Rob had been my college roommate and fraternity brother for three of my five years of higher education. He was a neat freak. I was his Oscar. He was my Felix. It worked though. A year of so after graduation, we embarked on a seven-day float trip down the upper Potomac. The trip would cover almost seventy miles, from Paw Paw, WV to Williamsport, MD.
Camping was nothing new to us, but camping out of kayaks was a unique challenge. We only planned one stop half way through the float to obtain more provisions. Walking down the sidewalk in Hancock, MD we observed a mother and her two small children jaywalk, crossing the street three parked cars ahead of us. “Was that for us?!” I asked Rob. He chuckled with a nod, saying, “We do look like we’ve been living in the dumpster behind the Mobil station.”
Lugging bottled water, cans of Chef Boy-Ar-Dee and a 1.75 of Jose Cuervo back to our kayaks, we saw the sky darken sharply to our south. “We better pick a campsite quick!” Rob cautioned. I didn’t want to be near town, so once in the kayaks we made tracks downstream.
Dusk came earlier than it should have. I would hop up on shore, run off into the woods searching for high flat ground to pitch a tent, see nothing good, and return. Over and over, further and further downstream, darker and darker, this procedure continued. “Jeff, we need to get a tent up soon!” Rob reminded as he put on his rain jacket. The first drops were heavy and frigid.
We settled for a spot that was less than adequate. Check that, it was one of the worst locations we could have picked to pitch a tent - a three-foot strip of river silt wedged between the gnarled toes of two huge sycamore trees. As we slid into our soon-to-be-soaked sleeping bags, I realized why that river silt was there. It had washed into place with a prior heavy rain.
We attempted to start a fire before turning in, but it was useless. Even the cardboard we had just liberated from the dumpster behind the Mobil station failed as kindling. Everything had become soaked in short order - including us. We gave up and tried to sleep.
At about 2:45am, Rob rolled over in his puddle and asked without checking if I was awake or not, “Dude, you want to make a fire?” Under normal circumstances, I would have thought he was crazy. We had failed at that attempt many hours earlier, and it had not stopped raining since then.
Our sleeping bags were soaked. My top half was in only a rain jacket, and my bottom half was curled up in a trash bag. I knew that the wet cotton blue jeans and cotton sweatshirt were only sucking heat out of me. I had shucked them about an hour earlier. I was not cold in the sense that someone would complain about it. I was beyond that. The most overriding and horrible sensation I felt was one that I can only compare to having the wind knocked out me during a football kickoff return that went poorly. An overwhelming burning sensation of fear in the core of my torso forced me to sit up in my puddle, turn toward Rob and say, “Yea, let’s make a fire.” I knew that it had to be done, or else one or both of us would die out there.
We exhibited the signs and symptoms of hypothermia: the “umbles”. We mumbled, stumbled, grumbled, and fumbled. Our words were slurred, but it had been more than seven hours since our last pull from that bottle of Cuervo. We tripped over the roots of the sycamore tree even though our flashlight clearly showed their location. We were less than civil with each other when we did talk. When we started shaving the bark off of dead branches to get to dry wood underneath, we frequently dropped our knives on the forest floor. It was a helpless feeling, observing your hands and legs not do what you brain is mandating that it must accomplish.
It took us until almost dawn to get a fire going. The act of trying for so many hours probably kept us alive more than anything. We shoved sticks into the river silt beside the fire and hung our clothing out to bake dry beside the hot fire. We ate canned ravioli for breakfast, and paddled out the final three days of water within a day and a half.
The experience showed me my own fragility. It taught me to have better gear to stay dry. It forced me to prepare a dry bag filled with items that can head off hypothermia, and pull out of it if I recognize it in myself or others.
Here’s a video from my instructional video library. Consider subscribing to “A Tight Line Junkie’s Journal” as you would a fishing magazine. The library feeds a continuous stream of seasonal tactics for bass, striper and other species. This free view video should teach you how to prepare for your own “Do Or Die” scenario.
About the Author Jeff Little established Blue Ridge Kayak Fishing LLC, a business dedicated to teaching paddling and angling skills to kayak anglers. He has produced four DVDs on kayak fishing skills and seasonal tactics for river smallmouth. In 2007 he authored My Life in a Kayak: In Pursuit of Trophy Smallmouth. He has numerous appearances in publications such as Bassmaster Magazine, North American Fisherman, Bassin’, Kayak Angler, and several regional outdoor publications. His other company, Confidence Baits LLC, manufactures bass fishing lures. His DVDs are sold through that business and can be found at confidencebaits.net