7:00 am breakfast. I haven’t been eating breakfast, but today I will. This might be my only meal for the next 48 hours! I saved some of my oatmeal packets and mix up 3 of them, with a sachet of peanut butter mixed in (which I offer to share, but no one takes me up on it – fine! More for me.).
We get a few minutes to pack up our hammocks and secure everything and then we line up for drop-offs. P goes first – I think he wants to have a lot of time to do whatever he needs to do, then B, then J, then O, then me, S and D. I don’t want to go first, but I also don’t want to go last.
This morning, I’m more nervous about going into isolation than I have been at any other time during the trip. Nothing has changed, really, but now that I’m in the drop-off line, it’s all more real and less theoretical. All this time, I have been telling myself that isolation won’t be so bad: it’s 48 hours, and you KNOW you’re going to be rescued (unlike some poor schmuck whose plane goes down in the jungle, and who doesn’t even know if anybody is looking for him).
I have been doing intermittent fasting for well over a year and regularly go without food for 18, 19 hours. I didn’t eat for something like 3 days when I was giving birth to Deron, so not eating for 2 days doesn’t really scare me. The last few days, I have been living off of 850 calories or so (no breakfast yesterday, small bag of peanuts for lunch, at 180 calories, and ramen noodles and an MRE for dinner, at 380 and 290 calories respectively. AND we walked 6km through the jungle in the heat before I had had anything to eat, so I think I’m going to be ok with not eating much for two days).
And I’m not really scared of the darkness, or of animals. I do believe that what Ian says is true: the animals here don’t care that we’re there. We’re not part of their eco system, we’re not prey; they just don’t give a shit that we’re around. And we’ve been sleeping out in the dark, in the night, for the last 7 nights, and I sort of know the night sounds now. (Yeah, watch, I’ll be cowering under my bench tonight, scared shitless because it’s all different when you’re by yourself and it’s really, really dark!). So I know all this and I’m pretty sure I’ll be fine, but still, I am a bit nervous as I wait for my turn.
Finally O gets picked up and I stand there chatting with Lionel. I thank him for his teachings and his patience with my slow progress in certain skills, but he is very encouraging. He tells me to keep in mind that I don’t need thick poles for the shelter, especially not for the roof, since it doesn’t have to carry much weight, and that I can use paracord instead of Stevie Wonder bark if I cannot find the tree. I guess he’s right: all is fair in love and war, and in survival!
Then the boat is here: it’s time to go! I climb in and we drive a little ways down the river. I’m anxiously scanning the river banks: not here, please, because I cannot even get up the bank!
When the boat slows down, I see that my spot has a beach, a freaking beach! With a nice big fallen log down to the water, so I don’t have to crawl through the mud. Hallelujah!
Ian says I lucked out with my position in the drop-off line: this slot has an easy access spot. I get out and look around. Ian calls over to me: “Sit! I told you guys to SIT DOWN while you check things out.” Obediently, I sit on the log and survey my surroundings while the boat leaves…
…Isolation has begun!!
I have easy access to water, even with the rain last night; it’s not super muddy, and I can walk down to the river on the big fallen log. Score! No palm trees immediately visible from the beach, but no big deal. The forest looks a bit more accessible to the right of the beach, so I walk that way, mowing down saplings and shrubs and vines on my way, to mark a trail – my biggest fear, I think, is getting lost. The stories of the two people in Ian’s other survival courses who walked away from their shelter and their drop-off points, and who then walked out of range of their radios, are haunting me. One was picked up way down the river by people from another Amerindian tribe and the other happened to walk into the camp of one of his fellow course members. Otherwise they would have been lost and truly would have had to survive…
I figure, as long as I stay in visual range of the river, I’m ok. So, I look for shelter trees. I find a few possible sites. One has 4 trees, two of which actually have V-forks in them, at sort of the right height. The trees are a little farther apart than I’d like, and not exactly in a rectangle, but I think they might work.
