Roseburg nurse Shawn McClendon has the medical training to recognize the end stages of dehydration. So when he began feeling them Thursday on a hike, McClendon was sure death was imminent.
He describes what happened next as a miracle.
Waldo Lake is about an hour and a half east of Eugene off Highway 58 near Willamette Pass. McClendon, 51, hiked along the lake’s northern edge with his friend Fred Silvestri, 63, of Roseburg and then took a trail north to some smaller lakes reputed to be full of fish.
It’s not a well-traveled area. The two hikers saw not a single other soul from the time they hiked in, around dawn, until McClendon’s last-minute rescue at about 4 p.m.
The mercury rose to nearly 90 degrees by the afternoon, but the morning was comfortably cool. McClendon runs and considers himself to be in pretty good shape, but he wasn’t prepared for the toll on his body from carrying a backpack over rugged terrain. He said he didn’t drink enough throughout the day to be ready for the afternoon heat and they ran out of water.
The hikers headed back down the trail toward the north face of Waldo Lake about 3 p.m. McClendon was having trouble walking by the time they reached Waldo Lake and turned onto the main trail. When they had gone about 10 minutes on that trail, he was taking short, halting steps and couldn’t pick his feet up off the ground. He was doing what he called “the old man shuffle.”
“In another 10 minutes, I looked at my arm and saw that I wasn’t sweating,” he said. “I turned to Fred and said, ‘I’m dehydrated.’ He said, ‘What? You’ve been drinking all day.’ I said, ‘I haven’t drunk enough.’”
At this point, Silvestri began to panic.
“I was really getting scared, but I tried to make light of it to make him feel better. I said, ‘Tell your brain to get your legs to work,’” he said.
Things got worse. McClendon’s hands began cramping and curling inward so it was difficult to use them. He became unable to walk and sat down on the dusty trail.
“He said, ‘I’m not going to make it,’” Silvestri recalled. “I said, ‘Well, what are we going to do?’ He said, ‘You’re going to take everything to the truck and get some help. I said, ‘I don’t want to leave you.’ He said, ‘You have to.’”
At this point, the parking lot was still about 40 minutes away.
Silvestri has a bad back, but he carried one pack on his back and the other in front. He held a cooler which had been filled with bait. He describes himself as overweight and said he doesn’t get much exercise. Despite all that, he walked quicker than he thought he could under the circumstances. In retrospect, he said it didn’t make much sense for him to carry everything back. At the time, that didn’t occur to him.
He started singing a lullaby to keep from hyperventilating.
When he thought he couldn’t go any farther, he prayed for help.
“I don’t like asking for favors but I said, ‘Jesus, I really need help for me and for my friend. Help me save my friend,’” he said.
Then help arrived.
“We hadn’t seen a person or a footprint on the trail for however many hours. We had been there I guess for about 12 hours. We hadn’t seen a soul. But I look up and I see five middle-aged men with backpacks walking up the trail toward me,” he said.
Forty minutes up the trail, McClendon did not know that help was on the way. He was in bad shape. His legs and hands were twisted up, a knot-sized muscle spasm moved up and down his leg and his face began to twitch. His pulse was 130, about twice normal.
“It was quarter to four. Now I’m clock watching because I know what’s happening to me, and I can’t do anything about it,” McClendon said.
His medical training told him what would happen next. If help didn’t arrive soon, he was going to die.
He managed to crawl in the dust to a spot just up the trail where his cellphone had gotten reception before and called 911.
The dispatcher said she would alert search and rescue and call back in 15 minutes. When she did, the news was not good. It would take rescuers an hour and a half to arrive.
McClendon knew that would be too late. By this time he had a cramp in his abdomen and was having trouble putting a sentence together.
“I couldn’t even cry. I had no tears,” he said.
He asked the dispatcher to tell his family he loved them.
McClendon said he is not a praying man, generally. Spiritually he had been in what he describes as a funk. He had last attended church about a year before. He didn’t even think to pray for his life. He didn’t think there was any point, since death seemed inevitable.
“I just started saying the only prayer I knew, which was the Lord’s Prayer,” he said.
He felt at peace. He felt ready to go.
Then he heard someone call his name. He opened his eyes and saw a man’s face in front of him.
“I said, ‘Who are you? Are you search and rescue?’ He said, ‘No, Fred sent us,’” McClendon said.
McClendon and Silvestri are still amazed how well those hikers were prepared for the emergency they happened upon. They had water, they had packets of electrolytes. They had salty foods. They were prepared to pitch camp on the spot if necessary to care for McClendon through the night or to create a makeshift stretcher to haul McClendon out.
A half hour after his rescuers began rehydrating him, after they massaged the cramps in his legs and comforted him with humor and kindness, McClendon was not recovered yet but feeling a lot better.
One of the men told him the five were backpackers from San Francisco visiting Oregon. They had planned to visit Mount Jefferson on Thursday but a stranger had suggested they go to Waldo Lake instead.
“I’m looking at him and saying, ‘No, you’re not a backpacker. You’re an angel,’” McClendon said.
Once McClendon’s condition had improved enough that he could walk, one hiker pulled out collapsible walking poles and told him to hike down with them and leave them under their vehicle once he reached the parking lot.
McClendon never asked the men’s names and wasn’t able to find out afterward. All he knows is that one called himself “Dave” while he communicated with the 911 dispatcher.
He terms the perfection of the rescuers’ preparation and the improbability of their arrival, timed so it coincided exactly with his and Silvestri’s prayers, miraculous.
“It’s not coincidence to me. I just don’t believe that. It wasn’t amazing strokes of luck that got me out of there. It was somebody greater than me,” he said.
McClendon said he hopes his last-minute rescue has changed him, made him a bit less judgmental, a bit kinder. He pays closer attention to spirituality now and above all, he has become certain that God has a plan, even if he doesn’t know what it is.
Silvestri said he feels humbled by the experience.
“I have no doubt in my mind this was a divine intervention,” he said. “Maybe God has spoken before in my life, but I didn’t hear it. I heard it this time.”
• You can reach reporter Carisa Cegavske at 541-957-4213 or firstname.lastname@example.org.