Written by Mike Stuhlreyer, Photos by Greg Grupenhof
Years have passed and the jury’s still out on whether my friends and I battled through a mettle-testing survival adventure or just muddled our way through an ultimately frivolous experience that reached its predictable conclusion by suppertime.
Adventure, after all, is a relative term. At one end of the spectrum are the true adventurers, those who train and plan tirelessly, mounting expeditions into the unknown on this planet and beyond. Adventure is their reward, to be actively pursued for its own sake.
How would Neil Armstrong and Sir Edmund Hillary react to my story? They’d probably listen with the bemused courtesy of a parent indulging a child; in much the same way Warren Buffet would listen to me outline my investment strategy. Perhaps they’d even take turns tousling my hair.
At the other end of the spectrum are the housebroken multitudes; we who feed a Discovery Channel-induced hunger for adventure by charting alternative routes to the grocery store. We experience adventure – if we do - as an unanticipated consequence thrust upon us by a miscalculation or a force beyond our control. We are the hair-brained thrill-seekers clinging to capsized canoes in the middle of rain-swollen rivers, the frostbitten hikers being airlifted off mountain-sides, or the hung-over tourists in foreign prison cells clueless as to the number of tequila shots we did or the laws we broke. To this jury of my peers I have a hair-raising story to tell.
It’s a tale about getting lost – the domesticated man’s expedition - a perfectly passive experience ideal for those of us who fiddle away valuable adventure planning time earning a paycheck.
Face it, nobody sets out to get lost. With the exception of the suicidal or the truly heroic, human beings leaving on a journey of any distance or level of assumed risk – to the moon or the mall – leave expecting to safely reach their destination and return intact. Lost happens when that expectation crumbles.
Lost happened to three friends and me several hours into what we expected would be an hour-long kayak sojourn in Georgia swampland, a journey presumably so uncomplicated that we wasted not a single moment on contingency planning. If we devoted any thought to the undertaking whatsoever it was to categorize water, food, compass, cell phone and flashlight as superfluous weight and leave them behind. We did, however, outfit ourselves with a pistol and two cameras. After all, there is no such thing as having too many cameras on a leisurely sojourn.
I quickly learned, though, that swamps digest half-cocked explorers. They are an anarchist’s dream – pure confusion.
Less than 50 yards from the spot where we parked our ATVs and slid our kayaks into the black water I was out of my comfort zone, dry-mouthed and agitated, head buzzing from the adrenaline mainlining into my bloodstream. I wasn’t navigating as much as thrashing my way over submerged deadfall, through narrow gaps between trees and tangled vines that grabbed my paddle, wrenching me off balance. A voice of suburban entitlement whined in my head; Surely, they’ve cleared a way for us to get through this, as if we were on a ride at a waterpark. Of course, we’d go only where the random processes of a Georgia swamp ecosystem let us go – until they stopped us cold.
We finally reached a spot open enough to stop paddling, relax and finally enjoy the swamp’s lush, chaotic beauty for a few minutes. Chris, a long-time park ranger, naturalist and, as such, the guy most likely to be blamed if this thing had turned out poorly, knew most of the bird species in the area and identified each as we listened to their calls. We were the only souls within thousands of acres of forest.
When it was time to head back, Greg and Chris paddled ahead, while Jeff and I detoured to an area where the tree canopy opened, giving us a few minutes float-time in the sun. By the time we were ready to go the other two were out of sight, but we followed our instincts back in what we thought was the direction of the ATVs. We picked through the tangle until it abruptly opened onto a deep, sun-drenched alley of lily pads I’d not seen before. I offhandedly wondered how we could have missed such a significant feature on the paddled in.
From there, we made several aborted attempts at punching our way through the impenetrable maze, but after paddling too-close-for-comfort to a 200-pound wild boar we beached ourselves on a clear and relatively firm patch of bog and decided to walk out, pulling our kayaks. We soon intersected a logging trail, which our instincts directed us to follow to the right. A few minutes of backtracking and we’d find our ATVs. We were positive.
