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Always more vulnerable than invincible

Thinking Out Loud: Steve Reed

Posted: Sunday, August 26, 2001

I can imagine the conversation.

"Hey, Dad. While you and Mom shop I'm gonna hike up that mountain. I heard there's lots of trails. The sun's gonna stay up forever and it's so gorgeous today."

"OK, son, but be careful. You don't know what's up there. It could be dangerous."

"I'll be careful."

"When do you think you'll be back?

"I dunno. When do I need to be back? The ship doesn't sail till midnight."

"How about 9:30? It could be getting dark by then."

"Nine-thirty. No problem."

"OK, have fun, but remember: Be careful."

"OK, I will."

And off he went toward the sun-splashed mountains that serve as magnets for young and young-at-heart adventurers.

Evan Schroeder, 17, probably never heard the public service safety reminder that's been playing on the radio for weeks. The agencies and people who conduct the searches, rescues and, tragically, the body-recovery operations, came up with a checklist of safety tips for those considering treks up mountains and into forests.

Day and overnight hikers should carry:

* A light blanket

* A flashlight or fire starter for signaling to rescuers

* High-energy snacks to ward off hypothermia

* A cell phone or VHF portable radio to call for help

And hikers should dress in layers of brightly colored clothes and avoid cotton.

If the reminders don't mention footwear, I will. It's important. Surfaces can be steep, slick, wet and loose.

I don't know what Schroeder knew about mountain trail safety. I don't know if he equipped himself to survive the survivable. And I don't know what happened Wednesday afternoon an afternoon that was memorably spectacular in its outdoor allure.

But I have a teen-age son who hiked Mount Roberts and Mount Juneau every chance he got this summer. Too often, he went alone. Almost always, he went completely unprepared for the unexpected. Seldom would he take even a water bottle. Usually he wore cotton shirts. Routinely he hiked the mountains without informing his mother and I of his plans. Once, when he did tell us and then ran late, we worried ourselves sick.

But he is 19 and invincible. If he ever gave safety a thought, it was to dismiss the need to take precautions. Bad things happen to other people.

My heart aches for Evan Schroeder's family.

The vacation of a lifetime has turned into an inescapable, too-real nightmare.

His parents may ask themselves what more could they have done. They may wonder what happened on Mount Juneau. They may try to imagine each step, every turn that their son may have taken. And they may speculate again and again on what went wrong.

For a while they may be overwhelmed by the unfairness of it all.

How could a good boy have fallen so far, so fatally far?

Most likely, they will never know. In time, the pain will ease, but it never will pass completely. Ahead of them await countless reminders of the son they lost.

Today and forever, the mountains will attract more hikers. Most will come home or return shipboard to share stories of what they saw along the trails. They'll do it again or want to.

Our sons and daughters and brothers and sisters are not quite invincible. They are more vulnerable than they realize.

We are, each and every one of us, the "other people" to whom bad things sometimes happen.

And even if they won't take precautions, let 'em know they're loved. I can't think of anything that could be more comforting.

*****

Steve Reed is managing editor of the Empire. He can be reached at streed@juneauempire.com.



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