Skip to main content
Original Issue


I've done plenty of camping, hunting and fishing, so I'm familiar with tents and backpacks, cook stoves and lanterns, insect repellents and freeze-dried foods. Last fall, however, I decided to spend a week in the wild without any of these conveniences or luxuries. I wanted to approximate a survival situation, to draw closer than I had ever been to elemental nature. So I turned myself loose in a roadless and thickly wooded section of the Cascade Mountains. The area lies about 100 miles due north of Ashland, Ore. and consists of steep slopes and ridges and a few fair-sized creeks that cut narrow valleys through the country.

At noon on a clear day in mid-October I parked in a clearing several yards off a rural two-lane road, followed a narrow trail through a virgin stand of Douglas fir and cedar trees, found a creek at the end of the trail and started to hike up it. I wore a wide-brimmed fishing hat, a sweat shirt, jeans and an old pair of Nikes, with a warm jacket knotted around my waist by the sleeves. I carried a single-shot 20-gauge shotgun and had a hunting knife and hatchet in my belt. In my pockets were a dozen matches I had waterproofed by dipping the heads in hot wax, two shotgun shells, 10 feet of six-pound-test fishing line and two hooks stuck into a piece of cork.

The creek was lovely, flowing clear among gray, moss-covered boulders. Fallen maple leaves lay thick along the banks and floated on the water, moving down with the gentle current to collect in eddies. Leaves fell as I worked my way upstream, golden in the shafts of sunlight slanting through the trees.

There wasn't much sunlight, however—the maples and alders were thick along the creek, as were the Douglas fir and cedar—and before I had traveled a quarter mile, I was worried. There had been some rain in September and early October, and though the skies had been clear for several days, the woods were sodden. My shoes and pants legs were soon soaked, and I could see my breath when I exhaled. Dry firewood would be hard to find. I would also need dry kindling with which to start a fire.

My first priority, before fire and food, was shelter, a place to keep me dry if it rained. Hiking along the creek was slow going, but after a couple of miles and an hour or so had passed, I discovered what I wanted. High water had carved a depression four or five feet deep into the creek's west bank, forming a small cave. The floor of the cave was fairly flat but rocky, and the roof, laced with tree roots, appeared to be stable. A few yards below the depression a cedar tree had fallen straight across the stream, and driftwood had collected behind it, creating a logjam and a pool about four feet deep where several small trout were holding, dark-backed and clearly visible against the bedrock bottom of the stream.

I wanted to fish, but my next priority was to find a good spot for a fire and the kindling and bark to make it with. I climbed up the steep bank, looking for a clearing where the sun would have dried some twigs or pinecones. Already I was lonely and wished I had brought Luke, our six-month-old golden retriever.

Though it didn't please me to admit it, I was vaguely frightened, too. For the first time in my life, no one knew where I was. Even I didn't know exactly where I was. I had told my wife the general area I would be in, but if it came to any sort of disaster, a search party would be lucky to find me by Christmas.

Soon the strain of the climb wiped all such thoughts away. Blazing a tree trunk every 40 or 50 yards with my hatchet—I wanted to be able to find my cave in a hurry in case of inclement weather—I climbed about 1,000 feet in half an hour and sweat was pouring off me by the time I hit a narrow game trail that continued upward through the trees. It was so steep that even the deer had used the switchbacks. There were signs of bear, as well as other wildlife along the well-worn trail, and before I had gone far I came across a dead doe, a recent kill. Both hindquarters had been gnawed away, as had the stomach all the way up to the ribs, which were exposed. It had been either a cougar or coyotes.

After another half hour of climbing, thigh muscles feeling the strain, I noticed that the trunks of some of the big firs were scarred black from an old fire. One of the largest of them had come down in a storm, its huge network of roots just a few yards off the game trail on the downhill side. Not far beyond the fallen tree the fire had burned a four or five-acre clearing, which was overgrown with brush, including a number of good-sized elderberry bushes. I could eat the berries, and I was sure that grouse would feed there, too. Between an elderberry bush and the fire-scarred trees of the border of the forest, I found a few feet of level ground at the base of an outcropping of rock. It was a suitable place to build a fire, to sleep and, as well as I could figure, to catch the early-morning sun.

I lay the shotgun, my jacket, the shotgun shells and my box of matches at the base of the outcropping, then searched for kindling. In 20 minutes I had gathered a supply of dry sticks that would probably last me three or four days. As I collected kindling I noticed small grasshoppers perched on twigs and on the rocky earth itself, lethargic now in the cool October weather. I swatted about a dozen of them with my hat, killing them without crushing them, and slid them carefully into the same pocket that held the hooks and fishing line.

