The Gaseous Winner: A log of gaseous happenings in the wilderness
Written by: Karen Hood
Summer ’96. We finished running our private trips with students from across the land, filming the PBS Backcountry Show for Backpacker Magazine and, in a break from filming our own Woodsmaster video series, Ron and I decided to take some time out to visit the Sierra… survival style.
I’m Karen Hood, Ron’s wife, co-owner of Hoods Woods, camera woman, co-producer of Hoods Woods Wilderness Video Productions, and instructor for Hoods Woods. Other than that, I’m embarrassed to say I don’t have a job. My life has been wilderness survival for the last 7 years. I have loved every minute of it!
Throughout the years, our Hoods Woods philosophy has been that the most important survival tool anyone has is the "mental" survival kit. Imagination, ingenuity, and inventiveness are all achieved with the mind. The mind is the primary survival tool. I view our minimum equipment approach as a catalyst to invention. You can always make something out of what appears to be nothing at all. Given a chance everything you have can and will become something useful to your survival. That piece of junk in the path may look useless — it isn’t. As you begin to think in "survival mode," you’ll notice you begin to use parts of your brain you never realized you had. You begin to view anything and everything as a possible tool for survival. It’s not just survival we’re achieving, it’s skillful survival. And invention helps to make this possible.
We planned a week long trip. As always, I kept a rudimentary log of my experience and compiled it into this little essay so you could get a sense of what my journey was like. I hope you enjoy it! I sure did!
When we arrived at the roadhead, Ron and I prepared our survival kits which consisted of one metal match, one sheet of plastic, approx. 10 feet of snare wire, 6-7 feet of monofiliment fishing line, a Swiss Army knife with a saw blade, 40 feet of parachute cord, 4 large plastic garbage bags, one small cup for drinking water, iodine purification (blah!), a small shoulder bag to carry our kits in and the clothes that were on our back (one pair of pants, undershirt, long sleeve shirt, non-insulated parka jacket, hat, socks and boots.) We both left our watches behind and took no food.
Our journey would last a week. At the end of the week, we were to meet at my wilderness camp so we could walk through the mountains together to the truck.
Ron and I departed from the car at first light, I went my way he went his. The day looked sunny and gorgeous! We took our dogs Kuma (Ron’s dog) and Sushi (My dog), both are Japanese Akitas and some of the best friends Ron and I have. Both dogs carried their own packs which contained only dog food for the journey. Kuma joined Ron on his solo and Sushi joined me on mine.
Well, I’m on my own now. The trail is rough in some areas. I use landmarks to help me navigate. Along the trail, I gather wild onions found in marshy ground next to a stream and some trash, a tangled piece of steel wire and an old coffee can.
We (Sushi and I) walked about 15 miles until we arrived at a canyon that looked like it had enough resources to get me through the next few days. It has water, shelter, rock overhangs, willow, wood for fire and plenty of pine trees. And of course I try to feel the "vibes" of this canyon. It feels very welcoming and peaceful. Some canyons don’t feel this way. They feel hostile, like the spirits don’t want you there. It’s important to acknowledge the spirits before setting up camp. Weird things could and have happened when this is not done.
I take some time to rest and scope out the best place to set up camp. I think to myself "I wonder where the Indians would have set up camp?" I fill myself with iodine water as I think about my plan for the night. The smell of pine permeates the air. What a beautiful scent! I’m at about 9,000 feet elevation. Ron is about 7 miles away in his canyon. I wonder how he’s doing.
I see a perfect rock formation for my firebed across the way from where I am resting. It is under a rock overhang and completely surrounded with rocks that will absorb the heat from my fire and radiate it back to me all night. And of course, there is a perfect space for Sushi to sleep right next to me. I could just envision a family of Indians sitting around chipping arrowheads and enjoying a nice fire right where I plan to set up my firebed. It makes the place seem familiar and comfortable.
I was right about the Indians when I arrived. I found chips of obsidian all around my camp. They were actually here at one time. I used my fist to determine how much sunlight I had left to set up shelter: about 3-4 hours (this technique is explained in Volume 2 of our Woodsmaster video series.) As I watched the air in the bottom of the canyon, I can tell it was going to be a cold night so I’ve decided to make a firebed to keep warm. I had better get busy!
I filled all four of my trash bags with dead pine needles, which will serve as padding for my bed, tinder for starting my fire and insulation for me throughout the night.
I used the old coffee can I found along the trail earlier in the day to dig a hole where my firebed pit will be. (As explained in Volume 2 of our Woodsmaster videos) I gathered what seemed like 100 lbs of small rocks to line the bottom of the pit. I guess I was just tired. It probably didn’t weigh more than 20 lbs all together. Before starting the fire, I gathered enough wood to last for the night.
