Murder or Suicide?

     It was January in Northern Minnesota near Grand Marais. The thermometer read 8 degrees above zero and the sun was only a couple of hours from being done with it’s short work for another winter day.  The plan was simple really; get dropped off at one spot and snowshoe back to the car that was parked just over three and a half miles away.  There wasn’t anything different about this trail when compared with all of the spur trails heading to Lake Superior from the Superior Hiking Trail.  There would be ridges to hike over, valleys to descend and bridges across the many ravines where in the spring time water would be flowing.  There would also be little blue diamonds marking the entire way; or so we thought.

     As Sheri and I pulled on our winter clothing Mike waited impatiently in the Suburban for us to unload all of our gear.  I started to go through a mental checklist of items we should have for the short trip, knowing I had none of these things I asked Sheri, "Do you have water?" She shook her head no. "How about firestarter?"  "Nope." she replied.  Then I continued, "Headlamp? Food? First Aid Kit?"  Her head didn’t quit shaking back and forth as she continued to get dressed.

     Finally Mike had waited long enough, his two minute time lapse was over.  "I don’t think this is a good idea, it’s already 2:30 and you haven’t left yet."  Of course neither Sheri or I bothered to respond.  He continued, "And I suppose it will be my fault if you don’t make it because I didn’t grab the other snowshoes."  Again, no response was needed, it wasn’t exactly a question in my mind.  "Well, get your stuff so I can get going before I’m late picking the kids up from school."  As the Suburban pulled away Sheri and I looked at each other and giggled, like two little school girls getting yelled at by a teacher.

     I looked at the impressive snow bank the plow had made on its’ numerous trips down the road already this winter.  The sky had just dumped a foot of the white stuff over the weekend, that on top of the other three or four times it had done the same already this winter.  We made our way over the snowbank and into the fluffy snow swallowed us up to our knees each step.  There were no other human tracks but we didn’t expect any.  The trail through the trees could be easily detected and there were blue diamonds to mark the way, except for in one spot.

     It was easy going for me as it was the first time Sheri was breaking the trail for me.  She’s my little cousin who I have taken hiking, snowshoeing, skiing and canoeing all over, always with me in the lead.  I’m thirteen years her senior and she has always been like a little sister to me.  I’ve attempted to protect her from all of life’s bumps and scrapes throughout the years even when she was the one responsible for the bumping.  Like one time when I took her hiking, bushwhacking, whatever you want to call it.

     I don’t remember how young she was at the time.  Old enough to know better so I thought.  I had an area of the woods I wanted to explore but I didn’t want to get lost in the blowdown area.  I took some flagging tape and instructed her to tie some in a tree every so often so that we could find our way back if necessary.  "How close should I do it? How often? Should I put one here?"  The chatter was somewhat annoying and maybe I replied a little too curtly, I don’t even remember what I said exactly.  All I remember was that when I had finally given up on ever finding the trail I was looking for I stopped to look for the last bit of flagging.  In my astonishment I couldn’t see an orange piece of tape anywhere.  It was then that I looked at Sheri with her head hung low.  "Sheri? Where’s the last piece of flagging?"  I heard her murmur something barely audible.  It sounded like she said she didn’t know.  "Sheri?  WHERE"S THE LAST PIECE OF FLAGGING?"  Very meekly Sheri answered, "I don’t know, I ran out a long time ago."  "WHAT? YOU RAN OUT OF FLAGGING? WHY DIDN"T YOU SAY SOMETHING?"  Then I remembered my earlier treatment of her and just mumbled for her to not worry about it.

     After hours of milling around in the woods, walking through swamps, getting stung by ground wasps, we heard a motor boat.  We made our way to the shore and realized we were in the bay across from the Public Landing on Sag Lake Trail.  The waves were rocking and although she was a strong competitive swimmer it was me who got in the water, sputtered my way back to the landing and had a boat go back to bring her safely home.  After all, I was the older one.

