Wilderness Survival [Hippie Squared]

When I was nineteen I took a Wilderness Survival class at Lansing Community College. For the final we had to pair up with a classmate and survive a night without tent, sleeping bags or gear in the late fall Michigan woods. No snow, but still plenty cold enough to catch a nice case of hypothermia and die.

The last class before the final we ate crickets fried in butter and picked our partners for the final. The crickets tasted like popcorn, except their shells crunched, and their little legs got caught in my teeth.

I was a part-time student and it was a night class. I hadn’t really made friends with anyone. So I got stuck with the last guy who had no partner. Carl, his name was. Short, stocky and pudgy, with dark hair and a goatee. The kind of guy who talked like he knew all the answers, but if he ever actually listened he might have learned that he was mostly full of shit.

The instructor, Mr. Green, looked every bit the mountain man scholar, with his barrel chest, glasses, and bushy beard. His uniform never varied: hiking boots, jeans, flannel shirts and a puffy down vest. A dedicated backpacker, he had hiked the entire Appalachian trail. He had camped solo on Isle Royal in the middle of Lake Michigan, serenaded to sleep by one of the last remaining wolf-packs in the continental U.S. The man knew his subject.

“My Wilderness Survival class is basically pass-fail,” he said. “If you and your partner survive the night, you get an A. If either one of you gets hypothermia and dies, you both fail the class.”

We’d seen a very scary film about hypothermia earlier in the term. When your core body-temperature dropped too low for it to get itself back up to normal, without drastic intervention you would die. The major signs were uncontrollable shivering and mental fogginess. The way to treat a victim was to strip off all their clothes, strip off all your clothes, then bundle up and share your body heat. Of course Mr. Green had to stop the film at that point. He patiently waited for the jokes and laughter to subside. Then he said, “Funny, right? I know you’re gonna laugh. But then pay attention. In the wilderness it’s life and death.” He rewound that part of the film and ran it again.

Normally class was on a Tuesday night, but for the final we met at LCC on a Saturday morning. We parked our cars in the garage and all piled into a van. Mr. Green drove us three hours north, then onto a gravel road and into the middle of a national forest. He parked at a camping spot with a bonfire pit.

“While you’re all eating trail mix and freezing tonight, I’m going to set up my tent and roast some hot dogs.” He laughed. “As soon as it’s light in the morning you can all hike on back here. I’ll have the coffee on. I’ll fry you up some eggs and bacon and then we’ll hightail it back to Lansing. Now let’s get going.”

He hiked us all up and down hills and around forest bends, farther along the gravel road. After an hour he began to drop off pairs of partners every half mile or so. “This is your area,” he’d say. “Get to work on that shelter.”

Carl and I were last. Miles from base camp Mr. Green pointed at a little clearing just off the road, a  bald spot in the forest, dirt and rocks and scrubby grass ringed by woods, with a creek flowing by. “Good luck,” he said, then turned around and headed back toward his hot dogs and bonfire.

The key to fending off hypothermia was a shelter, low to the ground, well-covered, and stuffed with leaves and grass for insulation. I wanted to get right to work on it. “There’s hours of sunlight left,” Carl said. “Let’s get the lay of the land first.”

I found a nice snag of branches formed by a small tree leaning up against a solid tall trunk. I covered it over first with smaller branches, just like we’d learned in class, then twigs, then leaves and grass. I took my coat off. I gathered great armfuls of leaves and shoveled them into the coat, then carried it back to the shelter and dumped them in.

“Hey look!” Carl called from the creek bank, “A toad!” 

As dusk descended I was worried. The shelter was only about a third full. It should have been stuffed from floor to ceiling. I well-remembered from jumping into childhood leaf piles how quickly they could get packed down and flattened.

“It’s fine,” said Carl. “I’m thirsty. Let’s get some water.” We’d been allowed only the barest survival supplies: a tin for water, tablets to kill the parasites, a knife, and trail mix. No matches. No fire.

With nightfall we had nothing to do but crawl into the shelter, burrow under the leaves and go to sleep.

Next thing I knew it was dark, damp and cold, and Carl’s whiny voice was kicking me awake. “Jeff. Hey Jeff. I think I’ve got hypothermia.”

