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Stranded on Wild Horse Island

Updated on November 7, 2015
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The camp counselors did their best to keep it together. They sat together waiting in their life jackets for the storm to pass. The sailboat rocked violently back and forth as the swells rammed into the sides. Then the worst thing that could have happened did – the safety lines holding the two sailboats together snapped.

They were going to have to jump overboard.

*****

It was the middle of summer, the sun was shining, and the wind was blowing just right over Flathead Lake. A perfect day for sailing. It was the third day in a weeklong summer camp sailing trip. A trip I had wanted to go on, but was too old.

Every summer since we were young, my sister and I would go to camp for a week. As kids, camp meant playing games, singing songs and swimming in the lake. But as we got older, we were able to do what our younger selves had always referred to as “the big kid stuff.” One year I went on a kayaking trip, and the next to Seattle. I was 18 now though, and unless I became a counselor, I could not go to camp anymore. So while I sat at home, my little sister, Makayla, took off for the sailing trip.

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Makayla had only sailed once before, on the same trip the previous year, and was in love with it. They had spent the morning sailing from Cedar Island to Wild Horse Island, where they anchored the two boats in Skito Bay and rowed to the shore in two small row-boats.

They wandered around the island, which is large – 2,160 acres to be exact. It is home to a variety of wildlife, including big horn sheep and even bears, but only five wild horses actually lived there.

The high mountain tops rose above the tree line, tempting Makayla to climb them. They spent the afternoon hiking and swimming in the lake before finishing off the day with a dinner of sandwiches and trail mix. The first stars were just starting to appear by the time the group began to row back to the anchored sailboats.

On their way back, the campers came across an older couple packing up for the night. Makayla and the other campers waved and the old woman shouted across the water, “Have you seen the weather report?”

The four counselors looked at one another before shaking their heads.

“Well there’s a really bad storm coming,” the woman said. “You’d better get out of here.”

The counselors thanked the couple and the group watched as they took off. It was nearly 11 p.m. and they all decided that it would be best to weather the storm in the bay.

Everyone went below the bow to try to go to bed. Makayla snuggled into her sleeping bag and listened to the crashing sounds of the storm, unable to find sleep. The view outside was a blur of water, mountains, and the dark cloudy sky as the sailboat rocked back and forth with the waves of the storm.

Not long after she laid down, the counselors went around and told everyone to put on their life jackets. Makayla sat quietly, waiting for something to happen. An ear splitting sound like a large tree crashing to the ground filled her ears. It was the safety lines. They’re the same kind used to lift fire trucks, and the storm had snapped them in two like rubber bands.

The counselors shouted for everyone to jump overboard and swim to the island. Makayla immediately ran to the edge of the boat and threw herself into the water. The water was ice cold.

She was the second person to reach the island and began counting heads as the others made their way to shore. They were now all very wet and very cold. The wind was picking up, cutting through their clothes and straight to their bones. They needed to find shelter.

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They began hiking toward the closest and only shelter on that side of the island – an outhouse. The four counselors and seven campers crammed in the moment they reached it. Although it shielded them from the wind, it was far from warm. They were still freezing. The counselors told everyone to strip off their wet clothes, and they did. Leaving only their undergarments to cover them.

They sat down on the icy concrete floor and waited. A few of the girls cried, while others nervously talked. Makayla did not cry or talk. She just sat there waiting. She knew it would do no good to panic. Occasionally, the counselors would try to communicate with the camp via walkie talkie, but each time their cries for help were lost to the storm.

They had nothing left to do but wait – without clothes, without food or water and without sleep. Every so often, they would switch places. The ideal place to sit was right by the toilet. Despite the smell, it was warm. The worst spot to sit was on the counter, which was too small for any normal-sized person to comfortably sit on and much colder. When the shivering got to be too much, they would all stand up in a penguin huddle, each taking turns inside the circle.

They had been silent for quite some time, a few of the campers trying to find rest. Then outside they could hear something coming. The sound of claws rubbing against the trunk of a tree made them all sit up with attention. It was an animal, a large animal.

One of the girls panicked and started crying again. Makayla tried to comfort her and she soon quit crying. By then the animal, whatever it was, left.

They went back to their routine of waiting, shifting positions and huddling in a circle. Several hours later, the camp received their distress signal. Help was on its way.

An hour later, they were found. Shivering, hungry and almost naked, the camp had no idea things were that bad. To the outside world, the storm was nothing serious. It turned out that Skito Bay had been at the center of it.

They left their smelly little safe haven without a glance back. They had been stranded on Wild Horse Island for about eight hours, but to them it felt like years. The skies were blue and birds were singing.Their two little sailboats were the only evidence that a storm had even hit the island.

The two boats had been brought right up to the beach by the storm, dragging their anchors with them all the way. One of the boats was filled with water, touching the ground where it floated. The other had been driven keel-first straight into the ground and now rested on its side.

Back at camp they were greeted like survivors in the TV show Lost. Everyone wanted to hear their story. They were given food and then assigned cabins. They slept for half a day and woke up as though nothing had ever happened.

*****

It was an experience to learn from and to live by. For my sister, being stranded on an island with only an outhouse for shelter was a lesson in humility and a test of courage. A test she had passed. Instead of crying or panicking, she had remained calm. She could not wait to do the sailing trip all over again next year. She wasn’t going to let one bad experience ruin something she loved.

They always say that younger siblings look up to their older siblings for advice and courage, but for me it’s the other way around. I look up to my little sister. I only hope that if I ever wind up in a similar situation that she is there with me – to keep me brave when I would otherwise fall to pieces.

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