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The sky had turned black and the thunder crashed just a few minutes before a light rain started. Lightning streaked its long bright fingers across the dark afternoon sky as we pulled onto a gravel bar in the center of the river. We had to find shelter, and quickly, the weather was turning terrible. I didn't want to spend the night on the gravel bar in the middle of a river, in case the river level happened to rise due to the rain. If that happened we would be trapped or washed away.
I didn't like the overall situation that much either, with three inexperienced (wilderness camping) adults and four children along. Glancing quickly at both shorelines, I saw a spot that might offer us a little cover from the wind in some oaks.
I turned at looked at my small group, gave a weak smile, and said, “Let's head to the right side of the river, then down about sixty yards. We are going camping. See that small group of oaks?” I pointed at the sight with my right arm and my index finger extended.
“Let's make for it and set up a campsite until morning.”
Our small quiet group of four canoes quickly covered the short distance to the bank of the river right in front of the oaks. By then, I knew the children were frightened, because they had stopped talking. As we stepped from the canoes, most of us were soaking wet, tired, and very concerned. I knew we had to do something quickly, or I would have some very upset and miserable floaters on my hands.
Once on shore, we and after we had pulled the canoes up far enough on the sandy bank that they could not be washed away by a wild rising river, we tied them to trees. Since I had a great deal of military training in survival, I was according to the other adults, now in charge, but this was in no way close to a survival situation. I suspect they had more than just a little fear and wanted someone with experience handling the situation. We immediately had to get organized and we had to do it quickly because of the wetness and our unexpected stop on the edge of the river. While it was not actually a survival situation, it could very quickly turn into one if we were not careful. Actually, my biggest concern was avoiding hypothermia, the lowering of the body's core temperature.
None of us were dressed for an overnight stay in the woods, because the weather had been so nice earlier, we were all wearing swimwear and tee-shirts. One aspect of planning I had insisted on before our trip, now made our situation easier, we had some survival gear with us. I had placed a small fanny pack in each canoe, nothing elaborate, but with enough gear to keep us comfortable and alive for a night or two. I had each survival kit brought from the canoes and started to organize.
Inside each canoe survival kit I had placed a small tarp (8ft by 10ft), four plastic trash bags (the big orange ones), one casualty blanket (silver on one side and green on the other), one space blanket (very thin metallic material), and four high-energy bars.
Also, I carried some other things in my kit, a good quality space blanket, a magnesium match (for starting fires), a lighter, and about fifty feet of nylon parachute (called 550) cord. I have found I can survive with the above items. And, all of this stuff weighs almost nothing. When I hunt, I carry it all in one cargo pocket of my pants and still have lots of room left. It is my life assurance policy. Thanks to the sandwiches we carried to nibble on while we floated, some snacks, and the soft drinks we had, hunger was not a problem.
We quickly used the tarps and nylon cord I had to construct four crude lean-tos (I made sure the shelters were not under any dead tree limbs). And, soon after that we had a small fire burning. The wood we used was the dry and dead tree branches found on the lower limbs of big trees, because we knew it would still be dry. Also, we tore holes in the trash bags for our arms and head and had four rough looking ponchos for the adults to wear as we worked. I relaxed a great deal once the shelters were up and the fires burning. I knew then, all was safe. Even the trees we camped near were no taller than others in the area, so I suspected they were not likely to attract any lightening strikes.
Before the rain got heavier, I quickly had the adults pack all of our supplies up to the shelters. Any of our gear that was not in waterproof containers, I placed under the tarps with the kids to keep dry. The small ice chests I placed beside our shelters, knowing they contained soft drinks and food.
By now the kids were complaining of being chilled, so we tore a hole in the top of four plastic trash bags (do not cut the plastic, it will tear much longer than intended). We had the kids insert their heads in the holes, pull the excess bag down their sides, push the ends under their legs, and sit on them (Never do this with a young child or an infant, it could cause suffocation). We then wrapped them sitting up, two to a casualty blanket. I gave each child a couple small pieces of candy to suck on as well. These simple tricks helped them retain body heat that otherwise would have been lost. And, once the weather improved I would heat up some warm drinks for all of us using my heavy-duty aluminum foil to make crude cups.
While the rain stopped about an hour after dark, we could not continue the float trip safely in the darkness. We knew we were stuck where we were for the night. One of the adults phoned her husband (on a cell phone), who was to pick us up that evening, and told him we were okay, but had to stop due to the weather.
She quickly explained to him that we were not in any danger and she then arranged for him to pick us up the next morning. But, let me assure you, that night was rough and difficult for all of the kids, as well as most of the adults.
The night was long and the mid-summer evening was chilly. While we had the space blankets and casualty blankets to wrap up in, the space blankets are noisy to sleep in and cracked and popped as we moved (I felt like I was sleeping in a box of my favorite breakfast cereal). I, nonetheless, rather enjoyed the night, and stayed up later than anyone else. I spent hours sitting on a log while looking at the stars, while sipping on a cup of coffee warmed up from a thermos. I knew the kids would talk of this adventure for years, and how they had braved a rough storm on an untamed river, while wearing trash bags and sleeping under a tarp.
I also did some serious thinking. The survival kits for each canoe, as well as my personal survival kit, gave us all we needed to spend the night with more than just a small degree of comfort. Granted, it was not the most comfortable camping I had ever done, but it could have been much worse. Without this equipment we would have been forced to stay wet, sleep in the cold, and do without a fire, or a shelter. While I doubt anyone would have died, the survival kits had given us the basic tools to spend the night protected from the elements of Mother Nature. I was still not sure if any of the people with me would get sick from all of this, but we did have some degree of comfort with us (later there was not a cold or sneeze from the situation).
So, the next time you are outdoors, for any reason, make sure you take a survival kit. While it may not actually save your life, it can make a rough and unexpected night in the woods that much more comfortable. Be prepared for the unexpected and you too will stay safe this summer
Float Trip Survival