Jeff and I pulled our kayaks over the mud for a short distance before seeing another pair of drag marks, and, sure enough, we walked up on Chris and Greg, who were stopped where the trail dead-ended at the bank of a slow moving river. They were as confused as us, but confused in the same direction at least - a good sign. Our instincts had converged.
Everyone agreed; we needed to paddle upriver, nobody questioning the logic of following a waterway we had no inkling even existed until we stumbled upon it. After ten minutes of paddling the river ended, so we floated back downriver until it ended again. Later, consulting a map, we learned the river’s name: The Dead River, and for good reason; it merely dissolves at both ends into formless marsh.
This brings me to the problem with maps. They create unreasonable expectations with their God’s-eye-view of the world. The grids on the map neatly divided thousands of acres into perfect squares, making landmarks, property lines and direction intuitively obvious. The map showed a swamp with distinct borders, pinpointing where swamp ended and forest began, as though a person straddling one of those borders would have one dry foot and one wet. But as any underachieving 30 year-old living in his parent’s basement reading his eighth self-help book will tell you, just because something looks blatantly obvious on paper doesn’t make it so in real life.
Out of options, we paddled to the bank and followed our drag-marks back in the direction we’d come. When we reached the spot where Jeff and I had walked out of the swamp earlier we decided to mount another expedition in the kayaks. For over an hour the four of us probed for a gateway into what had seemed such an obvious route on the way in. Every attempt ended at an impassable jumble of vegetation.
Every group of “temporarily misplaced”, headstrong and increasingly frustrated guys needs at least one realist who will dwell on impending doom, and I’m a natural. I can be excused, though, given how alarmingly easy it is for a two-hundred pound man in a brightly colored 9-foot kayak, wielding a white-bladed paddle to simply evaporate in a swamp. I was hyper-conscious of making sure we didn’t lose contact with each other again. We’d split into pairs, and I yelled to Chris and Jeff every ten seconds or so, gauging their distance and direction and eventually coaxed everyone back into view.
Together, we paddled up on two duck-boxes that Greg and Chris had seen on the route they’d taken earlier. For no other reason than a need to have some anchor, some point of reference, those duck-boxes became landmarks - though we had no concept whatsoever of where they were in relation to, well, anything. We paddled in every direction from those boxes. Three times we came upon the same open alley of lily pads Jeff and I had paddled through before. It added a sense of comfort - at least we weren’t getting more lost – until it occurred to me that we were lost when we found the lily pads the first time. And when you’re already lost is there such a thing as more lost?
Every other man’s opinion, every line of reasoning makes sense to one who is truly lost. And since I had absolutely no sense of the way out, I admired the logic with which each of my friends argued his case, until I noted that no two were pointing in the same direction. At that moment, sitting in my kayak in a state of almost childlike wonderment, floating light-headed in a clueless haze, I had an epiphany: I was profoundly lost for the first time in my life. Judging from the expressions in the other kayaks, everyone else was too.
As we pushed on, I experienced episodes of primitive dread, a knowledge that death was an altogether reasonable outcome in this setting. Granted, our chances of dying were remote, but if one of us did die our death would fit within the context of what reasonable people see as the risks one takes in a swamp. It wouldn’t be a death out of the blue, like if one of us was nailed by a drunk driver on that back road we took home from the grocery store after watching too much Discovery Channel. “The poor soul; what a horrible way to die,” the average person reading our story in the newspaper would say, “But hey, there are things in there that can kill you…MILDRED, WHERE’S THE SPORTS SECTION!?”
While we had each knowingly assumed the risk of entering snake country, there is a sobering distinction between accepting that abstraction and coming to grips with an ominous fact: despite every precaution, one of us could - right here, right now – just by placing a hand on the wrong tree, be bitten by a cottonmouth or rattlesnake, a highly likely death sentence, given that we had no idea where we were nor the means of getting help. I didn’t allow the episodes to last long. I suppressed them harshly; they were banana peels on a slippery slope to panic.
