A Camping Trip Goes Wrong

Lessons learned from life-and-death mistakes we make outdoors can last a lifetime. Or at least 40 years.

In the summer of 1964 my friend David Pringle and I celebrated his graduation from high school and my successful completion of freshman-year college with a fishing and camping adventure to Canada.

The outfitter's brochure that came in the mail promised to fly us in to five days of incredible "speckled" (brook) trout fishing in Ontario's bush for the equally unbelievable fee of just $45 each. We picked dates, sent a deposit, and, on the appointed day in July aimed Dave's '57 pink Bonneville convertible north from our southern Michigan homes to Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.

Flint's WTAC-AM radio station beamed a 300-mile range signal that helped us create a sonic wake of rock music as Dave drove the car up I-75. Turning the radio low, we sailed through Canadian Customs.

Next, we took on Queen's Highway 17, a wilderness road newly blasted from Canadian Shield bedrock that curves north and west like a rubber pencil around Lake Superior. Late in the afternoon we rolled through Wawa and 18 miles inland came to Hawk Junction, our departure point.

We checked in with the outfitter and arranged to leave the following morning, a Monday, at 7 o'clock. In our excitement we had forgotten to pack a tent. No problem. A good night's sleep in the Pontiac (Dave took the front seat; I had the back) had us ready for the 24-mile flight to Dosier Lake and the real beginning of our adventure.

Too Late to Turn Back

Signing a disclaimer from holding the outfitter responsible for accidents was a clue we should have heeded. The second hint we might have minded was the appearance and behavior of our pilot.

"Duke" (no last name) drove a rusted station wagon with no license plates. He hung on the open door a moment before stepping out and offering a handshake. It was later, in the close cockpit of the Cessna 172, that I smelled alcohol on his breath.

Of course, once you are in the air, it's too late to turn back.

Duke had a weird eye that fluttered crazily at times like a motor-driven camera lens. And his fondness for strong drink was confirmed when he downed three cans of Black Horse ale — a Canadian brew with a malt-liquor kick — on the half-hour flight. I can see him now, throwing back his head, chug-a-lugging the entire can, sliding open the cockpit window, and with a "Bombs Away," firing the empty at some unseen target in the blue-and-green maze far below.

I kept my eyes glued on the altimeter and prayed this was not the day I would die.

We touched down without incident, although I walked on legs as firm as tapioca for hours afterward. Once the drone of the departing Cessna grew faint, things began to look up.

We found our cabin, deserted by some luckless prospector years before. The leaky aluminum boat was seaworthy, provided we bailed the water from it each morning. There was no outboard motor, but we were young and strong and didn't mind rowing.

During the five-day adventure we saw moose tracks, laughed back at loons, and caught more than 300 brook trout up to 12 inches each. We kept enough for our meals, releasing all the others. Apparently the lunkers had all been caught years before. "June 1947, Billings caught 6 ½ lb. brookie" someone had etched with a jackknife into a log of the cabin wall.

Hungrier Than Ever Before

Dave and I were well provisioned, and, knowing our pilot would pick us up Friday evening, we enjoyed a tremendous feast that afternoon that depleted our once-abundant food supplies.

But Duke didn't show. Next morning a fog sealed the lake so tightly that even the loons seemed lost. I had read about those bush-country misadventures when nasty weather grounds pilots for days — even a week or more — at a time.

Suddenly I felt hungrier than I ever remembered being. To worsen matters, the trout stopped biting, mysteriously. We had nothing to eat. That night Dave made a tasteless fried wafer from the remainder of the flour we had brought while I scavenged the garbage dump for potatoes that hadn't spoiled.

Our alarm grew when Sunday morning revealed more fog and further shrunken stomachs. A circuit of the lake turned up nothing to eat, not even berries. The brookies again refused to cooperate, and that night, after nearly burning down our cabin, we realized how desperate the situation had become.

