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The forest was quiet. Tall pines muffled any natural noises, and the kids—normally chattering away—hiked silently along.
It was the last full day of a weeklong backpacking trip for teens in the Trinity Alps Wilderness of Northern California. I was one of two guides leading 10 youths, and we were in the middle of the “no-talk walk,” where we hiked a few miles spaced far enough apart that the kids couldn’t see or hear the person ahead or behind.
It was my favorite time during the week—the campers were comfortable in their surroundings, and the forced silence afforded them the chance to reflect on their experiences before heading home. They had learned a lot during the previous days—for most, it was their first time backpacking—and if I’d done my job right, they were feeling confident and proud.
And for me, after a week of balancing the need to give them independence and safety, it was a chance to enjoy some downtime and just cruise. I always acted calm, but this was the only time I actually felt it.
We were heading downhill, tracing a stream that pools and drops through the forest. I was in front, the other guide was sweeping in back, and the kids were between us. I was zoning out on the trailside scenery, looking for pockets of orange leopard lilies beside the creek when a scream interrupted my reverie.
“Ayye!” Then: “Ouch!” Then: “Ahhhhh!”
I froze. Could the kids have run into a bear? A rattlesnake? Did someone break an ankle? Get impaled by a stick?
I turned and headed back up the trail. More shouts and screams followed—maybe a couple hundred feet away now—and I quickened my pace. Then, as the trail rounded a bend, I almost ran headlong into the first of the kids hiking down, a 13-year-old girl holding her arm and singing the ABCs. “What are you doing?” I asked. “What happened?”
“Owww,” she screamed, “I got stung by a bee. Twice. It hurts it hurts it hurts.” She took a breath. “Saying the ABCs helps take my mind off the pain.” And then she started in again: “A, B, C, D, E, F, G …”
Before I could respond, another scream reverberated through the woods. “OK, you’re going to be fine,” I said, recalling that no one on this trip claimed a bee allergy. “You sit here and I’ll be right back.”
Just seconds after leaving, I encountered another kid coming down—a boy swatting at his legs and moaning. I heard the ABCs start up again in the distance before he had a chance to even talk. “Keep going around the corner,” I told him. “You’ll be OK. Wait there.”
I passed three more teens in similar distress, and sent them down with the others. Finally, another hundred yards up the trail, I saw the source of the stings just as another kid approached unawares. A swarm of bees hovered where a dead log lay across the path. “Run,” I yelled. “Run down to the others and stay there!” Another kid entered the danger zone as I was talking and ran after her, screaming.
As they disappeared down the trail, I had a horrible, sinking feeling. Hiking in front, I must have disturbed a hive when I climbed over the log. I’d breezed on, oblivious, and behind me the bees had been picking off the kids one by one.
I went around the swarm and collected the last couple campers and the other guide, then we met the others. It looked like a triage unit. Eight kids had been stung, as many as three times each. They were all holding various limbs, moaning. We spent a half an hour checking for adverse reactions, applying hydrocortisone, and reassuring the kids that the pain would pass. We can still have a great last night, I thought. The pain really will pass, this doesn’t have to be the way they remember the week.
“What bad luck,” I told them, “I’ve walked hundreds of miles in Trinity and never stumbled on a beehive before. I know it hurts, but don’t worry, you could hike here every year for the rest of your life and it’ll never happen again.”
Soon after we started hiking again, I encouraged the day’s leaders to look for a campsite. Better to let everyone relax and recover.
The kids chose a site and dropped their packs. Things were looking up. Bee stings hurt for a bit, but they fade. No one was singing the ABCs.
Then I heard it. “Ouch!” Another shriek. “Owwww!” What the heck? I thought they were playing a joke on me.
But no. Bees were swarming. One of the kids had leaned his pack against a log—and another hive. The two kids who hadn’t been stung were the first to get it.
“Grab your packs,” I shouted. “Run!”
Amid the chaos and screaming, I knew the kids would be OK. I also knew that someday they would get a chance to reflect on this trip. And I was glad I wouldn’t be there when it happened.
Editor-in-chief Dennis Lewon says it’s pure coincidence that he was involved in two of the stories here.