SI Vault
Michael Baughman
October 28, 1985
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.
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October 28, 1985

After One Week In The Woods Alone, There Is Simply No Place Like Home

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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.

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