Now I was even more eager to go fishing. First, though, I made three trips back down the slope to the fallen fir tree. I hacked chunks of the thick, dried bark from the underside and carried them back to stack by the kindling. When I finally did start back down to the creek for my dinner I felt pleasantly secure, having found myself a home and acquired the means to heat it.

But when I passed the dead doe, another wave of fear went through me. I stopped by the carcass and looked behind me, then all around. It was afternoon now and dark in the shade of the forest. All I saw were trees.

It's always surprising how little effort and time it takes to get down a hill that was a real ordeal to climb. There were at least two hours of daylight left when I reached the creek, which would give me about an hour to fish, if I needed it.

I didn't need that much time, but I used it anyway, which turned out to be a mistake. With a hook clinch-knotted to the end of my carefully coiled 10-foot line, I made my way upstream, sneaking up on each small pool. The pools were separated by stretches where the water flowed only inches deep between the boulders. Most of the pools were no more than three or four feet across and two feet deep, while a few, usually those formed behind logjams or beneath falls, were several yards across and as deep as five or six feet. The largest pools held the most and biggest fish, and I could tell at once that these were trout that had never been fished for.

Each time I dropped a grasshopper onto the surface, several trout shot up at the bait; it was merely a question of which fish would reach the grasshopper first. I killed two 7-inchers in the first pool I tried. Even when I came out from behind a boulder and stood over the pool in plain sight, the remaining trout attacked again and again when I dropped the bait onto the water. I pulled it away before they could reach it, but when I dropped it back they returned, the smallest fish rising a dozen times or more before they tired of the game. I explored some two dozen pools, either releasing the fish I hooked or pulling the bait away before they could get to it.

I kept thinking I would turn back after one more pool, make the climb, start a fire and cook my dinner. Inevitably, however, the next pool upstream looked inviting—and the next, and the next. Finally I came to a pool at the base of a three-foot waterfall that really was the best one yet. The pool was about 15 feet long, 10 feet across and at least eight feet deep, with a gravel-covered bottom and a bedrock ledge along its far side. I was sure that there would be at least one big trout hiding somewhere underneath that ledge.

I climbed up onto a boulder to see if I could throw a grasshopper far enough to reach the ledge. I nearly made it. The hopper landed pretty far over, and a big trout—at least 12 inches, maybe 14—came out of the shadows and started up for it.

But in making the long toss I had leaned so far forward that I lost my balance. Swaying there atop the rounded boulder, my left arm flailing wildly while my right hand gripped the line, I watched the trout slowly rise, the water so clear he appeared to be swimming through air. But it wasn't air, it was water—ice-cold water I discovered when I fell face forward off the rock and into the pool.

It was a shock. This creek was fed by early-winter snowmelt from the high country, and the water temperature must have been around 45°. When I clambered out of the pool, I was gasping for breath and shivering. I still had the line in my hand, but I hadn't hooked the trout—though it entered my mind that if fish were susceptible to heart attacks, it might well have suffered one when I crashed into the water.

Soaking wet, I descended to the trail and climbed back up the mountainside, moving at least twice as fast as I had the first time. At one point I thought I might be lost. When I reached the sharp bend where I had seen the dead doe, it wasn't there. I kept going a couple of minutes, until I was absolutely certain that had been the right spot, and then I jogged back down for a closer look. I could see where the carcass had been; I could also see that it had been dragged away, uphill across the trail and into the trees. Coyotes wouldn't have done that, so I knew I was sharing the area with a resident cougar. In spite of the effort of my climb, I was cold when I reached the clearing.

Shielding the flame very carefully, I managed to start a fire with my first match, then added progressively larger sticks of kindling and finally wedged a slab of bark against the rock outcropping, directly over the small blaze. After a minute or two the bark began to smoke, then sputter, and finally the edges burst up into orange flame.

By the time the fire was blazing, night had fallen. I squatted, naked except for my jacket, drying my clothes from the inside out: underwear and socks first, then jeans and undershirt, then my hat and finally my shoes. I had wrung things out as best I could, and I held them out over the fire on sticks.

The nylon shoes I had been wearing dried quickly. Everything else took a long time, especially the sweatshirt, and as the clothing steamed there was nothing to do but think. As I would learn through the following days and nights, there is no way to avoid thinking when you are all alone. When immediate needs have been satisfied—and perhaps some future needs as well—there are few distractions. I became convinced that the people we label primitive must surely be philosophers. They have no choice.

