I would like to start off by telling you about something that happened to me at a fairly young age. What I experienced made me look carefully at how truly exposed and vulnerable I was. That experience also led me to make changes in my life that were truly transformative. What follows was very emotional for me, and it shook me to my core when these events transpired.
In 1990, I was at deer camp with some college buddies in Upper Michigan. We were staying at a family cabin, situated deep in the Pere Marquette Forest system. The evening we arrived (just prior to the gun deer opener on November 15th), we passed the time making preparations for the morning hunt. Firearms were inspected and given a final once-over and clothing was laid out so that we could get an early start. We all had pre-assigned blinds and were in them well before first light. We all hunted hard that morning, but nobody had any luck.
We all arrived back at the cabin around 11am, and after some discussion, we decided that since the deer seemed to not be moving, we would attempt a “deer drive” in the afternoon. For those not familiar with that term, it basically works like this: You position one or two “shooters” a few hundred yards away and try to utilize local land features or “flankers” to “funnel” the deer toward your shooters, as the other people in your hunting party “push” them. In this instance, we had a road on one side of us and a river on the other. The distance between the two land features was about 200 yards. Three of us were positioned about 50 yards apart, and we began to push the woods toward the bottleneck where the river and road met. So, I drove all of us out to the location in my truck at about 3:00pm.
To say that I felt this drive was “idiot proof” would be an understatement. I would have had to either go swimming or walk across a 30-foot, gravel road to not meet up with our shooters located just a few hundred yards away. That presumption would prove to be my undoing. Due to my lackadaisical attitude, I made a few very bad decisions. Because a deer drive usually is a bit of a cardiovascular workout and can make you perspire and get hot, I was only wearing an insulated flannel shirt and an orange hunting vest. This was mistake #1.
My friend, Greg, took up a position just 50 yards from the road. My other buddy, Jim, was in the middle of us, and I was 50 yards from the river. I can vividly remember the sound of the river, with the water rippling over the rocks to my right. I can also remember having a visual of Jim on my left as we walked through the woods to our objective. Everything seemed to be setting up perfectly for a successful hunt. What followed proved to be more of an epic failure on my part, due to my poor preparations for this hunt.
After walking a couple of hundred yards, I lost sight of Jim in some thick brush. It didn’t really alarm me, as I had a river on my right, and I was using that as a guide by staying about 50 yards from it. Topographical maps at the cabin indicated that by doing so, I should not stray very far from them. However, as in my case, assuming a five year old, topographical map is still accurate may not be a good idea. This was mistake #2. As it turned out, the river had changed course a couple of years after that map was printed, due to some logging activity and beaver dams. I had walked right through the old river bed and walked into the great beyond without even knowing it! I thought the river was just over the next hill. After about the third hill and still not hearing or seeing the river anymore, I had to admit that I was lost. This admission was good choice #1.
At this juncture, I would like to tell you a little about myself at that point in time. I was 21 years old and had been hunting since I was 14. I had a good teacher, and considered myself an experienced woodsman. I was also an accomplished Boy Scout in my youth, so I had a fair amount of experience in the woods. My background as a Boy Scout taught me to “always be prepared”, so I did have with me (thankfully), a well-stocked survival backpack, which was good choice #2. This is probably the only thing that allowed me to survive, to live to tell you this story. Its contents proved invaluable, and I could not imagine how bad the outcome would have been if I hadn’t had it with me. Later on, my friends would tell me that the only reason they felt I could survive out there was because of that pack.
Just about the time I admitted I was lost, about 6:00pm, darkness had begun to fall. As bad luck would have it, so did nearly a fresh foot of snow. My tracks behind me were filling in fast. Just about the time I was thinking about turning back to retrace my steps, I stepped in between two large sticks and twisted my ankle badly. With my mobility severely hampered, my options were dwindling fast. I picked up one of the large sticks and used it as a makeshift walking stick. It was at this point that I realized I was probably going to be out there some time. I decided I needed to set some boundaries– good choice #3. I decided to first try to signal the others using my firearm. I loaded three shells in the gun and sent my first volley into the air. I could barely hear some yelling in the distance, but the hills and all the falling snow muffled and misdirected the sound. I had only 12 shells with me, which was mistake #3. I sent four volleys over the next hour, but help never arrived.