As the firebed pit fire started to die down to coals, I lost the sunlight and decided to set up a separate reflector fire across from where my pit was. I took some coals from the firepit and place them under some dead pine needle tinder to start the reflector fire so I can keep warm and have some light while I finished up the firebed and wrote in my journal. I covered the coals in the firepit with dirt, checked for stray coals. When I knew it was clear, I covered it with 1 foot of dead pine needles from one of the trash bags I had filled earlier for padding. I spread the needles out along the length of the pit and placed the plastic sheet from my kit over the pine needles as a barrier from steam that would be released from the warm ground throughout the night. The two trash bags filled with pine needles are my blankets for the night and the small shoulder bag I carried my kit in is my pillow.
It’s really dark outside. There’s no moon tonight. The stars are stunning. They seem to shake and shimmer as if reflecting the light from my fire. Somehow I find that comforting. The air is cold and there is a slight breeze as the wind completes it’s usual nightly direction change. Thank God for the reflector fire that’s keeping me warm until the firebed starts to radiate heat for me. I guess I’ll just have to wait. I gaze into the mesmerizing fire as visions of past trips fill my head.
Over the years I’ve heard students express their fears about the things that might happen to them when they’re alone at night in the wilderness. It’s especially difficult for some people who’ve never in their life slept outside alone. I’ve heard them say things like, "I swear I could hear people talking and whispering near my camp." "I looked out into the sky and thought I was going to see a UFO land right in my camp. I imagine little people with oval heads and giant eyes coming to use a cold metal anal probe on me." Ouch!! Even I have had an occasional vision, I imagined I could see something like Bigfoot’s silhouette standing over by the river… staring at me, waiting for me to get up for a pee so he can walk up behind me as I’m in the oh-so-vulnerable squatting stance. Or worse yet, just stand there and laugh at me… I’ve imagined the Indian spirit who’s sitting on the rock above my overhang that’s waiting to scalp me as soon as I fall asleep because I’m sleeping in his canyon. I think Ron’s stories put those pictures in my head.
I’ve heard it all. While these examples are a little extreme, when you really get down to it, the wilderness is a very safe and comfortable place if you know what you’re doing. The wilderness is my home and just like my home it is safe and comfortable as long as I know what the hazards are and I watch out for them.
My firebed is radiating heat from the ground, just in time. Ahhh… warmth. I turned that old piece of wire I found along the trail into a handle for the coffee can so I can boil some onion water with the onions I’d collected. That is soooo tasty! Sushi ate her food while I feasted on onion water. I was so hungry from the walk and everything that even Sushi’s food looked like a Prime Rib Dinner to me. Food wasn’t a priority for me yet though, shelter was and did I have a shelter!! Time for sleep now. See you in the morning.
I woke up as the sun was just about to come over the mountain to greet me. I was warm all night. I woke up, I’d say around 4-4:30 a.m. and Sushi was growling at something. There was a very foul odor in the air and realized it was probably the onions I ate last night taking revenge on my intestines (and my nose.) Maybe that’s what Sushi was growling at. I kept thinking, yeah Sushi, you growl at that odor and keep it away. Good girl!
When sunlight hit, I realized that the water I had set out the night before was frozen solid. When I got up out of bed, I could see my breath in the morning air. I’m thankful the firebed kept me so warm. It’s amazing how the rocks and ground radiate enough heat to create such a warm microclimate all night.
The air is crisp. The sunlight on my face is warm. What a beautiful day!! I wish Ron was here to share it with me. I hope he’s OK. I know he is, he’s only been doing this for over 25 years now. He taught me everything I know. He’s probably wondering how I’m doing.
First thing, I start a fire with my metal match, (taught in Volume 1 of the Woodsmaster) using dead pine needles from the filling of one of my trash bags as tinder, heat some water in my coffee can, drink up and wait for my morning urge to overwhelm me.
Well that urge hit me fast! I was off. As I was scouring the landscape for the perfect site to pinch some serious steam, I notice fresh mama bear tracks followed by baby bear tracks all around the canyon floor and down by the stream. (Uh Oh! That’s what Sushi must have been growling at last night.) Finding the perfect Dump Palace isn’t the easiest thing to do when you’re in a small canyon. Everything is on a slope and if you want to have a view, you’ve got to walk all the way up on the ridge. By the time you get to the top you have to go so bad that the view doesn’t even matter anymore.