     In December I turned thirty-nine and no longer is being older than Sheri a good thing.  She’s strong, woods smart and in shape, not a pear shape like me though.  She’s four inches taller than me and very athletic.  I let the lithe bodied, younger woman break trail for me, even though it was very difficult for me to do.

     She floated effortlessly through the snow as I trudged behind.  Thank goodness she had her camera along so I could take a breather every so often.  She had just taken a photo a few steps back so I was suprised when she stopped at the bottom of the ravine.  She had a strange expression on her face and as I scanned the snowy hillside I realized why.  There wasn’t a blue diamond to be found, no trail marker and no where that looked like a trail went through.  There aren’t too many options when a trail reaches a steep spot, it either winds its way up the hill traversing or it goes straight up.  Since I knew we would cross the trail eventually if we just chose straight up, so that is what we did.  

     Now is when murder crossed my mind.  My four-foot, old-fashioned, wooden snowshoes without crampons were like toboggans as I fought my way up the steep hillside.  For each step I took forward I slid five feet back.  Even my able bodied, fit, younger cousin was having problems making her way up the hill.  There’s something about trudging through waist deep snow that just isn’t easy. 

     I didn’t want to murder Sheri for being in better shape or for having the youth I once had.  I thought Mike had planned to murder me!  Before we left the house I asked him if he had put all of the snowshoes in the car.  He replied, "I put two sets in."  I then said, "There are three, one set is upstairs in the lodge shower because Abby used them yesterday."  Mike did hear me say this because when we arrived at the Trailhead and I asked where they were he told me they were in the shower.  Those snowshoes in the shower were short snowshoes with nice little metal teeth that could make ascents and descents much easier than when wearing toboggans.  But that didn’t matter because those snowshoes were still in the shower as I was stretching to reach trees as I slid back down the hillsde for the umpteenth time.

     So that’s why Mike didn’t bring the snowshoes.  He wanted me to die but he wanted it to look like an accident or maybe a suicide.  I could hear him in my head… "I told her I didn’t think she should do it, I said it was going to be dark soon, poor old woman, what was she thinking?  She’s not the spring chicken she used to be…"

     "No Way!"  I shouted.  "Not getting rid of me that easily!"  With a new spurt of energy I smashed my toboggan snowshoes into the side of the hill and made my way to the top where Sheri had been waiting on the trail for me.  She had a puzzled look on her face when I finally joined her but she didn’t say a word. 

     Back on level terrain again the going was easy.  Giving in to the toboggans on my feet I sat down for the descents and rode my snowshoes down the hills as snow caked my backside.  We finally made it to the steps, 96 steps to be exact and we slowly made our way up.  Only a mile left to go from there.  We had been snowshoeing for two hours and twenty minutes.   The sun was disappearing behind the Sawtooth Mountains and the moon had risen.  The frost was forming on my sweat soaked hair and I could feel my nostrils freezing inside.   

     Sheri hit the trail with a new fervor like a gazelle in pursuit of a meal.  Her long legged strides had me running behind her just to keep her in my sights.  Finally we saw the familiar bridge over the Cascade River and relief washed over me.  I wasn’t going to die today.  I heard the sound of vehicles on Highway 61 and then I could see their lights.  Just two feet from the road I slipped on the steps, landed on my back with a loud thud that sent my hat flying off of my head.  Sheri turned around with her mouth wide open, "Are you ok?" 

     Of course I was ok, I was better than ok, I was happy, I was alive.  We finished the last mile in just 17 minutes and we weren’t going to have to spend the night out in the woods.  Sheri, my little Sheri had guided us to safety.  The little girl who for years had followed on my heels had guided me with all her expertise.  Her expertise and confidence that over the years I must have helped her to achieve.  Then I thought to myself, following in Sheri’s footsteps isn’t a bad thing at all, it’s a great thing.  It means she has become a leader even I can trust and that’s an awesome thing.