reliant to a fault, and if I could go back in time to reverse the course of events that have made me so, I would, but ... I can't do that, so I will only play the cards life has dealt me as best I can.
After my second rappel, I stopped to eat a snack and to rest, washing down a Clif Bar with a few gulps of bottled water. After my third rappel, a descent of perhaps twenty feet, I left my ropes in place and paused to examine the gear in my pack to see what I had left. Of the eight twenty-five-foot sections of CMC Static Pro 3/8" diameter climbing rope I brought, I had one section left.
I dropped my pack and headed down-canyon. I had Petzl ascenders and both locking and non-locking carabiners clipped to my Yates harness. My bolts and anchors and my DeWalt cordless drill were in the pack. I could come back if I needed them, but I was of the mind that if the next obstacle I reached presented too much of a challenge, I'd call it a day and turn around. At some point, the lure of what's around the next corner is cancelled out by the trouble it's going to take to get back, but whenever I stop for the day, it's generally not with a sense of disappointment, but more with one of accomplishment. It's that point when you think, "I've come this far alone safely; don't push it."
I walked about fifty yards down to where the canyon narrowed, the walls only a few yards apart, rising perhaps three hundred feet above me, though they curved and leaned and I couldn't see the top. The sun was no longer directly overhead. It was noticeably cooler as I passed through shadows dark enough that I occasionally had to turn on my headlamp to see the smaller details. The streambed underfoot was sandy for the most part but, in the low depressions that held standing water before eventual evaporation, the sand had caked into tiles of mud that curled at the edges and crunched with each step I took. The sound brought me back to winters and springs, growing up in Wisconsin. I found it pleasing, similar to stomping on the ice crusted at the edge of the snow banks lining the streets in my hometown.
Ahead, I saw daylight where the canyon opened up again. I looked up. The walls loomed above me, as if threatening to collapse. I estimated that from where I started my day, I'd come about two miles, horizontal.
I regarded the sweep of the striated sandstone walls, red and brown, tan and yellow. It was beautiful, and I was glad I came. For a moment, I pretended I was the first man who ever set foot here. I chose this canyon from an old out-of-print guidebook because the description made it sound like a place too difficult to visit, meaning it would be untrammeled by day-tourists in flip-flops. I'd read where they've found large amounts of human garbage washed up on the beaches of deserted islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. For me, finding a candy wrapper or a soda can in a canyon I'm exploring was always more than disappointing — it felt like falling off the wagon, in a way, a setback in my ongoing struggle to be more optimistic about people.
A brief and admittedly amateur accounting of the geology of Utah can explain how the slot canyons of Southern Utah and Northern Arizona formed. At various times over the eons, the mountains in the northern part of the state, including the Wasatch, Raft River, and Uinta ranges, were the only part above sea level, and the rest was submerged. The warm seas encroached and receded over a relatively flat topography to the west of the Wasatch line and left thick deposits of sediments, including shale, sandstone, and limestone up to three miles thick. Much of that rock contains marine fossils. Eventually, around the time of the dinosaurs, the seas dried up, turning southern Utah into a vast sandy desert, and that sand became the red rock formations found today in the national parks. Land masses compressed and crashed into each other, creating faults and uplifts and folds and eventually the Rocky Mountains, with swamps and large, lazy rivers draining the coastal plains. Uplifts formed basins, which became lakes and lake beds. Then, about forty million years ago, widespread volcanic activity erupted, leaving thick blankets of volcanic rocks and lava and ash. About twenty million years ago, the part of North America west of the Rockies lifted up out of the sea to present-day elevations, land flowing east and west from the Continental Divide, and the water that had before flowed slowly in lazy rivers now flowed rapidly down steeper slopes, carving into the landforms and refilling the basins. In the high mountains, glaciers formed to sculpt the topography, and then the climate warmed up, the ice receded, and most of the lakes evaporated. Great Salt Lake is one of the last to do so.
The slot canyons of southern Utah and Northern Arizona are evidence of erosion as rainwater sought the shortest path to the sea after the final continental uplift. The most dramatic and most developed is, of course, the Grand Canyon, which is hardly a slot anymore, but at some point in time, around twenty million years ago, it started as one. Walking down into a canyon, big or small, feels like walking backward through time, as marked by the striations on the contoured canyon walls distinguishing different periods of sediment deposits.
Biologically, a slot canyon is a niche most plant and animal species find inhospitable. Very little sunlight reaches the bottom of slot canyons, and when it does, it doesn't stay long. In the canyons that are the most popular with tourists, the best time to go if you want to take pictures is an hour either side of noon, when you can capture rays of sunlight striking the canyon floor, but it's also the worst time to go because that's when everybody goes. At that point, you can't take a picture without taking a picture of somebody else taking a picture. Early morning or late afternoon, you can have the place all to yourself.
Without sunlight, little grows in a slot canyon, maybe a bit of moss somewhere below a shelf where it stays damp and shaded. You might see snakes, scorpions, stink beetles, black flies, and you can see quite a number of birds that build homes on the walls where predators cannot reach them, marked by smears of white bird guano striping the walls below their nests. You can estimate the high water mark in a slot canyon by where the birds build their nests. I've hiked in slot canyons where I've passed under logjam thirty and forty feet overhead, left by flash floods.