I go back to the other two sites one more time and then decide to go with the 4 trees, even though they’re not ideal. No dry branches above, no bullet ant nests that I can see. There is a wasp nest in a tree nearby but it looks uninhabited. I take a long stick and carefully tap on the nest. Nothing. I tap harder. Still nothing. Then I bang on it. No movement. I guess that means it’s uninhabited.
I start clearing the ground of saplings, and shrubs, and vines. Man, this site is harder to clear than any other site I have worked on on this trip, probably because this is virgin ground, and at the other campsites people had cleared the ground at some point before.
Takes me forever to clear the vines and underbrush. My shelter is sort of on a peninsula, with the river on the left and the right. I have a bit of an opening right where the entrance of the shelter is going to be, and will be able to see the night sky, if I take down this one tree that’s blocking the view, with its leaves and the mass of vines hanging in its crown. I’m tempted, but the tree is fairly thick, too thick for my shelter, and I decide to wait to take it down: shelter first, landscaping later, if I can still chop trees down at that point.
I start taking down some thinnish trees, for the roof frame, trying to fit them into the V-forks that are naturally in two of the trees. They are not exactly in the right place. Or quite at the right height. I hate to abandon the idea of using the V-forks, but I may have to go with cutting actual Y-fork trees. And here I thought I was so clever for finding the ideal lazy survivalist trees! Bummer. Oh well.
I cut more trees. Some are really a bit too thin. Some poles aren’t quite long enough, or the thicker portion of the pole isn’t quite long enough for the really long side of my shelter (that’s the problem with my unevenly spaced corner trees).
All the thinner stuff gets relegated to the roof rafters, and the front of the roof. I cobble together two of the thinner saplings as the front of the roof frame and stick them in the V fork of the fourth tree. But I’m not loving how that shapes up. I may have to do a support pole rather than force the shelter into this weird shape.
Finally, I take my best tree that was going to be part of the roof frame, and use it to ram it into the soil instead, to make the fourth corner post. Surprisingly, the pole stands up well. I compromise by leaving the double roof front frame in the V tree next to it and just lash the new post to the top frame. And I cut Y-forks for 3 of the corner posts.
After a couple of hours and countless chopped trees (at least I think it’s been a couple of hours; we had to give up our watches), I have the shelter frame and the roof and the rafters. Now for the bench frame.
I cut more Y-forks. And more poles. My arm and hand are getting pretty tired at this point. Maybe I should take a break and get water. And gather some firewood. And look for kukrit trees for roof thatch and mattress poles. It can’t be more than noon. So, I take a break and walk down to the beach for water. We are supposed to wait 15 minutes for the iodine to work and I have no watch, so I just wait a while and then a bit longer, hoping that that is enough.
Then I go back and gather some firewood. There is a dead tree right outside my shelter and part of it is off the ground. The thin twigs look dry and sound dry when I break them off. And there is a large downed tree maybe 100m (about 300ft) from my shelter and I break off large pieces of that as well.
Probably a little wetter than I’d like, but it’s something close by. I’ll look for a standing dead tree later, once my shelter is complete. — All this time, I have not seen any kukrit palms for fronds or mattress poles. I decide to cut down one or two more trees, and then go back to the beach and try my luck in another direction.
This time, I go up into the forest in the center of the beach, looking for kukrit. I walk around and see a bunch of reef palms. And a wall of the spiky black palms, but no kukrit.
I cut down some reef palm fronds and check their stalks: way too bendy. There is no way these are going to hold me. But whatever, at least these are palm fronds. Maybe I need to make do with reef palm for now and look for kukrit later?
I’m not sure what time it is, but I know I have several hours of daylight left, so there should be time to fix up the shelter once I have the basics done. I have been taking my time, but I feel more and more urgency to get at least something basic together. My earlier calm and relaxation have eroded over the hours that I have spent working on the shelter. I feel like I need to get ON with it.