When I was finally dressed again, I roasted my trout, using one of the sticks I had dried my clothes on. As I ate the fish—without salt they were only just edible—I thought about the cougar. I had heard one in the wild once, screaming from a rocky bluff above me, but I had never seen one. I had always wanted to see one—but not this week. Even though I knew quite well that they are shy animals, the thought of an encounter was frightening. It was easy to be reasonable at home, but not so easy in the forest.

The shotgun lay at my side, the shells beside it. Because it was a single shot, the hammer had to be cocked before the gun would fire. I loaded it, feeling altogether like a fool. Loneliness as much as fear made me do it. Loneliness and fear are pretty much the same thing sometimes.

I tossed the remains of the trout into the darkness, as far from my campsite as I could. After placing two large slabs of bark across the fire, I tried to sleep. I lay on my back, watching the stars, and finally dozed off.

No more than an hour could have passed when I woke up terrified, stomach turning over, heart pounding in my ears. Twenty or 30 yards behind me, something large was moving through the trees. I had heard it through my sleep, and I was on my knees, facing that way, gun in my hands and hammer cocked. It must have been a deer, heading down the steep slope to the creek for water. Once wide awake, I knew that. But I stayed there gripping the gun until the animal was well out of hearing range.

There was nothing to be frightened of—I knew that as surely as I knew my name—yet it was half an hour before I felt relaxed enough to lie back down and try to sleep. With three more strips of bark crisscrossed on the bed of the fire, I stretched out on my side to warm my back. Somewhere far away, on another mountain, coyotes howled. Finally I dozed off again, but I don't think I slept for more than 20 minutes at a stretch throughout the night.

I got up when the first sunlight hit me. The rocky ground had me stiff and sore in a lot of places, and I spent half an hour exploring the clearing and eating elderberries for breakfast. They were dry and sour.

I decided to try to kill a grouse, so I picked up the shotgun and started around the clearing. First I circled it—the theory is that birds become confused and frightened and are apt to sit tightly in their cover when they hear sounds coming at them from all directions—and then I began to walk slowly uphill through the elderberry bushes, stopping every 10 or 15 feet. Another theory holds that pausing that way frightens the birds—perhaps because they think a predator is about to pounce—and flushes them from their cover. For whatever reason, it worked. These were blue grouse—big, relatively slow birds—and half a dozen of them burst into flight before I was halfway up the clearing. The last of them was the simple straightaway shot I had been waiting for—I wanted to use only one of my shells—and I killed it cleanly, the first grouse I had shot in years.

Back at the fire I cleaned the bird, which was full of berries, and tossed the insides down the hill. Then I skinned and roasted it. The breast meat was tender and delicious, but the legs were so tough and stringy they were difficult to chew.

After the meal I used some flank feathers to fashion a lure. By tying a hook to the end of my line with a turle knot, I was able to tighten the loop of the knot around the ends of inch-long feathers so that they lay back against the shank of the hook, forming what amounted to a crude streamer fly. That afternoon, down at the creek, I hooked and released at least 25 trout and killed three others, each from a different pool, for my evening meal.

That first full day set the pattern for the routine of those that followed: a morning forage for firewood, food and water, then periods of exploration and sleep. Each day when my chores were completed I hiked through the mountains, and I saw a lot of country and a lot of wildlife, too: hawks, ospreys, a golden eagle, several deer, including a gigantic five-point buck, a civet cat and countless blue and ruffed grouse and mountain quail—but no cougar.

The weather held through the week. At night, temperatures went down into the 40s, and from the third night on, when my irrational fears had subsided and I began to sleep reasonably well, the fire would burn out and I would wake in the early mornings stiff and aching from the cold.

On my last morning I thought about killing another grouse, but decided against it and started home with a shotgun shell and three of my matches left over. Stiff and sore, tired and dirty, I was very much looking forward to home. Ever since my early childhood, I had suspected I didn't truly belong in the city. Now I was equally certain that I wasn't suited for life alone in the wilderness. I was glad I had stuck it out for a week, but a week was enough.

Back down at the creek, I stopped long enough to go after that big trout, but not with one of my grouse-feather streamer flies. I used a grasshopper. I caught my quarry, an exceptionally lovely fish, firm and bright, the lateral line the color of a dark-red rose, back and fins speckled black. After I had admired it I twisted the hook out and lowered the fish into the pool. The trout went back to its life, and I returned to mine.