Thief in the night

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(HOST) Commentator Willem Lange was recently reminded of the unpredictability of the end of life.

(LANGE) Whether we admit it or not, as we grow older, we become interested in how and where death will take us. Quick and painless is the universal wish, and as far off as possible. We act as if we had a choice – like looking through a bushel of lettuce and saying, I’ll take this one.

In addition, many of us are so conditioned to the miraculous recoveries we see on television, we believe they mirror reality. CPR always seems to work. In reality, the odds are far longer.

The members of the Geriatric Adventure Society think more often than most people about the possibility of mortality. Driving I-95 is more dangerous than any of the things we do in the wilderness. But we do think about it.

We’re not being morbid. A long, steep rapid in a river of ice water hundreds of miles from help is an obvious threat. A successful run can be exhilarating; a spill can be fatal. None of us ever forgets Art Moffatt, of Norwich, Vermont, who led a canoe trip across the Canadian Barrens fifty years ago. He died of hypothermia after misjudging a rapid. We’ve visited his grave. Standing there, with the tundra stretching away to the horizon, it’s impossible not to reflect upon the judgments and decisions we make.

Our annual ski trip finds us bushwhacking through northern New Hampshire. We’ve backed away from the derring-do of former years, and the thirty-mile-long days. But the potential for trouble remains, and I constantly ask myself, “What If?” as we ski farther from camp.

Over the years, we’ve paddled, hiked, and skied thousands of miles, and I can recall feeling frightened only a few times. Usually we’ve made the conservative decision, the result of our average age approaching seventy. We learn from our mistakes, and age seems to sharpen our learning curves.

Last year I announced that this year, our thirty-fifth, would be our last winter bushwhack. After that, I’d turn it over to the younger men. The name of the Geriatric Adventure Society isn’t as funny as it once was, and we’re reaching the age of unpleasant surprises.

We decided last year not to wait supper for one missing member, who would be arriving late. A few minutes later, an excited logger pounded on the cabin door and hollered there was a man on skis lying in the road one hundred yards from the camp. We followed him into the icy darkness and ran down the road. It was our friend. His ski tracks ended where he lay; and half an hour of attempts at resuscitation by our three doctors produced nothing. I remember feeling, surely we can bring him back! and then the awful awareness that the thief comes when he wishes, despite our precautions, and takes away the thing we love most.

This is Willem Lange up in Etna, New Hampshire. I gotta get back to work.

Willem Lange is a contractor, writer, and storyteller who lives in Etna, New Hampshire.

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