Maybe I should have started on the roof earlier, but there was always one more tree to cut! On the last few trees, I actually talked to myself, giving myself stern commands: “angle down!”, “hit hard!”, “again!” “harder!”, “more accuracy,” “Hit! Hit! Hit!” chopping in time with my commands. Being my own drill sergeant worked. Sort of helped to focus me and it did help to make my chopping more accurate and faster, since I had fewer wasted cuts.
Now, as I’m dragging the palm fronds back to my shelter, I look at the sky: the sun has vanished and it’s definitely cloudy. A few minutes later I hear distant thunder. Not good. Not good at all. Doesn’t mean the weather is going to come here, but I need to get my ass in gear and get this roof done.
I need more thatch, but I hear thunder again, this time much closer, and I realize that I don’t have time to go back all the way to the center of the beach to cut more reef palm fronds. I don’t think I even have time to go look for palm trees closer to the shelter, on the right. The wind is picking up. Shit. Where I’m from, wind picking up and thunder coming closer are a sure sign of impending rain. I have no roof and nowhere near enough firewood. Damn. This feels vaguely unfair: I wasn’t done with my prep yet. How can it start raining now?
My inner drill sergeant comes out again: “Forget fair! FOCUS! You have at best a few minutes to get as much leafy foliage cut as possible and throw it on the roof. Anything. Everything. Just pile it on.” I start going berserk with my machete: banana leaves, some other kind of split tongue banana leaf, some shrub with roundish leaves, everything gets chopped down.
I pile what I have mostly on the right side of the roof, since I don’t think I have enough for the whole roof. I grab my firewood and push it all under the thatched part of the roof. The wind is really picking up now and the first fat raindrops fall. It seems much darker than it should. Fuck. I am still so far behind! In the rain, I cut more leaves, especially banana leaves (saw on Youtube how this guy in Malaysia did his whole roof with banana leaves.). I hurriedly spread a bunch of banana leaves over my firewood pile. Definitely don’t want that to get wet.
Then I’m back out in the wind and rain, pulling the tops of trees that I had discarded out of my discard pile and throwing them on the roof as well. I’m worried that the wind will blow off the palm fronds and leaves if I don’t weigh them down.
It’s raining hard now. More like pouring, like standing under a garden hose. Soon rivulets of water run through and around my shelter, and the area outside my shelter becomes a mud pit. The “roofed” section is dripping on me, as I crouch over the firewood like a mother hen protecting her chicks. I take one of my discarded Y sticks and ram it in the ground, lay another branch over it and create a banana leaf and palm frond “roof” over the firewood, at bench height, about 3 feet long.
It’s almost dark, even though I should have another couple of hours of daylight, but with the rain and with being under the canopy, I am fast losing the light. If I want fire tonight, I need to make it now.
I get my supplies out of my belt kit: the cotton wool, my Swedish fire steel, and some wood shavings I made at the other camp this morning, along with a few dry twigs I had saved in an inner pocket of my shirt. I lay everything out on some sticks off the ground, under my fire roof: shavings, thin twigs, thicker twigs, thin sticks, thicker sticks, and then I strike the cotton wool. I get sparks alright, but the cotton wool doesn’t flame up. I wonder if it’s the moisture in the air. I try pulling the fire steel back faster, to get a quick series of sparks, and eventually the cotton wool catches fire. It just sort of smolders though, no real flame.
I quickly throw on a second cotton ball, then a third. I’m vaguely embarrassed that I need more than one cotton ball. I have been making fire with the first spark on the first cotton ball all this time. My inner drill sergeant comes out again: “Get over it! You have fire. Who cares how many cotton balls it took! Now get some shavings on and then some twigs, so you get the fire going.” Not easy either. Several times, the fire almost goes out, but I can revive it again by blowing on it gently.
This would be a tough night without fire. I’m drenched. And it is still pouring like from buckets. It’s been a few hours now and the downpour is turning into steady rain. At least there is no more thunder and lightning. My fire is going fine now and I breathe a sigh of relief.
