I like self-deprecating stories. Especially when I’m the topic of conversation. Naturally, when reading this, one would assume that I’m pretty conceited and self-centered, au contraire. I’m simply just a huge proponent of being able to laugh at your own follies and mistakes, and hopefully learn and adapt.
The Honest Backpacker suggested I could blog about the “harriest moment you spent in the woods.” I have probably enough of these to fill an entire book what with years and years in outdoor pursuits. I am an Eagle Scout, a Survival Evasion Resistance Escape (SERE) Specialist in the Air Force, avid mountain biker, avid kayaker, former Skeleton athlete (Mom didn’t quite like me zooming down an ice chute at 80mph head first), and military parachutist, all of which affords me a ton of excellent topics to discuss at social gatherings and holiday parties. There are always interesting people especially with the outdoors crowd; everybody has a story to tell. So now to my anecdote from the trail.
I spent the first 18 months of my enlistment in the Air Force learning the SERE trade. We were exposed to many different phases of training: tropical and desert survival, evasion tactics, land navigation, water procurement, the list goes on. The “Fam” phase (short for Familiarization), required each of us to get our morning water; it was a division of labors. One ‘normal’ morning it was my turn.
We were living out of home-made tepees (outer covering made of parachute fabric) and living in a base camp for a couple weeks at this point. Needless to say, we were all beyond pooped, malnourished, and cranky. Well that morning I was running late – typical. The watering hole was only about 100-200 meters from camp, easy peasy. However, it was 0-dark thirty and I thought I knew where I was headed – first mistake. Getting to the spring was easy.
“Hey, I got this.” The problem was, I was running late and the Cadre instructors would arrive shortly.
So, full of confidence (second mistake), I made a 180, and started high-tailing it back to the base camp (third mistake). After about 2-3 minutes of running, I realized that I was encountering terrain and foliage that I absolutely did not remember – I was lost.
If you’ve ever been truly lost then you know the feeling. For those of you that don’t know the feeling of being completely lost, let me elaborate. Your sympathetic nervous system goes in to overdrive. Your senses become acute, eyes widen, breathing increases. You can feel the pulse of your respiration and blood pressure rise almost instantly. The technical term is being “totally freaked out.”
Basically, you look like this . . .
If you want to see a grown, confident, middle-aged person turn into a blubbering toddler in a matter of seconds dump them into the middle of nowhere and wait for about 30 seconds. Talk about complete mush. I’ve never felt such hopelessness and despair in my life before. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve still had moments of irrational and illogical fear and despair, but this event was unparalleled. Bodily functions threatened to fail.
Before I move on, I’d like to point something out. Taken on it’s face, it’s not really a compelling or unique story. Guy gets lost in the woods, no big deal. Yeah, somebody somewhere has a way better story. But the important part is what can we learn from it? Well, how do you think I got back to the base camp?
Herein lies the lesson. After a few minutes of bemoaning my current situation, I decided to simply stop. I’m not sure why I stopped, maybe I gave up. I’ll be honest with you, I really don’t remember. I’m not sure why I decided to stop rather than “keep going”. Regardless, it was the single best thing that I could have done.
I think what I was doing was allowing my fast brain and slow brain to sync. I had a lot of subconscious things going on while a lot of conscious processes were crowding out rationality. There was such a huge disconnect that I was paralyzed.
So, with a few silent moments, and deep breaths I assessed my situation. I knew that I properly turned from the water spring and was initially headed to the base camp. I also knew that the natural spring was in a depressed area, as water always flows with gravity, not away. Using this bit of information, I knew that I needed to direct myself toward higher elevation. I also knew that deciduous trees required more water than coniferous trees. As a result, I knew that I needed to continue moving towards an area where there were pine and other evergreen trees which is the terrane of our camp.
I had been at this base camp for the last few weeks and I knew that while traveling to the natural water spring there was a road that ran between it and camp. I also knew that the sun always rose in one corner of the camp (the East). And lastly, I knew where all of these points were in relation to another, combined with the elevation change.
I was doing a crude orientation and triangulation of my position, just what should be done. I pragmatically calculated the probability of where I was and where I thought base camp was. Then I moved slowly and quietly, pausing every so often to orient and perhaps hear my cohorts back at the base camp. I used intellect, rational thought, previous training, “intel,” common sense, and especially stress reduction strategies to find my way home.
You’ll be happy to know that after about 1-2 minutes, I found the road that was near camp. I followed it back to camp, beating the instructor cadre. And to this day, I have never told anybody that story. What are the important points to this story?
Well, that training, common sense, logic, a composed mind, your senses and intelligence are equally powerful and interdependent when it comes to problem solving. As always, the whole is greater than the sum. Sometimes, you just need to just pause and think; take stock of your resources and define the problems so you see correct and rational solutions.
With that all being said … if you find yourself lost in the wilderness you have three options:
- Triangulate – If you have a map, compass and know how to triangulate your position then you are set. If you can’t triangulate, then go low.
- Go Low – Water flows with gravity and you absolutely need it to survive. Water=life. Where there is water, civilization exists. If you follow a stream, river or body of water long enough you will encounter civilization.
- Go High – Get to a vantage point to locate yourself.
And, sometimes staying put is a good alternative also. You really have to look at yourself, your training and level of fitness to determine what the best course of action is. Listen to yourself and trust your knowledge.