Well I found the perfect place and while I enjoyed my morning deportation, I notice a huge, fat, healthy marmot sunning up on a rock right across from my camp. I watch him as he basks in the morning sunlight. As I look at this rodent, I can’t help but visualize it as a 3 lb. slab of rat steak frying on a rock, sizzling in its own juices all the while releasing mouth-watering aromas. I can’t believe I’m imagining eating this thing while I’m taking a dump. I have to get it!! I am sooooo hungry!! I can’t believe how hungry I am… Today is a day for traps! But first… I must wipe, and oh those stones do hurt.
I decided to set up a snare wire trap, well actually a few snare traps. I made a noose out of snare wire from my kit and attached it to a strong stick about 2 inches in diameter and about 2 feet long. Before I placed the wire neck noose in front of the marmot’s front door, I descented it by rubbing it with the inside of some moist, fresh willow bark. This usually removes all human odors from the wire and leaves a natural scent on it instead. The stick I have the wire attached to is long and strong enough to stick in the ground and strong enough to restrain the animal when it gets its head caught. The stick stops the animal from getting away while the noose is around its neck. This would be bad for the rodent and very bad for me. I made 4 others like this so I’d have a better chance of catching something.
Onto other traps: I made two deadfall traps and let them sit for a couple hours while I cut a piece of willow to make a fishing pole. I have the fishing line, but no hook. I cut a piece of the wire that I found along the trail, and shave it down to a point by rubbing it on a rock. I heated it over the fire and bent it into the shape of a hook with a place to attach my fishing line.
Ron and the other instructors gave me the nickname "Fisher-King." They all claim I could catch a fish just by wanting it. Well, I don’t know about that, but it seems like I always end up with something. We had one student call me "Mountain Bitch" because he was jealous that I caught a fish and he didn’t. When Ron found out about his nickname for me, he gave him some natural tea that made him shit fire for 2 days.
The fish up here are all Golden Trout. They are beautiful, but they don’t get very big. I’ve never been in this particular canyon before so I’ll have to do some looking for that legendary "special" pool containing a mutated variety of riding trout. Back to reality.
Throughout my fishing experience with this variety of trout, I’ve noticed they like to bite on small, feather-like objects. After searching around, I found some feathers in the center of the willow cluster where I had cut my fishing pole. I will use them as part of a lure. It’s easy to find feathers in the center of willow clusters like this because it’s where birds like to hang out.
Well, I only have about 4 hours of sunlight left. As I plunk my line in the water hoping to God that I catch a fish, I start to meditate. As my mind clears, I can feel the sun warming my back, the warm wind caressing my face, the sounds of the stream talking to me, birds chirping and playing, the sound of the wind swishing through the pine trees, the smell of fresh pine needles… aaahhh… and just as I’m deep into relaxation and utter peace, I feel a warm wet tongue on my face. Eeeew! It’s Sushi, and she smells like shit! Gross! I open my eyes and it’s Sushi wagging her tail, licking her chops in utter enjoyment and wanting so desperately to lick me and love me but she’s got shit all over her nose and in her teeth. I can’t believe it, she’s the one who got a dinner last night and she’s got to go out and dine on fecal matter? God Sushi, have some respect for yourself!
Just then, I feel a tug on my line, Oh my God it’s Moby Trout! I yank this beautiful whale out of the water as a cluster of rapidly firing synapses in my brain conjure up visions of eating a whole, 6 lb. fish roasted to perfection on a grill with garlic and onions and spices. Oh yes. I caught one! Thank you God!! Thank you for this 5 inch whale of a fish! I will cherish it forever… (well, at least for tonight.) No time to waste, it’s time to prepare the feast. I’ve already ejected more material than this trout weighs so I literally can not wait to catch another one, so I have to prepare this prize. My responsibilities as a trapper overcome my synaptic urge to eat so I must check my traps to see if I caught any animals.
On my way over to check on marmot necklaces and deadfall traps, I see a huge lizard lounging vertically on a rock staring at me out of the corner of his eye. He wasn’t moving. I think he thought I didn’t see him. Right now anything is potential food for me. Holding my fishing pole in one hand and my fish in the other, I dropped my precious fishing pole and whacked him in the head with my hand. With one wicked slap, I got him! It’s a tyrannosaurus! He was almost 2 feet long. Now I’m really excited. Fish and lizard for dinner tonight! Wow!!
On to check the traps. My snares were all empty and I’m almost relieved, but could tell that a couple had been tugged at. I leave them in place. Nearing my deadfall traps I immediately see that one has been tripped. Great!
