Wednesday, April 9, 2014

On being dumb in the woods

I stood, straining to see the pack, but it was lost. Actually it was exactly where I had set it down a few minutes before. I was the one lost. Two thoughts came immediately to mind: ‘I’m in trouble’ and ‘this is how people die’.

What little sky I could see through the dense tree canopy was thickly overcast and would give up no hit of the sun’s position. I didn’t know which way was East. My compass would tell me but my compass, along with most everything else I would need, was in the backpack. The one I couldn’t find. I was suddenly aware of my thirst but the only water was the brackish brown stuff that I was standing in, that I have been hiking through for over an hour.

I was lost in the forest.

I had come to Myakka River State Park in Sarasota County Florida - 58 square miles of wetlands, prairies, hammocks, and pinelands - to do a little solo camping at one of the primitive camp sites. “Primitive” meaning that you had to hike in and carry your own water and everything else you might need for your stay on your back. The last time I had come to Myakka I’d hadn’t seen another human after checking in at the ranger station. This time was no different.
It was a Monday, the first day of my vacation. It had been raining here for a solid week before my arrival and I asked the pretty female ranger who registered me in about the conditions in the park.

“There’s some water on the trail” she said without a hint of guile.

Later I would remember her words ruefully and barely suppress the urge to return to the ranger station and punch that young women right in the nose.

I got back in my car and drove down the access road to the trail head. From prior experience I knew that I would have no cell phone reception where I was going so I turned off my phone and put it in the center console of my car. I parked on the side of the road at the trail’s entrance, grabbed my overweight backpack, locked the car and walked slightly downhill off of the built up roadway to the start of the trail.

A sharp left turn 15 yards off the road way brought me to the start of the trail. Looking down the narrow cut through the trees and brush the trail was covered in water as far as I could see. “Well here we go” I thought and stepped into it. As I made my way down the close trail – less than two feet wide in some spots – I found that the water I walked through varied from an inch or so deep to calf high on me. My ankle high waterproof Gortex boots quickly filled with water that ran in over the tops. I was never quite sure what I was stepping one and several times I thought the mud of the trail was going to suck off one of my shoes.

Navigation down the trail is accomplished by following the blazes. The blaze in this case is a strip of orange paint a few inches long on the trunk of a tree. Start at the first blaze at the beginning of the trail, spot the next one on a tree in the distance and hike to it. From there scan the forest till you spot the next one and hike to that. The blazes literally relay you down the trail and to your campsite. On this particular day the blazes were more important than usual because water was everywhere - like hiking through a river- and the ground would give no visual clues as to a path to follow.

I had been hiking nearly an hour. The temperature was close to 85 and the humidity was near 100 percent and the water and mud made hauling my pack a nearly backbreaking ordeal. Somewhere on the periphery of my mind I was beginning to question the wisdom of this trip.

I hiked to the blaze and stopped, unshouldered my pack, set it on the dry side of a fallen tree and stood resting. I calculated that I must be about halfway to my destination.

I started scanning the way forward for my next blaze but couldn’t see it. The trees weren’t so close at this point on the trail but there were many downed limbs from the previous week’s storms. I moved several yards forward in the general direction that I had been going, doing a fruitless 270 degree visual scan for the next blaze mark. I kept moving forward and looking through the gloomy light and still no blaze. When I finally stopped and turned around there was no sign of my pack and the water sodden trail held no memory of my footsteps to follow backwards.


Why do people engage in dangerous activities? Why do people climb killer mountains or free dive to dangerous depths or surf monster waves? Why do people go to great length and sometimes great expense to put themselves into inherently dangerous situations?

There’s obviously the thrill. Adrenaline pumps to your muscles, your breathing and heart rates increase to pump more blood throughout your body. The hypothalamus activates both the sympathetic nervous system and the adrenal-cortical system which dumps hormones into the bloodstream and alerts the pituitary gland to activate the adrenal-cortical system, which releases about 30 different hormones to bounce around inside you like pinballs. Heady,exhilarating stuff.

Afterward, when the thing is done and you’ve climbed the mountain or dove the depths there’s that sense of accomplishment, that pride of meeting and besting the challenge that most can’t or won’t attempt.

I had spent the month before my trip to Myakka preparing for the event; checking equipment, deciding what to take and what to leave behind, preparing my menu. My friends had almost unanimously be against my solo camping trips as too dangerous. I never carried a gun or weapon, other than a small knife which they found insane. I, however, had never felt afraid on my trips.

Do the dangerous a few times and you begin to crave the experience and the afterglow. The idea of something bad happening never takes the forefront because DEATH IS WHAT HAPPENS TO OTHER PEOPLE. Death is what happens to others when they aren’t well prepared or well skilled.

Of course, sometimes things go wrong - equipment fails, nature takes a malicious turn, a series of seemily minor poor decisions are taken. That's when you realize that the one outcome you hadn't paid much attention to might be about to overtake you.


I stood lost in the forest with my breathing starting to speed up. I could hear my own heartbeat. The danger in my situation washed over me as I stood in the water. I had violated a number of personal rules about camping – I was carrying neither water nor compass on my person – and I was kicking myself for being stupid.

It suddenly occurred to me that panic in my present situation might just be the thing that would lead to my injury or death. I knew I had to calm down. I reached into my shirt pocket, grabbed my cigarettes, lit one and drew the smoke in. That’s when I heard the first peal of thunder. The totality of my fuckedness was overwhelming and I started laughing. I laughed completely and totally and when I was done my heartbeat had slowed and I was calm.

I eventually found my pack and during the hunt I found the missing blaze on the side of a tree that had probably been knocked down in one of the previous storms. I eventually made it to my campsite and was able to get my hammock and rain fly up before the real rain started. I spent a profoundly miserable night wet, without fire, eating a cold dinner of trail mix and candy bar, sleepless because of the thunder and lightening.

The next morning I hiked out.

In retrospect my situation doesn't seem that alarming, but at the time my fear was real enough. I came out unscathed.

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