I then tied some flagging ribbon to a tree limb and decided that I would walk 100 yards in each direction. If I didn’t come upon a trail, I would pick out the best spot to set up camp. After walking in all directions, the only thing I encountered was an old hunting blind made up of dead fallen wood. With everything covered in snow now, this source of dry wood was my only hope for starting a fire. I decided to make camp right next to it. I opened my pack and withdrew one of my three options for starting a fire– a cigarette lighter, a magnesium fire starter, and waterproof matches. There was also a small film canister that had some paraffin-soaked cotton balls. In no time at all, I had built my firewood “teepee” and had a roaring fire. I then turned my attention to shelter.
With the snow coming down at an alarming rate, I needed to find a way to stay out of the wind, wet, and cold. I took out the five foil survival blankets and a length of paracord from my pack. I tied the rope off between two trees about four feet off the ground, right in front of my fire. I then put two blankets on the ground, and used two more to make a “lean-to”. I attached it to the cord with clothespins and used snow to hold it at the bottom on the backside. The last one blanket I used to wrap around myself. The camp looked like something right out of the Boy Scout Manual. I then tied another length of cord to two trees so it hung about a foot over the fire. It was this line that my socks and boots were hung on to dry, because my footwear was thoroughly soaked by that point.
After fire and shelter were handled, the focus turned to hydration. In my pack was an old tin army cup. I spent the next little while melting snow and rehydrating myself. I had some iodine tablets and neutralizer, but with this being freshly fallen snow I did not need them. There was also some jerky and a couple of chocolate bars in the pack, and that was truly a blessing since I had burned up a lot of calories on the deer drive and camp setup. By about 10:00pm, I had settled in for what would be a long evening, particularly from a psychological standpoint. In my opinion, anybody who reads this story and says: “I would’ve been fine” is just lying to themselves. Trust me. You have NO IDEA what races through your mind in such a situation!
You can be the most macho man in the world, but it will not matter when you become as helplessly and hopelessly lost as I was. In this forest, it can be five miles until you even cross an old logging road. It is a desolate and massive chunk of forest. There is not much population, and your bones might be the only thing they find in the spring after the scavengers have eaten your carcass. It is at this time that you are alone with your thoughts, and all you can do is rely on your skills and life experiences. You truly sink to the level of your training. I can remember having my “Come to Jesus” meeting and praying that the Good Lord would see me through this. I had truly made my peace with God and was just hoping to return home to my loving family and girlfriend alive. There was a lot of deal making going on out there for sure.
I kept telling myself, “I’ll pay the $20,000 for them to send the chopper out to look for me. I don’t care!” However, as luck would have it, the harsh weather conditions were not conducive for such an effort. So there I was, a 6’4” 270 lb man, in top physical condition, built like a brick you-know-what (I was a Division I football lineman) and I was literally on the verge of tears because of what I was up against. Tell me you’d be any different, and I’ll call it BS every time. I was there. I know. It will break the biggest of us. Now, by this time, my friends were in full-blown panic mode after I hadn’t made it to our pre-designated rendezvous point. They had used my spare keys to access my truck. (Luckily, I told them where a spare set was stowed– good choice #4.) They then enlisted the help of some off-duty cops from downstate who were camped a few miles down the road. These guys then called the sheriff.