I wonder what I caught! I lift up the rock to retrieve my prize and it’s a… field mouse? Boy am I the big trapper. Suddenly a verse comes to mind: "I’m the big trapper who thought on the crapper, I’m going to catch me a Rat…" A sudden howl from my stomach and the verse disappears from my head. As we say, "If you kill it, you’ve got to eat it." Who cares, it’s food isn’t it? I’m so anxious to get back to camp to cook these tasty treats!
I gather some Yarrow for tea on my way back to complete my feast, start a fire and clean my fish and lizard. I skin and gut the field mouse. (Have you ever tried to cook a golf-ball sized animal before? It’s not a pretty sight. The field mouse is golf-ball size before it’s cooked. When it’s cooked it’s about the size of a quarter. Mmmm… Yum. What a mouthful.) Sushi’s following me around the whole time. I feed her with her own food and skewer both the fish and the lizard and cook them over an open flame. Yum!!! Lizards tend to carry salmonella so they have to be cooked very well. The tail is the tastiest part. (Why is it that the tastiest part is closest to the butt?)
When I first caught the fish it looked and felt like Moby Trout. Now it looks like a mini the minnow. I think it was all just a food-deprived hallucination. I follow it with some Yarrow tea and a few Indian Yampa Roots I dug up by the stream earlier in the day. Wow, I feel good. Time to dig up my firebed and heat the ground again so I can have another good night’s sleep.
I had the strangest dreams last night. I had this dream that Sushi kept taking a dump right next to where I was sleeping. Then I dreamed that she was licking my face with big nasty worms squirming out from in between her teeth. Then a dream that she stole my rats and fish and lizards and ate them right in front of me. Does it ever stop?
Other than the dreams, I’ve slept good each night. I keep thinking about Ron and how much I missed him. I am really looking forward to seeing him today. I hope we’ll have a little "rendezvous" before we walk up the mountain together.
I clean up my camp and make it look like no one has been here. I empty the pine needles from my trash bags back to where I found them, destroy my reflector fire site completely after making sure it was dead out. I retrieve the traps I’d set.
Now that I’ve got everything gathered and ready to go. I think I’ll lay down on the rock above the stream and meditate while I wait for Ron. (I made sure Sushi wasn’t around this time before I dropped off into utter relaxation.) It was about 1:00 and about 75 degrees outside. I laid there and soaked up the sun. What a feeling. I am at total peace. This experience has done a lot for me. I feel so content. I love the mountains.
Even though I really want to see Ron, I am kind of sad that this is all over. I feel I could stay out here for another week. As the days wear on, I seem to get used to the hunger and my senses seem to heighten. I feel more energy than I did on my first day out here and feel more creative and inventive than I have ever felt. I don’t have all the luxuries I have at home or like I do when I backpack. I have to work for those luxuries now. I have to be self sufficient and use my brain if I want to survive. It’s more satisfying this way. I feel really good.
What’s that I hear? Growling — Uh oh! God I hope it’s not that mama bear going after Sushi!!! I pop up from my deep relaxation and hear growling, but it doesn’t sound like Sushi. It sounds more intense. I run up the canyon as fast as I can where I think Sushi is and see Sushi and Kuma playing and wrestling with each other. I gasped for air as I try to convince myself that I’m not having a heart attack. They were chasing each other and rolling on the ground and play-fighting, giving each other big loves and licks. Oh yes, Ron must be just on the other side of the ridge! Yay!
Here he comes. He smiles at me and I’m so excited. Our family is back together again!! We hug and kiss and sit and share our stories with each other. He had a present for me. "Here it is, Karen… a gift for you from me and the spirits around here."
Ron went on to tell me that he had a very powerful dream. "I had a dream last night that lured me into the canyon next to where Kuma and I were staying. I was told to go there, that there would be something there for me. When I got up this morning, I thought about the dream and went walking, trying to find the place in my dream. Over the ridge … there it was. The sandy field I remembered from the dream. I followed the path not knowing what I was looking for and there … on the ground, unspoiled, in perfect condition, a beautiful spear point arrowhead. It was laying right on top of the sand as if it was placed there specially for me. I picked it up and thanked the spirits. It was truly a gift and now I’m giving that gift to you. It is our special spearpoint. A gift from the spirits we should never forget. A gift that is intended for us."
I was in awe. What a wonderful thing. What a special gift. It brought tears to my eyes. I thanked him and the spirits and told him that I wasn’t even going to get into what dreams I had last night. (While the spirits were giving him a gift last night, they were playing games with my olfactory system.)
We rested for a while and enjoyed the surroundings one last time before heading up the mountain to our car.
We filled our stomachs with water and headed up the hill.
"Come on, Sushi and Kuma, we’re going home." We won’t be coming back to the mountains until next year when the snow has melted.
The mountains are my special place on earth. They truly cleanse my soul!