Behind the Scenes: Magazine Survival Stories

 

Brian Fries and Josh Stadler rest in our shelter, enjoying the Miracle Fire.
Brian Fries and Josh Stadler rest in our shelter, enjoying the Miracle Fire.

Setting Off

Rain. Why did it have to be rain? Everywhere we go, rain. I can’t think of a camping trip in the past two years when I didn’t get wet. Yet we trudged on, up the steep slopes, the sauna inside my rain jacket building until I couldn’t take it anymore and shed the jacket, giving myself over to an entire day of being soaked to the bone.

Simple idea: Let’s venture into the north central woods of Pennsylvania, to the Hammersley Wild Area, for a hike to see one of the few alpine style meadows in our state. And just for fun, myself and two friends would “accidentally get lost” and have to survive for three days with only the gear, water and snacks we might bring on a 6-hour day hike and trail cleanup.

Map of the Hammersley Wild Area, via Midatlantichikes.com.
Map of the Hammersley Wild Area, via Midatlantichikes.com.

We had everything planned to a T. Except the weather. And it rained in torrents all day. The only thing wetter would be a submarine.

I wrote about this little adventure for Harrisburg Magazine‘s May outdoors issue. But here’s some of the stuff I couldn’t get into the story.

As you read this, and my story, keep in mind that I and my friends each have decades of experience running wild in the eastern forests, or military and outdoors training through other organizations. Surviving with nothing is not something you should try without any training, but keep reading and I’ll come back to that.

Surviving in the Eastern Woodlands

Every where we go, Blackbeard's jolly roger goes with us. To the left is a simple grass basket I made holding wild garlic bulbs we found. They're tasty.
Every where we go, Blackbeard’s jolly roger goes with us. To the left is a simple grass basket I made holding wild garlic bulbs we found. They’re tasty.

Of all the places on planet Earth you would want to survive, the eastern woodlands of the U.S. in late summer are a pretty ideal place and time. Water is abundant and close most times. There are materials to build shelters, firewood if you need to build a fire and plant and animal food sources — from wild garlic for soups, to the pleasant yarrow and goldenrod flowers for tea — to satisfy your hunger.

My perennial travelling partner, Josh Stadler, and I have been talking about testing our survival skills for a couple of years now. We’ve told our spouses and a few other friends. They think we’re crazy (just a little). One laughed at us and said he’d go along, but he was bringing a tent and steak.

We finally found a time to do it. And as usual, it rained on us. So much rain, that our survival scenario — three days in the woods with only what you might have on a day hike — really put our skills, adaptability and knowledge to the test.

Joining us last August was our friend, Brian Fries, an Air Force veteran and another adventurous soul.

“When Josh invited me I was definitely a little nervous,” Brian said in an email after our trip. “I’m as out of shape as I have ever been and knew physically it would be a challenge…I knew it might suck, but felt confident I would be walking out under my own power.”

Despite the rain, we were able to make fire (took me two hours), build shelter, procure food additional to the meager jerky and candy bars we had (about enough for a 1-person snack in between downs of a football game), and generally enjoyed ourselves. Realistically, what we were doing would be better termed minimalist camping, since we were never in danger of being lost and could easily walk back to our car.

Even the thinnest foil can be folded around cotton cloth and cooked in the fire to produce charcloth, a tinder that lights with a spark and can be used to start fire.
Even the thinnest foil can be folded around cotton cloth and cooked in the fire to produce charcloth, a tinder that lights with a spark and can be used to start fire.

But our scenario did put our skills and knowledge to the test. We anticipated raspberries and blackberries. There were none. The bears ate them all. Other edibles had to be passed over because we were unsure of them. Fire was nearly impossible to start after a day of constant rain saturated every twig in a 200-mile radius.

And without thousands of calories in your diet, you spend a lot of time sitting around, often too tired to just break up wood for the fire. And when you do, that’s the end of your reserve strength for an hour or two.

Why do it?

I’ll break down the “why” this way: because the wild places are there and I must go to them.

Josh and I go to these places often enough that at some point we’re increasing our odds that something could go wrong. Hello! Read “Correspondence from a Sinking Canoe.”

And every time we plan a trip, it just gets a little more adventurous. In the future, we’d like to seek out higher mountains and even more remote places to explore. So we need to be prepared. You can’t do that without testing yourself now and again. Even our simplest of trips have occasionally required life-saving quick thinking.

These large colorful millipedes hung out around our shelter. They're harmless leaf eaters.
These large colorful millipedes hung out around our shelter. They’re harmless leaf eaters.

I’ve been on the top of a mountain in winter, soaking wet, when the wind picks up and the temperature drops and you need to make a decision on how best to survive the night to wake up and go home to your wife and three kids. That’s number one: as much as we need to be out there in nature to feel alive, we want to come home to the people we love.

You can use the aluminum tab from a drink can to make a fishing hook.
You can use the aluminum tab from a soda can to make a fishing hook.