The consensus was we needed to paddle back to the trail and walk out. I was relieved. From our previous days’ exploration on the ATVs we knew recent heavy rains had made the area’s maze of trails into mud-paths segmented by long, knee-deep pools of murky brown water, but terra-semi-firma seemed a good alternative to another minute in the belly of the swamp.
Looking like a line of neophyte ice-skaters pulling forty-pound kayaks we slogged those sloppy trails for over an hour, feet slipping sideways in the muck, ligaments straining and legs splaying with each choppy step. Ultimately, we made a tacit admission; we needed to ration our energy, drop the kayaks and retrieve them tomorrow. The remainder of this day, which the sun told us was fading, would be devoted to getting ourselves out.
I can’t pinpoint on a timeline exactly when I asked, rhetorically but with a glint of hope, about drinking swamp water. I do know we’d been paddling and plodding for hours and my head ached from dehydration. Chris assured me that giardia would violently purge my body into a dry husk. That, along with the possibility of Trichinosis, pretty much trumped the instant gratification a gulp would provide.
He did mention - as a tidbit of trivia not as a recommendation - that I could drink my own urine, but only once. Now, when Chris speaks of such things – wilderness survival, not urine - he speaks with the authority of 25 years in the woods, so I asked what seemed to be logical follow-up questions like, “Why is it that I can drink my own urine, but just once?” And, “What about others’ urine? If we share, can we drink more?” Chris didn’t know exactly why I could drink my urine only once, but he was quite sure about it. He was equally sure that a person couldn’t subsequently drink his friends’ urine on a second round and seemed rather bothered that I’d asked. Thus ended the conversation on urine.
So I was left to just think about it. My thoughts turned visceral. I conjured mental images of the miserable wretches who have actually faced that reality. Under what possible circumstances would a person ponder drinking urine? What must a person be thinking, and how resigned to their death must they be at the moment they drink? How far gone must one be to actually cherish that mouthful? What is it like to know that that is your last fluid until or unless rescue comes, and know that your life has just been distilled down to one arid and elemental truth – you will be found soon or you will die?
As thirsty as I was, I knew I was light years away from such a doomsday scenario. I was less worried about the implications of severe dehydration than about the flurry of phone calls between concerned family and friends that would likely start soon. While the rest of us weren’t expected home for another two days, Jeff had a meeting he could not miss the following morning and was due home in a few hours.
We stopped intermittently to plan our next move. Greg broached the possibility that we had made our mother-of-all subsequent mistakes that day when we first pulled our kayaks out of the swamp so many hours before. Perhaps, he suggested, we should have turned left instead of taking the right that led us to the Dead River. So here was Greg, the oddball lemming, asking us to second-guess the instinct powering our headlong sprint into the abyss. We dismissed his theory out-of-hand. Like the dutiful lemming, he promptly re-assimilated and jumped with the rest of us.
Around this time I began keeping my mouth shut. Offering my opinion about where we’d been, where we were at that moment and where we should go would be no more helpful to the cause than reciting the Star Spangled Banner. Any single point of reference upon which to tether my opinion was long gone, and I adopted a philosophy I’ve come to call Mike’s Holistic Approach to Being Lost: When you know you don’t know, don’t add to the noise.
Conversely, Chris worked the task like a math problem, gamely scratching maps in the mud with a stick with Greg and Jeff periodically interjecting. I nodded or shrugged in feigned attentiveness, feeling vaguely inadequate for having nothing to add and for having long previously admitted to myself that luck, not navigational skills, would determine whether or not we were to spend an unprotected night in this ominous place.
I found no consolation in the fact that I was apparently right. Chris’ maps inevitably ended up looking like Chinese lettering, and he’d conclude each mapping session with a tired and thoroughly convincing, “Hell, guys, I don’t know.” His maps did serve an invaluable purpose, though. They kept us moving.
