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.