The year was 2015, and it was mid-summer in central Tennessee by the time I had returned from yet another Middle East rotation. It was definitely a challenging deployment but that is a story for another time. During this time of year, the TN temperatures at the Land Between the Lakes - dubbed LBL - aren’t scared to hover around 90° to 100° F with a humidity level that can sometimes feel unbearable. I was not going to be deterred by something so trivial. After all, I had just spent a whole deployment dreaming of and looking forward to getting back out into the woods for some good ole outdoors adventures. The plan was simple, load up my rucksack, head to my pre-designated drop-off site, hike into the backcountry along the shoreline of Lake Kentucky, and enjoy some peace and quiet. This simple trip took several unexpected turns which made it memorable and put my wilderness skills to the test.
The trip started out just like any other. I finished up my planning and preparations at the house and then made the drive out to LBL. The start point for the hike in was a beautiful place called Ginger Bay. My bag contained enough water to get to my destination which was roughly five miles to the south. After that, I was to rely on my water purifier for resupply. The map recon I conducted prior to going out had paid off and made the trek in quite enjoyable. I was able to skirt the shoreline towards the south, all while avoiding some pretty nasty foliage along the route which I had previously identified. Rather than picking a pinpoint location for my campsite during planning, I had chosen an area along the lake that spanned probably about 300 meters. That allowed me a nice stretch of land to find the coolest site once I had boots on the ground.
This backcountry campsite was love at first sight. There was a perfect little clearing with plenty of room to stretch out and relax. My hammock tent was just feet from the shoreline and I could see directly across the lake from my official nap position. There was a ‘mini pond’ on the inland portion of my site which put up red flags for days about mosquitos but the breeze and insect repellant had ended up keeping them at bay. There was loads of dry wood around that I gathered for my fire. Between fire preparation and camp set-up activities I had managed to keep busy until dark. If I remember correctly, I either had spaghetti or some other sort of pasta mountain house meal. It was delicious after the ‘long’ hike in and the relatively extreme weather conditions compared to what I was used to. Overall, this rendezvous with the wilderness was hitting all my expectations.
Sometime after midnight I started to hear some rustling in one of the trees above me. This continued long enough to capture my interest, so I dug out my headlamp and started investigating. Turns out there were three baby raccoons up in a nearby tree. I have no idea what triggered their rambunctious behavior but it did not seem to have an end in site. It finally hit me that I had been in a stare down with three baby raccoons but mama raccoon was nowhere to be found. So, my investigation expanded to the surrounding areas. I finally heard mama raccoon walking up on the opposite side of the campsite. So here I am, stuck directly in-between this raccoon family with dense forest on one side and the shoreline on the other. This standoff lasted for probably 15 minutes with no one making a move. Ultimately, I had to remove myself from the equation so the critters could be reunited. Upon reading this, I imagine that people will react to my raccoon adventure in a variety of ways. I will tell you this, that regardless of where you land on how wildlife can and should be treated, I prefer not to unnecessarily harm any animals, which is why I let them be on their way. How would you have handled the situation? What might you have done differently?
In the morning, I cooked up some delicious biscuits and gravy, enjoyed a hot coffee, and then packed up camp to get ready for the quick walk back to my truck, which was still sitting comfortably at the gravel parking area in Ginger Bay. Satisfied that I had returned the campsite back to how it was before I arrived with ‘no trace left behind’ as my preferred standard in the wilderness, I began my trek to the north. Shortly after this is when things started to sort of unravel. The temperature and humidity were both hard for me to handle because I had not allotted enough time to reacclimatize to the local environment after my deployment. In my desperation to reduce fatigue and ‘miserable’ walking conditions due to the weather, thick woods, and heavy mosquito presence, I chose to alter my route back. This decision would prove to present some issues rather quickly.
The new hiking route was enticing because it gave me some firebreaks and gravel roads to travel on instead of the rolling hills and dense underbrush. However, it pulled me away from my only water source. You may have come to the conclusion that I ran out of water by now. Well, I am ashamed to admit it but, if you did, you are correct. I was a little over a mile to my destination. The heat was just too much and my water had run dry. The symptoms of heat exhaustion were setting in and it was high time for me to act or suffer the consequences. I chose to stash my rucksack along the trail and mark the location on my GPS. This relieved me of the weight of my gear and helped reduce my core temperature slightly. After this I was able to slowly complete my walk back. Upon arriving at my destination, I promptly cooled down by immersing myself into the lake until my body temp returned to safe levels. This hiking experience was horrible in the moment but it remains a good teaching moment and one that I will remember for a lifetime.
I was hesitant to include the hiking story because it is so easy to armchair quarterback that scenario. Trust me, I still want to go back and smack myself for how ridiculous my decisions were. However, there are some good lessons to learn. The wilderness can be very unforgiving and if you come unprepared, there can be dire consequences. A simple five mile hike can turn out quite poorly under certain circumstances. We should be able to look at this and identify what actions I took that turned this into a dangerous situation. By tracing backwards in the story we can identify and understand the decision-train that led up to the heat exhaustion. When did this event turn dangerous? What could I have done to better prepare myself? What would you have done in this situation?
The icing on the cake to this trip was the flat tire I had to deal with on my drive back to the hardball roads. That was a blast! When I look back on this trip I can appreciate the lessons I learned. Nature can be an unforgiving place and we must approach it with respect. While I had what I consider a ‘lapse in judgement’ when I altered my hiking route, I was fortunate enough to be able to rely on my prior training to successfully navigate back to safety. However, not all lessons have to be learned the hard way. Take an extra moment for contingency planning while you prepare for your next adventure. Stick to what your experience level can handle. Before you go out, brief someone that you trust on what your plans are. This gives you an added layer of protection in the event of an emergency. Survival and bushcraft are skills just like anything else, they require practice and repetition for you to remain proficient. Our training courses are designed to enhance your wilderness skills and make you a more proficient and agile survivor.
MASTER THE WILDERNESS