Thanks to clever marketing by Tom’s of Maine and Dr. Bronner’s, nature gets a reputation as “good” — the wild is framed as a benevolent space, a cradle that shelters life in leafy boughs and essential oils. While we love Mother Earth, we acknowledge that she has her own agenda. A hiker caught in the backwoods unprepared for certain conditions won’t find a cuddly pack of sea otters to guide him home as often as a sudden, terrible storm and a pack of wolves. While tossing the idea ball over at HQ, we realized that many of our contributors had stories about times they faced the elements and nearly ended up permanently checking in at that dirt-ensconced resort six feet under; thankfully, we all lived to tell our tales.
Out of Oxygen, Two Harbors, Minnesota
I shouldn’t have been there in the first place. With less than ten dives in my logbook I was a rank beginner, more suited for shallow dips in the warm, clear Caribbean. Yet there I was, a quarter mile offshore and 75 feet deep in icy Lake Superior, clamoring around on the shipwreck of the Madeira. The long swim out, my inexperience and the cold water caused me to suck down my tank quickly. I pointed to my pressure gauge, which was already in the red zone after only 12 minutes; my dive buddy, a grizzled wreck veteran whom I’d met 13 minutes earlier, shook his head in disgust and pointed for shore. We swam along the gradually sloping rocky bottom, getting shallower. I took a breath that felt strangely hollow and unsatisfying. Then another. I was out of air. I paused to check my gauge, which was pegged at zero. When I looked up, my buddy was still swimming, growing faint in the murky water. Ascending from this depth would have meant a burst lung (at best) or perhaps even a killer case of the bends. My only option was to swim like hell for my buddy and breathe off his backup regulator. I kicked as hard as I could, my oxygen depleted muscles screaming in protest. Just as I sucked one more metallic, futile breath, I caught up to him, grabbed his long yellow hose stuffed the mouthpiece between my teeth and took a deep breath. The mix of cold water and air from the un-purged regulator put me into a coughing fit, yet I could breathe; I wasn’t going to die. We swam in to the beach and I dragged myself onto the sun-warmed rocks, flopping and gasping and breathing in the sweet, limitless air.
– Jason Heaton
Lost in the Whites, Mt. Madison, New Hampshire
My actual near-death experience was 100 percent man-made: being hit by a careless driver who ran a red light. But I did have a good scare in the White Mountains. I was staying with my parents at Dolly Copp campground in Gorham, NH, and since I was training for an Ironman at the time I felt exceptionally good about my physical condition. This is the type of silly thinking that gets you into trouble. One afternoon I decided to run the Daniel Webster Scout Trail to the summit of Mt. Madison: 8.2 miles, 4,100 feet, no problem, back in a few. And it wasn’t really a problem until I was on the rock-covered summit and it got socked in with fog, making it impossible to see the painted trail markers. At this point I started to regret wearing a singlet and split shorts, not to mention bringing just one water bottle and no food or emergency bivvy.
I had one of those moments of sphincter-tightening panic. The panic gave way to scolding myself for being the prototypical unprepared idiot in the White Mountains. Then I decided to nut up and figure it out, circling the summit in a deep crouch, looking for the trail markings. Eventually I found them and slowly made my way to the wooded portion of the trail where I could run again. By the time I got back to Dolly Copp I was exhausted, thirsty, hungry and humble about my physical (and mental) abilities. Unlike the car accident, I wasn’t put in the hospital this time, but like that experience, this too was the fault of man — not nature.
– Jeremy Berger
Near Death by Salmon, Pulaski, New York
It was the final day of our trip to the Salmon River in Pulaski, NY, and my dad and I had been skunked. We don’t go into fishing trips with high expectations, but after seeing other fishermen land fish all weekend while we snagged nothing but rocks and the occasional sunken stump, it was hard not to taste some bitterness along with our occasional beef jerky rations. I was twelve and teaching myself to fly fish, wearing my Uncle’s old chest waders, a huge rubber getup that nearly swallowed me up, and using a cheap Browning rod bought from Dick’s sporting goods.
On the final morning we decided to go right out back of our lodge, the Portly Angler, along a pretty unassuming stretch of water. After hoofing it a bit we came to a pool. In that pool was an enormous salmon. I hooked that salmon on a bright pink and yellow egg pattern fly.
As my dad watched, I fought the fish in the pool. It was a little disappointing, actually. The fish felt unenergized — if I had a hook in my mouth, I’d give a bit more of a show, wouldn’t I?
Then my dad tried to net the guy. The metal rim of the net touched the silvery side of the fish and a depth charge seemed to go off underwater. My reel whirred as the salmon torpedoed into the fast current at the bottom of the pool. I followed.
