By Mike Steere
“My god, you liked this? You think it’s cool? What an ass you are!”
It’s humbling, it truly is, to think back and find myself in full agreement with insults yelled by a person I remember only as the psycho girlfriend. But she had my number, at least that once. I was trying to impress her with the story of why I came home from a week of Nordic skiing in Canada with my left hand in a cast.
But I didn’t just tell her. No, I gave her a letter I had scrawled on a yellow legal pad the day I broke my hand. Hand delivery was the only option from Kwagama Lake Lodge, a fish camp north of Lake Superior that entertains skiers in winter. The place is ski-in only, after a 120-mile ride on a train into the big, cold nowhere above Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. Lack of electricity made off-the-gridness complete.
The letter highlighted a somewhat dramatic (to me, anyway) chronology. I wrote it on Wednesday, the same day I fell, punched a rock, and fractured the metacarpal bones in the back of my hand. I didn’t get back to civilization until Saturday. I imagined, too, that the girlfriend would be impressed with my writing skills, particularly the parts about how the world dissolved into the white fuzz of excruciating pain and how I heard high-pitched music, like angels doing that thing with wet fingers on crystal wine glasses.
I fainted. Fainted, while all alone, bushwhacking, miles from the lodge. The outfit’s dozen other guests were on a guided day trip, but that was way too tame for me. As soon as I came to, shook off the shock, and realized I was OK to ski, I knew I had something new, which I liked.
I had a wilderness story. A tale to tell.
It was no odyssey of courage and survival, but it involved legitimate agony in serious boondocks. I could, however, as a writer make up for my lack of heroics and almost dying with vivid detail and wit. I worked on the material on the way back to camp, skiing with my smashed hand stuck in my jacket. The story was crafted mostly for my girlfriend, who would admire me for sure.
My story failed to impress, beginning when I got back to camp and had the hand looked at and wrapped. The unspoken message from Mac, the lodge owner, his wife, and the guide team, was that I was an idiot. All four had said it was a bad idea to take off on my own. The other paying clients seemed embarrassed for me.
At dinner, a guide leaned over and said, “Congratulations, you have your first broken hand.” He segued into a broken hand story of his own. I forget the details, except that his story also happened out where God lost his shoes, and his was better than mine. The vibe in that part of the world—especially back then—is rough-tough plaid flannel harking to lumberjacks and hook-and-bullet guys who considered us Gore-Tex outdoorsy types fruitcakes. Mac embodied the manly North Woods spirit, and he one-upped his guide with a story involving a horrible axe wound in his leg suffered while alone at camp before fishing season. He stitched up the gash with nylon line and worked on for days until the scheduled floatplane pick up.
I knew from other Kwagama trips that the axe wound was one of Mac’s greatest hits. He knew how to work it, too, to the point that nobody thought to ask how he happened to chop his own leg with an axe.
By day two, my hand was hard to look upon, swollen up blue-black and weirdly arachnid, the fingers like legs of a freediver tarantula that died in a decompression accident. But after the initial fracture, it didn’t hurt. With nothing else to do, I skied for the rest of the week and even talked another guest into doing the bushwhack loop I had attempted solo. I felt pretty good about finishing what I started. Like I gained back some of the story points I’d lost.
Feeling somewhat redeemed, I relayed the story again the next night. But then a woman from the Netherlands told how, back in her native Friesland, she finished a cross-country race on a broken leg.
After the ski out, train ride, and drive home, I went to an orthopedist who diagnosed my bone breakage as typical, to the point that it had a nickname, boxer’s fracture, because it’s caused by punching hard objects. The story of what I hit, and where, didn’t do a thing for him.
Then, the psycho girlfriend said I was an ass.
Yes, yes, I probably was. I rarely replay what happened. But the hand remembers, with sunken knuckles, occasional stiffness, and deep aches because the bones didn’t set right. I’m glad I didn’t break anything bigger, even if it would have made for a better tale.
From the Winter 2014 issue. Back to “Where We’re Coming From.”