We slipped down every trail we could find until we either convinced ourselves it was leading in the wrong direction or until we retreated at the prospect of pushing through yet another 50-yard pool of prime snake habitat. We moved in single file, skirting the deep water and mud in the middle of path whenever possible in favor of the relative firmness at edge. Nobody said much. Raised eyebrows, shared glances at the sun’s progress and flashes of direct eye contact did the talking: we were in steadily deepening trouble.
Chris had it the worst. The bootie-style beach shoes he was wearing were ideal for the easy paddle we had expected, but were torture on a long hike, offering zero support or protection from lurking reptiles and always on the verge of being sucked off his feet by the shin-deep mud. His toes, which he had to keep clenched, were cramping and wearing through the material, and each painful step wrenched, twisted and pulled a chronically bad knee. There was an unstated but shared concern among us that we might end up carrying him at some point. One of Greg’s knees wasn’t in much better shape, and his rubber boots, continually filling with water, weighed about ten pounds each.
None of us complained outwardly or showed any inkling of panic. Each man seemed to have made a pact with himself to not be the first to break physically or mentally. From my standpoint, anyway, honoring that personal contract was about the only point of pride I took from this whole episode, though it hardly offset some of the mind-boggling group decisions we made.
For example, rumor had it that three gunshots in quick succession was a universal SOS signal for hunters, so we all agreed that Greg should fire 3 of 5 bullets in our gun in the hopes, I suppose, that three masters of deduction and triangulation were within earshot, at-the-ready and in radio contact with each other. I can still imagine the chatter:
“Eagle Team, that is no target shooter. Over.”
“Roger, Eagle 1. The cadence of those shots plainly indicates a plea for help. Eagle leader, do you have a read? Over”
“Roger, Eagle 2. Someone 2.3 miles distant at 260 degrees SSW of my position needs us. Let’s roll.”
I think we may have stood still for about 90 seconds after the shots before shrugging and continuing on. We couldn’t be expected to just wait around for Eagle Team, could we? If you wanted to rescue us, by golly, you had better move fast.
As the daylight and our options dwindled our excursions down random logging roads and their offshoots were getting shorter and more tentative. I finally felt compelled to volunteer an opinion, thus simultaneously violating and validating my previously stated belief that I served our cause best by keeping my mouth shut.
It is a testament to the flimsiness of our hopes at that stage that the others pinned them on what I was about to say. My opinion came in the form of a set of simple and logical guidelines, which when put into practice would probably have saved us had we been lost in a mega-mall. We soon discovered, however, that they had no validity whatsoever in the vast illogic of a swamp.
In hindsight I call these guidelines, Mike’s Now Thoroughly Debunked Principles That Sounded Really Good at the Time. The first guideline is this: All paths must lead somewhere. The second: Decide on a path and commit to it to the end. The third: If all else fails, stop at the food court for snacks and directions. (author’s note: I added this later, for the benefit of those actually lost in a mega-mall.)
By this point, five hours after our expected return, any optimism we once drew upon to keep us going had corroded into practical stubbornness. To stop moving now, as the sun approached the tops of the trees – signalling all swamp-creatures to begin licking their chops - was to passively accept our transformation from father/husband/son/brother to meat. So, after hours of rudderless wandering, we chose a path and committed to it.
Jeff committed hard, as he does to every task. Once the path was defined, he put his head down and started walking – fast; no looking back. The rest of us snaked behind him, working hard to keep pace. Armed with a renewed sense of purpose we found a second wind of sorts. Conversation, though still sparse, had an optimistic tinge, and my consciousness raised to a point where I was again processing my surroundings – shadows, trees and trail - unlike the previous hours, which had streaked by amid the idiot-chatter of disjointed thoughts and hazy streams of muted browns and greens.
After a mile or so, the trail began roughly paralleling a large, muddy river running hard and well out of its banks, unmistakably the Ocmulgee River. Just as the alley of lily pads had given me a false but useful sense of comfort many hours before, the Ocmulgee – a physical feature we could actually put a name to – provided a measure of counterfeit reassurance. We at least had a general fix on our position.
