Mr. Adventure: I Came. I Saw. I Survived?
Under threat of snakes, rats and bugs, the author gets instruction in living off the land.
I am not a fatalist, but I do feel the need to tell you: The world is going to end.
Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But surely within three to five weeks. Or months. But there’s no need to panic. The end will come as more of a series of annoying inconveniences rather than one big lights-out moment. However, with that said, the lights will most certainly go out.
But if it happens, I’m prepared. I just came back from a survival class.
That’s right, a hands-on course, which teaches city folk how to continue living when lost in the wilderness, adrift at sea or stuck in any town where the only available lodging is a Days Inn. The skills taught are meant to keep you alive until either you’re rescued or you and Ms. Earhart realize help is not coming.
A co-worker suggested I call a survival course she heard about on the radio, and that probably should have been the first clue that things weren’t going to go as planned. Everyone knows the only reliable survival schools advertise in the back of Soldier of Fortune magazine.
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Nevertheless, I set up an appointment for a day of personalized survival training with the owner of the radio survival school and waited patiently in the parking lot of a park on the edge of Charlotte Harbor and the Peace River (a million miles from wherever you happen to be at this very moment).
Lush and green with just the right amount of pavement to offset God’s plan, the park was to be our launch site from which we’d boat to one of the many little nearby islands and discover just why the final episode of Lost was so unsatisfying.
We were to meet at 8:45 a.m., which certainly seems like a reasonable hour to begin the survival process, but while I sat in the trusty Porsche, dressed in what can only be described as first-rate explorer-wear (stylish yet comfortable Ralph Lauren cargo pants in, of all colors, crocodile, topped by a frosted haze Calvin Klein military shirt replete with epaulets—and before you ask, yes, it came with camp pockets).
“Hi, are you Michael?” asked a rather sturdy gal in khaki shorts and a tank top. Her age was of the upper-middle variety and her sandy-colored hair was pulled back into a carefree ponytail.
I looked her up and down from the comfort of my driver’s seat. A lot of her looked carefree. “Yes,” I replied.
“Hi, I’m Marty. Ken couldn’t make it and sent me in his place.”
I guess the first part of survival is to adapt to conditions. Instead of getting a certified survival instructor, I was getting a middle-aged woman named Marty who had two kayaks crammed into the bed of her Ford Ranger pickup; probably not the same, but certificates don’t mean much in the wild. In any event, she assured me that she was fully qualified to teach me the basic survival skills necessary to endure a three-hour tour by Gilligan and the Skipper.
“I was in the Navy,” she said. “For six years . . . I promise not to let anything kill you for the next few hours … I mean, I’ll do my best not to let anything kill you.”
“Exactly what are the plans?” I asked, suddenly aware I was apparently going to navigate Charlotte Harbor with a woman whose name I wasn’t sure how to spell. “Is it Marty with a TY or Mardy with a DY? Or Martie with a TIE or DIE?”
That last option felt unfortunate.
“Marty or Mardie. It doesn’t much matter to meeee,” she said, gutturally, as she climbed into the bed of the pickup to untie the well-beaten kayaks.
“Well, I probably should know … because I’m writing about this.”
“It really doesn’t matter to me. Whichever you prefer. It’s just a nickname. My name is Cathy.”
“Oh. How do you get Marty from Cath…” I caught myself mid-sentence. There didn’t seem any reason to continue.
“That’s a fancy car you’ve got there,” she said. “You won’t need your phone. That’s the whole point, right?”
“I guess so,” I said, with a sigh.
“I brought all of the things we’ll need for a three-day excursion into the wild,” she said. “Knives, saws, tarps…”
She trailed off while wedging a bag into one of the kayaks. I just stood there waiting to hear “duct tape” and “shovel” followed by “alibi.”
“You’ll be an expert by the end of the day,” she said. “You’ll probably end up wanting to live off the grid.”
I looked down at my finely crafted Omega Seamaster (if you haven’t guessed, I’m subsidizing this column with product placements) to see it was already 9:40 a.m.
By the time we reached the chosen desolate island, another hour had passed. It was exactly the kind of place you’d take someone if you wanted to hide a body: nondescript, with inconvenient access thanks to a wall of mangroves over the few sandy sections.
We wedged the kayaks into the only possible landing spots and grabbed the bags of gear. The mosquitoes knew where we were before we did.
“If you don’t have bug spray, you can cover yourself with mud,” she said.
“Have you ever seen that show Naked and Afraid? I think it’s on Discovery.”
Oh, God. At this point I should say that a big part of what has gotten me into trouble in the past is an open mind.
“It’s amazing what those bugs can do to you in just a matter of hours. Your best bet is to stay in a breeze,” she said as she awkwardly climbed over a fallen palm tree. “We’re almost there.”
“So, what’s the plan?” I asked. “Are we going to build a pretend camp? Build a trap to catch dinner? Just to let you know, I’m trying to stay gluten-free.”
She said the first thing you should do when trapped somewhere awful is survey the surroundings. Sometimes there are natural or man-made structures that will make life a lot easier. “I’ve spent time on this island before, so I know there’s nothing here,” she said. “So we are going to have to build a sleeping platform to keep you from being exposed to the creepy crawlies that come out at night.”
“Well, obviously sand fleas and other bugs,” said Marty as she pulled a gleaming machete out of her bag. “But also crabs or snakes. There are a lot of rats, too.”
That’s about all I needed to hear. Our little clearing was set and Marty handed me a small saw and directed me to look for small-growth trees. “Bamboo would be ideal, but there isn’t any here,” she said.
“We should have done this at the Naples Botanical Garden,” I said.
The problem with our plan is that there weren’t a whole lot of straight trees we could lash together for a raised platform. Marty directed me toward a small group of scrub trees and I sawed the hell out of them. Trees are hard.
“The nice thing about Florida is that there are always vines around that work perfectly as rope,” Marty said. “You can lash two of these poles together in an X shape, then we’re going to add more branches up top to create a sleeping platform.”
I was praying it was going to be a single bunk, but Marty informed me that we were merely doing this as an exercise so I knew what to do “just in case.”
“These skills could mean the difference between life and death,” she said. “We still have to gather rainwater, build a fire to boil it and find food. It’s one thing to be hiking and live off the grid for a while—you can always bring some gear to make life easier. But if there was an accident and you were trapped in the forest, you probably wouldn’t have the luxury of saws or fire starters or a sleeping bag. Chances are you’ll just need to improvise. That’s what we used to say in the Navy.
“Hey, did you ever see that show Naked and Afraid?”
Sometimes I think the world won’t end soon enough.