I did not want to be awake. The trick was to sleep through til dawn. If you didn’t wake up you never had to know how cold and wet you were.

I felt grouchy as a bear awakened from hibernation only halfway through winter. “You do not have hypothermia,” I said. “Go to sleep.”

“I can’t sleep,” he whined. “I’ve been awake for hours. I can’t stop shivering. And I’m mentally foggy.”

“That I can believe,” I muttered.

I did not relish the notion of a hypothermia cure at this hour of the night. Nor with the particular person of Carl. It was in fact possible that my survival partner could be dying. I did have to consider that. Somehow I wasn’t convinced.

“What the hell do you expect me to do about it?” I said.

He was silent for once. He shivered once, violently. The shiver passed through our cushion of leaves like a jiggle through dry and brittle jello.

I shook the leaves off me, crawled out of the shelter and stood up. “Guess we gotta hike all the way back to that bonfire of Mr. Green’s then,” I said.

“Yeah!” Carl said. I was surprised by how happy the idea made him. “I bet Mr. Green’s got extra sleeping bags in case this happened. We’ll probably get to sleep the rest of the night in his tent.”

“Right,” I said. “Plus the walk will warm you up. Get the blood moving.”

For miles we trudged in the cold wet dark, retracing our steps under a frosting of unsympathetic stars. Over and down hills and back up, and around forest bends we went. No doubt crunching the gravel past pairs of our sleeping classmates just off the trail, cozy in well-insulated shelters. It seemed to take much longer than it had on the way in. The journey called upon all the endurance of cold I had built up through all my Michigan childhood winters of snowmen, snowball fights, sledding and toboggan runs. Except there would be no mom to hand me a cup of hot chocolate at the end.

At base camp the coals of Mr. Green’s bonfire glowed a demonic red. Carl tried to knock on the front flap of the tent. It sounded like a claw scraping the canvas. “Mr. Green!” he called.

A flashlight flicked on in the tent. Mr. Green came out in long-johns, moccasins and the down vest. Carl, no longer shivering after the long hike, whined, “I think I’ve got hypothermia.”

Mr. Green looked him up and down without a word. From a stack of firewood beside the tent he grabbed a few big logs and hurled them onto the fire. He squirted some lighter fluid into it and it leaped to life. He looked at his watch. Then he pointed at the thick log benches arrayed around the fire pit. “You can sit there and thaw out. It’s four in the morning. I’ll be up at first light. That’s about six. Don’t move from the fire and you’ll be fine. Don’t get too close or you’ll go up in flames. See you in the morning.”

He ducked back into his tent, zipped up the front flap, and flicked off the light. Soon he was snoring.

Have you ever sat on a log in front of a roaring fire on a bitterly cold night? It’s impossible to be comfortable. Your back is the North Pole and your front’s the Sahara desert at high noon. You face the fire until your coat is hot to the touch. Then you turn around, until the skin of your back is so crisp it feels like it will slough off. So you turn to the side. You rotate yourself on the spit of your own spine. You’re like the moon, dark side cold enough to freeze the oxygen in your lungs, bright side hot enough to boil away all trace of water.

But you try to wait as long as you can before each turn of the spit. Because you become your own clock, each turn like a ticking of the second hand. The more turns you make, it seems, the more minutes will have to pass until sunrise comes, and so the longer it will take until light and heat return to your tiny part of this cold rocky earth.

Carl was full of energy, and talkative. “Too bad we don’t have any marshmallows!’ he said.

I wanted to simply pull my head and shoulders inside my sweaters and coat and tough it out, in stillness and silence. If I couldn’t have sleep, then give me a good firelight trance to see me through the night.

Eventually the gray did sort itself out from the dark, bringing mist and a deeper damp. And then orange seeped into the mist, with its slow diminution of cold. And at last I was able to unclench my muscles, and ungrit my teeth, as warmth gradually returned to flesh and bone.

Finally the watched-for zipper of Mr. Green’s front tent flap ripped apart the last shreds of night, so loud I thought it must have woken up a few foxes and beavers, maybe even our classmates miles away. When he set his old-fashioned, and well-traveled, tin cowboy coffee percolator on the fire, I have to say I felt a certain sense of triumph.

I passed the test. I survived Carl.

 featured image credit: meganpru