The fire ordeal was pure carelessness (aren't they all?). Having only one match left, we kept two lanterns going night and day. Refueling them was risky business and somehow in the transfer of fire and white gas, one exploded, spewing blue-yellow flames across the table, onto the floor and up the cabin wall. I remember trying to kick the burning table out the door while Dave ran to the lake to soak a sleeping bag. That was a good move because, miraculously, he swatted the fire dead before it could reach the roof. Meanwhile, I stomped on burning playing cards and tossed other flaming objects out the door.

We assessed the damage: The interior front wall of the cabin was black as a windowless room with the lights off. One sleeping bag ruined, three of our four fiberglass fishing rods melted into pretzel bends, the sickening odor of scorched cloth and burning petroleum everywhere. A single lantern still flickered as a taunting reminder of how swiftly dangerous one of man's most basic necessities can become.

I lay in bed on Sunday evening, unable to sleep, temples throbbing from hunger, sure that I'd never again smell a cheeseburger or hear my favorite disc jockey on WTAC.

Trading a Fish for a Bird

On Monday morning the fog was still there, thick as before. Without enthusiasm, Dave and I fished until noon when he happened to hook a three-inch brook trout. Suddenly, I had an idea.

"Let's see if we can catch one of those seagulls that have been hanging around all week."

"To eat it?" Dave wondered.

"What else?"

We killed the trout, speared a pike hook through its dorsal, and tossed it out. Soon, a big ring-billed gull dive-bombed the bait and gobbled it down while flying off with about 50 yards of fishing line. When I was sure he had the hook deep in his gullet, I reared back hard to "set the hook," and prevent him from disgorging it. After a long struggle, I brought the seagull alongside the boat and pinned him there by both wings while Dave dispatched him with his Russell belt knife. This grisly episode nauseated me and I hung over the boat side, attempting to heave. But nothing would come up.

Amazingly, the large bird, which Dave boiled in a kettle of water, contained little meat. Also surprising was the fact that it did not taste like fish. It was strong-flavored and tough as beef jerky. Dave ate his share and most of mine.

That afternoon I saw a shaft of sunlight slant through the window over my bed. An hour later in a sort of half-sleep, I thought I heard the buzz of an airplane. Yes, it was a plane! I bolted from bed, awoke Dave, and we rushed to the lake. There was Duke, 72 hours late but Duke nevertheless, taxiing to the dock in his Cessna.

"Get your gear, now!" he ordered over the engine. "This is the first flying weather we've had, and it ain't gonna last long." A couple minutes later we were gunning the length of Dosier Lake, the air hissing from my still-inflated rubber mattress into the cockpit, which was thankfully devoid of alcohol fumes.

The fog that had locked us in (we learned later that it spread from James Bay to Detroit) was now overlain with huge cumulus clouds. In the setting sun over Lake Superior, they looked like golden folds of baker's dough from heaven. That illusion was brief, however, because when we arrived at Hawk Lake, once more the friendly blue was gone. Below lay a solid, ethereal layer of soft clouds with tendrils of fog shooting above.

Planning, These Days

Duke's bad eye fluttered nonstop as he banked the little plane around and around what he said was Hawk Lake.

Finally, he sent the plane on a long stoop, broke through the last shreds of cover, and there — 50 yards below and in front of us — lay Hawk Lake, gray and dead-looking. I don't know what the odds would be in repeating our luck, but I learned later that we narrowly missed a string of power lines on shore.

That experience certainly changed things for me. To this day, for example, my outdoor friends usually put me in charge of food planning, and I ignore their complaints when they have to lug coolers and boxes of chow. I more carefully screen outfitters, lodges and adventure travel offers

I demand references and then I contact them. I refuse to sign waivers of responsibility. I also pack spare matches, a personal first-aid kit and — in this era of technology — a cell phone and sometimes a GPS unit.

When you're camping in wilderness, you might need all the help you can get.

Tom Huggler is a full-time, freelance writer and the author of 20 books, including The Camper's and Backpacker's Bible. For more information, go to www.tomhuggler.com.