The city of Warner Robins was somewhere relatively close, albeit on the other side of the river. Downriver was Hwy. 96. For all our misdirection, we still had to be within just a few of miles of our ATVs or an Applebees, and surely there exists a universal law of nature as absolute as the law of gravity, dictating that nobody be allowed die what would essentially be a cave-man’s death within reasonable distance of a fun-drinkery.
So, to explain our next, last and most shameful blunder you must either believe that a) we fell unwitting victim to this budding sense of confidence, intoxicated from a celebration of our renewed belief in self, or b) we were abysmally and offensively stupid. Tell me your answer and I’ll tell you how much Oprah you watch.
The fact is, this act of unforgivable self-sabotage made the four dunderheads who wasted three-fifths of their ammunition in a senseless cry for help a couple hours earlier look like survival school valedictorians.
We heard a boat’s motor approaching from upriver. Through the trees we caught a glimpse of a middle-aged couple aboard a small runabout. The four of us ran to the edge of the river, waving and yelling, wide-eyed and probably looking a little threatening, given that we simply materialized out of the swamp…oh, and Greg had a pistol hanging from his belt. Nonetheless, the man saw us and brought his boat around, fighting the strong current. If only he had been less superficial, more able to look beyond appearance and into our benevolent and desperate souls - if only he watched more Oprah - and invited us aboard, our story would now be over. As it was, he kept a cautious distance, about 30 yards.
Yelling over the roar of the river, we asked our position. The man, referencing his GPS, pointed in the general direction the path had been leading us. “There’s a railroad track that way, about 9/10th of a mile as the crow flies” and “Highway 96 is about 2 miles downriver, as the crow flies.”
Now, from a practical standpoint, “as the crow flies” is to helping the average man navigate a swamp what “as Bradley Cooper swaggers” is to helping that same man navigate a roomful of women. It is a qualifier so powerful and so far removed from reality that it renders every word around it utterly meaningless. But evidently, astoundingly, it was good enough for us; we were apparently more than ready to assume we could fly. So we did what any crow would do; we thanked the boaters and waved them off.
We let them go without asking for help. Let me repeat. We let them go without asking for help. We didn’t ask them to radio our position. We didn’t ask them to take one of us downriver to the highway. We didn’t ask them to call anyone. Even God had had enough laughs for one day and hand-delivered our rescuers – this was Eagle Team - but we let them go without asking for help.
The serious self-flagellation didn’t start immediately. Nestled in the reassuring bosom of Mike’s Principle #1: All paths lead somewhere – we started off again. The path was indeed heading in the direction of the railroad track the man had indicated, and nine-tenths of a mile seemed a short hike. That track would be the same one we crossed several times over the past couple of days, just few hundred yards from camp. Once we found it, we’d follow it for a mile or two and be home.
We approached each dogleg in the trail sure the track would be right around the bend. When it wasn’t, anxiety replaced hope. We’d been pushing a good pace on this trail for well over an hour and each step increased our investment and our risk as shadows grew longer and daylight waned. As with the pools of swamp-water we continued to labor through, we were knee-deep in Mike’s Principle #2: Decide on a path and commit to it to the end.
The end came. The path led nowhere. It simply liquefied into a black-watered jigsaw puzzle of vines, dense undergrowth, gnarled trees and deep shadows. If our daylong odyssey had been put to a soundtrack, the entire symphony would, at that moment, have crashed into a whirling, menacing minor chord.
We just stood in our tracks, paralyzed by disbelief, dumbstruck and utterly trounced. Someone – it could have been my own disembodied voice, for all I know - croaked woozily that we could try pushing our way through. But the swamp was so dense that there was no sign of how far we’d have to go before a definable trail re-emerged, if it re-emerged. Nobody wanted to face the prospect of kicking through the swamp in twighlight.