Funny how quickly river water can go from swimming-pool-like to rapid-like. Suddenly I was experiencing the unpleasant sensation of being pulled downstream into deeper, angrier water. I slalomed along the rocky bottom next to the steepening bank, finding what purchase I could on slick rocks, and before I knew it the water was sucking against the top of my waders. Then it sloshed over them. A wash of ice went down my front, and my manly parts constricted to the size of peanuts. Meanwhile the river kept trying to tackle me, and I kept skating along the bottom on the tips of my toes.
Fortunately, a few steps farther downstream the river became shallower. I tried to keep up the fight, but the salmon was still booking it with the flow, jumping and shaking its head far away downstream. With one more jump he threw my fly and was gone. My dad, who had been shadowing me tightly from atop the bank, grabbed my shoulders and hauled me out of the river like I was a sack of potatoes. I had to lay on the damp grass for a while before I could speak.
I was taught a few things that day. My dad was strong as an ox; a salmon, even a tired one, was a force of nature; and a river would drown me like a bug if I didn’t treat it respectfully.
– Chris Wright
The Storm of ’98, Diamond Point, New York
I’ll always remember the Storm of ’98, partly because I saw my young life flash before my eyes, and partly because my best friend and I reminisce about it almost every time we get together. We were young, still in single digits and not prepared to face nature’s awesome might. The storm took the whole camp by surprise. We woke in the night to the sound of whistles, and howling wind and people yelling.
“Get up the hill,” they said.
It’s not fun to be seven years old, woken in the night and told to run for your life. We stumbled into a downpour, fighting our way up the hill to the Rec Hall, the corrugated steel building where the camp often gathered for evening programs. Once there, we huddled in groups and cried (at least, I cried) as rumors began to surface: remember Bunk 3A? Yeah, that got crushed by a tree. And little Mikey Silverstein? Gone.
As it turned out, Bunk 3A did get crushed by a tree, though no one was inside, and little Mikey Silverstein was fine. But for a couple uncomfortable hours, sitting on the concrete floor of a steel building while rain hammered against the walls so loudly that we needed to scream to hear ourselves, I couldn’t help but think, “Well, if this is how it’s going to end, I probably should have tried waterskiing.”
– K.B. Gould
Banana Raft Disaster, Near Black Mountain, North Carolina
I was seventeen and it was my first time white water kayaking. We (that’s me, a few other guys around my age and a guide) were paddling down a river in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina. There were more intense rapids on the river, maybe Class III, but we had just reached a pretty flat section. Some families had posted up on the shore with packed lunches, bathing suites and a damn banana raft.
This big, yellow, inflatable monstrosity was in front of us, ridden by equally monstrous kids. The two tried to slide in between two rocks and became stuck, and our guide, wanting to help the kids by dislodging them, and I, wanting an excuse to slam my kayak into an inflatable banana, started paddling at the kids.
The guide and I are sideways, stuck behind the banana boat. Back at the “basic training” lake, where instructors flipped us over and made sure we could pull the release handle on the skirt and swim out of the kayak, we got a lesson about which way to lean if you find yourself sideways on the river. Essentially, the rule is to just lean downstream. Leaning upstream means your kayak will be fully facing the flowing water and is guaranteed to flip. Now, the guide leans downstream but, because I’m dumb and panicked and don’t pay much attention when instructions are given in lakes where the average water depth is five feet, I lean upstream. I start taking on water and slowly flipping and I instinctively put my hands out to catch myself. And since we’re only in a foot and a half of water, I actually do catch myself.
This is when I realize I’m fucked. I’m holding myself up by my arms, and the water is only coming up to my elbow. This means if I flip, I will be on the river bottom, and the entire above-water weight of the kayak will be on top of me. I look up and see another newbie coming toward me. When he hits my kayak, I’m going to go under. And then I’m under.
The first thing that crosses my mind, after I realize I can’t move, is that I’m going to die five feet from a banana raft. I’m pinned to the bottom of the river bed, my face and chest pressed against smooth rocks and algae. I try to pull myself toward the skirt’s release handle — the first step toward freedom — but I can’t move.
Not wanting to die in a foot and a half of water, I square my helmet against the bottom of the river and do an underwater sit-up, dragging my helmet along the bottom and raising my body off the river bed. As soon as I get close enough to the front end of the skirt, I manage to grab hold of the handle and pull. I resurface with shaky legs and a bloody head to a world filled with the sounds of kids playing. God I hate kids.
– J. Travis Smith
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