Be prepared. That’s the Boy Scout motto right? Well, it’s a damn good one. Just this winter, there were tons of stories of people who ventured into the wilderness and weren’t prepared. A mother and son had to be plucked from the Adirondack Mountains in a blizzard. A woman died in the White Mountains when bad weather closed in. In some of these cases, it’s arguable people were as prepared as they could be, but sometimes it’s still not enough.

Part of the problem — it’s a good problem — is that as stories like this and movies about wilderness adventure (“Wild” and the forthcoming “A Walk in the Woods”) abound, more people are inspired to seek time in the woods. But the forest behind your house, the state park down the road, the beaches of Ocean City, Md., are as much wilderness as the glaciated slopes of Everest. There are critters (some dangerous) and weather and falling trees and freezing water and rip currents and you can get lost, even when you’re on what is supposed to be a well-worn trail.

Do you know how many times I go backpacking and look up and realize I’m off the trail? It happens at least once per trip. Sometimes you were daydreaming, lost in summer’s blooming wild flowers. Or lost in conversation with your friend, or he read the map wrong, or the trail changed in the four years since the map was published. Or maybe a deer trail intersected it at a turn and you started following Bambi’s path instead of man’s. It happens a lot. So you need to be prepared.

Don’t Drink the TV Shows

IMG_2197
Found lots of these newts running around the forest.

Originally, I had intended the Harrisburg Magazine story to be an examination of television survival entertainment. And I touch on that a little.

Television will never accurately portray what it means to survive in the wild.

Les Stroud’s “Survivorman” series does the best from a low-budget, first-person vantage point. “Dual Survival” is next on the list of top TV shows about survival as Stroud’s big-budget cousin, and namely because it illustrates the multi-person dynamic of outdoor adventure gone wrong. How do you minimize conflict, work together and live to laugh about it when you and your friend are old.

“Naked and Afraid”? OK, compelling TV to take two “survivors” and literally strip them of everything before tossing them to the hyenas. But, therein lies the flaw of ratings-generated survival entertainment: many times, it’s bogus from a real-world perspective. How many times are you going to find yourself naked in the woods and having to survive for 21 days?

A little beef jerky, wild garlic and jewel weed leaves make a nice backcountry soup.
A little beef jerky, wild garlic and jewel weed leaves make a nice backcountry soup.

Never, is the answer from Erik Kulick, the owner and chief instructor of Pittsburgh-based True North Wilderness Survival School. I interviewed him for the Harrisburg Magazine story.

So why is Naked and Afraid a bogus survival TV show? Because “your clothing is your first level of shelter,” Kulick pointed out.

Humans learned about 170,000 years ago that we had a better chance of surviving on this planet if we covered ourselves with furs and cloth to shield us from the elements. N&A creates an unrealistic scenario where you have no clothing whatsoever. Then again, the show’s concept involves people testing themselves at a higher level and the rest of us gawking. So I won’t bash it too much since I’m one of the gawkers.

However, I still contend that if you find yourself naked in the woods, hundreds or even dozens of miles from civilization, something went dramatically wrong with your orgy and chances are, you’re not going to be around to see the next one.

Lessons Learned

All in all, we had a successful journey and learned a lot. We walked out of the woods healthy, seriously hungry, but with a better understanding of what it means to last three days in the woods (the average length of being lost and found) without even the standard backpacking gear.

Brian’s lessons were subtle.

Josh and Brian take a rest at the road after hiking out of Hammersly Wild Area on our three-day survival test.
Josh (left) and Brian take a rest at the road after hiking out from our three-day survival test.

“The solitude, if nothing else, made it worth it for me,” he said. “Food wasn’t a huge concern going in or coming out, but that first glass of lemonade (after we got out of the woods) will be etched in my head as the best tasting beverage I have ever had in my life. It was surreal. And I might add I would never order a lemonade in a restaurant. Ever… It’s one of those things you just have to do to be able to understand.”

I had a beer and it was seriously the best beer I’d had in a long time. So much so, I ordered a second one (not that I wouldn’t have done that anyway).

For me, probably tops among the lessons was an increased respect for the forces of nature. You can plan all you want, but Mother Nature makes her own plans. And she doesn’t care whether you live or die. So work with her, adapt to her. Resistance to her is futile.

Further Reading

If you want to learn more about outdoors preparedness and survival, here are some suggested reading materials that can help you. A fair warning that if you have no experience or limited experience in the backcountry, you should probably seek qualified instruction in first aid, survival, wild plant identification, and other preparedness skills. Your life is not a game.

Survival Guy’s Reads (suggested reading from Erik Kulick):

1. Skills and techniques – US Air Force Survival Handbook

2. Land navigation – “Be Expert with Map and Compass,” by Björn Kellström

3. Wilderness first aid – “Medicine for the Outdoors,” by Paul Auerbach

4. Psychological science of survival – “Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies and Why,” by Laurence Gonzales

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