Without a word and without hesitation, Jeff turned and started fast-walking back down the path. I remember the stark cleanliness of a single thought: He’s right, there is no alternative. Moments of such pure clarity of purpose are rare in my life. But here, there were no “outs” or even a bad alternative to contemplate. I discovered that when given no choices, the mind shuts off power to all ancillary thoughts, redirecting that wattage to a single purpose, and that purpose becomes a laser beam in a vast, dark warehouse of superfluous content. You put your head down and follow that beam, marching with certainty - at least for a couple minutes.
Then the old wiring retakes control. The first thing it does is siphon power from the laser beam to re-animate the “why” questions that had been lying so helpfully dormant. “Why on earth did I let that guy in the boat go?” woke first with a vengeance, boxing my ears and poking my eyes, like Moe working over a fellow stooge. “What could I possibly have been thinking?” was the next, followed closely by, “Why didn’t (other guys’ names here) speak up?” All we could do was trade incredulous looks, mutter about our monumental foolishness and keep walking, a little less sure-footed than before, mentally ticking off the day’s long list of lessons learned.
We also started the counterproductive practice of looking for shortcuts and found a small, partially flooded side trail. Following it for thirty or so yards, we dead-ended into a wide, boggy swath of coarse, knee-high grass under a powerline. The powerline continued as far as we could see, teasing us into a short debate about whether this might be the better route, because, after all, all powerlines lead somewhere, right? But we’d spent the day flirting unsuccessfully with the unknown and were ready to settle down with the path we knew, as ugly as it was. We backtracked to the main trail and continued on.
By the time we retraced our steps back to the main trail’s starting point over an hour later, the sun had sunk midway into the trees. Our situation was now dire. Out of ideas and desperate we went all-in with the last alternative available – Greg’s route - the route that would take us in a direction so counterintuitive that it had been summarily dismissed twice already.
Before heading out, Jeff matter-of-factly laid out the itinerary. We would slog this trail for twenty more minutes or until it washed out, whichever came first. If we didn’t find our ATVs in that time we would start collecting firewood and building whatever meager shelter we could manage. Nobody argued.
That was it. In less than a half-hour, I would either be on my ATV blissfully heading back to camp or picking through flooded tangles of flotsam hoping to find something dry enough to burn in a darkening labyrinth full of creatures that wait patiently for dark, when they move and feed.
I’d be facing 10 hours of black, cold misery, engulfed in a cloud of torturing mosquitoes, body stiffening and head pounding from exertion, dehydration and hunger. I’d be wildly alert to every sound beyond the dim light of whatever smoldering fire we might manage, praying I wouldn’t hear the headlong thrashings of something so big and powerful it had no use for stealth, or the cacophony of a foraging clan of wild boars. What I couldn’t hear would be worse: perhaps a rattlesnake, drawn to our heat, gliding over wet leaves or the perfectly camouflaged movements of stalking panther. Then there would be the imagined sounds - every odd noise transmuting into an alligator on patrol. And at daybreak I’d still be there, just as lost as I was the night before, debating if I should empty my bladder on a tree or save it for drinking later.
We set off.
Little more than a football field’s length from where our instincts betrayed us seven hours before, we saw a color gloriously incongruent with a swamp, fire-engine red, peeking through the trees. An ATV. We met the discovery not with whoops and hollers, but with tired laughs and sober smiles - acknowledgement that we’d just dodged a bullet fired from the gun we’d held to our own heads all day. We also pledged to never doubt Greg ever again…depending on the circumstances.
That evening, relishing the basics we had come dangerously close to doing without - water, food, fire and safe haven - we studied the map, trying to understand how we could have spent the previous seven hours at 180 degrees dead wrong. We still haven’t figured it out.
And while our lost day in the swamp hardly qualifies as an epic story of survival, I do know this; it was an experience very few people have had, and that may very well be the definition of adventure. In fact, with apologies to Neil Armstrong, Sir Edmund Hillary, et al., I think it is.
You can view more stories by Mike Stuhlreyer at his Blog: http://lonelymansfrisbee.com/