The sheriff then called the Department of Natural Resources, who came out to assess the situation. By this time it was midnight. They determined that the risk was too great to start searching at that point and that they would begin looking at first light. At about 5:00am, the last individual who was to join us on this trip arrived. He promptly came out to the place where we began our deer drive, once my other friends notified him of the situation. This individual was actually a professional tracker, and he was the one who actually found me just an hour later. I’ll never forget the relief that I felt when I saw his lantern bobbing toward my makeshift camp. It had been over 15 hours since I last saw a human being. I was overjoyed! He actually threatened to leave me there, as he said I looked more comfortable than he was! To this day, I do not know how he could have possibly tracked me with all that snow that fell, although he did confess that he logically concluded that I had gone through the old river bed when he saw that it did not match the topo maps at the cabin.
The purpose of this little anecdote is to point out how, in a survival situation, we will respond versus how we think we’ll respond and to discuss the shortcomings in my preparedness when venturing out into the vastness of a massive state forest. There are several things that happened in the woods that day that literally broke me down and made me realize how much I had to learn. It is not just equipment that can get you through a tough time. Your mental preparedness and training are the most important tools in a survival situation. Let’s look at what I did wrong:
- I was not properly dressed for the elements during my extended stay.
- In assessing the local topography, I made assumptions based on old intel.
- I didn’t have adequate signaling capabilities or communications of any kind.
Now, let’s look at what I did right:
- I admitted I was lost, which many have a hard time doing, and I didn’t panic.
- I had a well-stocked survival pack.
- I set “boundaries” and did a realistic threat assessment.
- I had friends who basically knew where I was, and I had a contingency plan for them to access our only vehicle in case I was incapacitated in any way.
After arriving back home (I understandably cut my trip short due to the bad experience), I took a good hard look at myself. I determined that, while a few more doo-dads would have been helpful, what I really needed to do was to get more training and work on my mental toughness/preparedness. After all, it was my training that actually saved my bacon out there because it kept me in check MENTALLY. I am, however, not too proud to admit that I cried like a baby out there at one point. It is something that is hard to imagine, unless you lived it. I vowed to myself while out in those woods to NEVER allow myself to feel so helpless again. I have since gotten married (to my girlfriend at that time) and become a father (of three awesome boys). As any father would, I also wanted to be more prepared to protect them if ever there came a time where things got bad and basic survival skills were needed to insure their well-being.
I set about achieving those goals once I got home, and I have been a “prepper” ever since. I started by adding to my survival pack, which we all affectionately now refer to as our “bug-out bag”. I now have a GPS to go with my compasses and maps. That technology was in its infancy back then but has now come a long way. I certainly wouldn’t trust a battery-operated device as my only way of getting the job done, but they are still handy to have. I also added some nice two-way radios with weather channel and extra batteries as well as some marine signal flares, a “D cell” rescue strobe, a little .22 handgun, and an AR-7 survival rifle with 100 rounds. I also keep fresh socks, a spare sweatshirt/jacket, and a little “rocket stove” to heat water easier.
I then really got into training my mind and body to deal with adverse situations. I became very proficient with firearms to help boost my confidence and empower myself. I also became a firearms instructor and took several classes that dealt with hand-to-hand fighting, edged weapons training, force-on-force, and low-light encounters in all three of the above situations. This gave me quite a bit of confidence. I then proceeded to take some primitive survival skills classes and a few orienteering classes to brush up on my astronomy and learn how to get out of the woods the good ‘ole fashioned way. These were VERY helpful. You would be surprised at all the neat little tricks these people know from studying the way they did things before all of our modern conveniences came along!
I hope you learn one thing from reading about my harrowing experience– you will never really know if you are truly prepared until you are tested (FOR REAL). Do yourself a favor; go out there and IMPLEMENT your skills, preps, and gear. Don’t just study things in “theory”. It is easy to sit on the couch and TALK about things or type on a keyboard what your response would be in a particular situation. It is quite another to actually LIVE THAT SITUATION. You are probably not as tough as you think you are, and you may just ball up when the chips are down, if you have not practiced what you preach!