I walked and scrambled over fallen rocks for a quarter mile along a winding corridor, descending another fifty feet of elevation, until I reached what I knew would be my final rappel, a fifteen-foot drop over a ledge and down a chute leading to what appeared to be a somewhat deep pothole. Beyond the pothole, a rise of about five feet. What was on the other side of that, I couldn't tell. I pulled myself up to the top of the ledge and looked down into the hole.
I saw something, and my heartbeat quickened. The astonishment I felt went beyond mere surprise. There was an immediate surreality, the way you feel when you wake up in the morning and you can't tell where the dream you were having ends and the day begins.
I saw, unless I was hallucinating, a dog.
But that was crazy.
I tried to think of what else it could be. The creature had exaggerated pelvic and shoulder bones protruding from beneath matted black fur. Maybe a baby calf, I thought. Maybe it had somehow wandered far from the herd and had gotten trapped. I tried to think of where it might have come from. The closest town of Page, just south of the Utah–Arizona state line and the Glen Canyon Dam, was too far away. The landscape where I entered the canyon was more high desert than cattle or range land, but perhaps there was a ranch nearby, a fence down somewhere.
It felt utterly strange to look at an animal and not know for certain what kind of animal it was. Clearly the thing in the bottom of the hole was suffering from extreme malnutrition and starvation, so emaciated that it didn't look like a dog any more — if that's, in fact, what it was.
"Hey!" I called out softly. I wanted to be gentle to it, and I didn't want to frighten it.
I needn't have worried. It didn't look up or show any sign that it heard me. It only paced back and forth, head down because it didn't have the strength to lift it. It was weakened, desperate, looking for a way out, walking back and forth, as if hoping the rock walls would open up somehow. The pothole was perhaps fifteen feet deep from where I crouched and eight feet across. The rim opposite me was maybe ten feet from the bottom, the hole shaped more like a ladle than a bowl.
The animal's fur was black and caked with mud. I could almost count the vertebrae in his spine. He had only a cavity where the belly should be. I tried to recall the survival training I received as a Marine. I didn't know about dogs, which I finally decided the creature was, but I knew a man can go as long as a month without nutrition and less than a week without water. The mud-caked fur meant there must have been standing water in the hole at some point. My best guess was that the poor creature was in that final stage of starvation. I knew as well that a kind of madness accompanies malnutrition and, in particular, dehydration when it reaches the point that the body can no longer flush itself of toxins, which then affect brain function by causing chemical imbalances. I recalled that my mother used to say she had a "chemical imbalance," though not from dehydration. I had no way of telling how far gone mentally this poor dog was.
The tail hung limp and seemed incapable of wagging. I couldn't tear my eyes away from its shoulder blades and pelvic bones, which were now the most dominant features on its body. As I watched, the animal collapsed, dropping first to its elbows before falling into the dirt, where it lowered its head to the ground and lay motionless. I wondered if it had died, right before my eyes.
I looked up. The canyon walls were too high to see the topmost edge. I was minimally two hundred feet deep — but perhaps twice that. The sky was a broken narrow blue line. I tried but could not for the life of me figure out how this animal arrived here. It surely could not have fallen and survived.
I looked up-canyon to recall how I'd already used seven twenty-five-foot lengths of rope to reach this spot. I'd needed hand lines to navigate several difficult scrambles and had completed two free-hanging rappels — the dog could not have casually ambled away from its owners and made its way here on its own.
I wondered if he'd arrived here by some natural event. Occasionally, exploring places like this, you come across the carcass or skeleton of a dead animal that got washed into the canyon during a flood. I found the body of a coyote once. Slot canyons are generally not full of life, beyond the birds that make their nests on the canyon walls. Slot canyons are typically too dry and bereft of sunlight to support vegetation. Because there is too little to eat, prey species don't come down into slot canyons, which means predators don't frequent them, either. When there is water, it pours through with such force that it would kill any animal — small or large — caught in the current. About a mile up-canyon, I'd passed beneath a large logjam of tree branches wedged between the canyon walls by the force of flood waters. The logjam had been sixty feet above my head.
In other words, the dog could not have tried to ford a shallow wash or arroyo upstream and gotten carried here. It would have been dashed against the walls.
I took a moment to assess the situation. The first task was to identify and evaluate the problem, but I couldn't do that unless I went down into the pothole. I couldn't go down into the pothole without a hand line at the very least, but I couldn't see any way to rig a hand line — nothing to tie off to, no raw materials to arrange as a dead-man's anchor, no logs or rocks. I would need to set a bolt, but my tools to do that were in my backpack, which I'd left behind.
I almost said, "Wait here," though the dog hardly had a choice. It didn't move, but something told me it was still alive. Maybe that was just the hopeful part of me engaging in wishful thinking. If it was still alive, it was alive the way a candle smolders after you blow out the flame, and for a moment, the tip of the wick glows orange.
I set off to retrieve my pack, and as I moved, I arrived at the only conclusion that remained. I recalled the old Sherlock Holmes stories I read as a boy where the great fictional detective says, "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." The conclusion I reached was that the dog did not find his way into the pothole by accident, by wandering, by an act of nature. He was there because someone put him there.
The thought was appalling, and I picked up my pace.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Rescuing Riley, Saving Myself"
Copyright © 2013 Zachary Anderegg.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
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