My shelter is rickety and drippy, but at least I have fire! The bottoms of my soaked pant legs are drying already. Then I hear the motor boat. Is someone tapping out? Or maybe someone got hurt in the storm? The boat passes my beach, but a few minutes later it comes back. And stops at my beach. I hear people approaching. It’s Lionel and Derrick. They’re checking on everyone to make sure we came through the storm alright: apparently a large tree fell in Rain Camp, right where we usually have the boats, and they were worried that something might have happened to one of us.
I feel like I have to apologize for the sorry state of my shelter, but I’m quite proud of my fire roof and the fact that I have fire. Lionel takes in my unfinished “bench” (nice sturdy pole for the frame in back, and two other thin poles, one of which is sort of saggy) and I tell him that the storm caught me before I was done with the shelter. He nods: “At least you have fire. Some of the guys have a shelter, but no fire!”
Satisfied that I made it through the storm, they leave. My dry firewood is diminishing quickly and I know I have to go out and find more if I want to keep the fire going for any length of time. I know there is a tree right outside my entrance. I build up my fire, so it gives off more light, and then go out there and break more branches off the tree, pulling whatever I can with me, dragging it into the shelter. One dead branch is super long. I figure I will burn through that rather than hack it into pieces. I’m done with the machete for today!
I tend the fire for a long time, just sitting on my haunches, in front of it, staring into it. Ian is right: fire is very entertaining (“Neanderthal TV!”).
Slowly, the adrenaline that saw me through the roof thatching and the fire making and all, is wearing off, and I feel a little tired.
I try my “bench.” I gingerly sit down on my three poles and realize that that is not even good for sitting, let along for stretching out.
I wish I had another long pole that I could use. I am tempted to take one of the Y-forks that are holding up the roof, but I know that would be foolish. If need be, I’ll crouch by the fire all night.
I mentally catalog and sort my firewood again. That’s when I see the long branch I had dragged over, that is now under my roof, waiting to be burned through.
I wonder if it is long enough to be a fourth pole for the bench?
It’s dead wood, not green, but tired people with no wood options can’t exactly be choosy. So, I set it on the bench frame. And it is long enough! And not terribly knobby (who am I kidding?). Certainly, four is better than three? I space them out evenly and gingerly stretch out, balancing my butt on the two thin poles in the center. It’s…uncomfortable. Yeah, definitely rustic, but for a few minutes it feels nice to be able to stretch out.
Then I have to get up again to blow on the fire. Get it going, put more wet wood around it to dry. White acrid smoke is everywhere. No matter in which direction I turn my head, the smoke seems to follow me.
It burns my throat, and my eyes water. Every time I get up to blow on the fire (which must be every 10 or 15 minutes or so), my eyes water and tears run down my cheeks. And my nose gets all snotty. And the smoke makes me nauseous. But, I have FIRE! And I’m dry, and warm. Miserable on my “torture rack,” from which it becomes harder and harder to swing down to tend the fire, but at least dry and warm.
After a while, I take my boots off and put them on sticks. And hang up my wet t-shirt and my socks. Once those are semi-dry, I use them as a pillow of sorts. Not very effective, but better than nothing.
A few times, I catch a catnap, but then the worry about my fire going out wakes me up again. I don’t have enough firewood to keep the fire blazing, so I sparingly lay on new wood, always in a teepee shape.
The fire is hot: I have a ton of glowing embers, and any new wood is turning into coal and embers, rather than burning with a bright flame. Good for heat, terrible for light. It feels like my shelter floor has permanent indentations from my knees, where I lean over to blow on the fire and make the embers blaze up every 15 minutes. More smoke, more tears, more nausea. Another catnap. Get up, blow on the fire, lay out more sticks to dry around the fire, blow, breathe smoke, hold my breath, so my throat doesn’t burn.
The night becomes a painful routine of stretching out on the torture rack, semi-falling asleep, opening one eye to check on the fire, seeing it as just glowing embers, wondering if I can rest another 2-3 minutes, then rolling over and balancing my bare feet on a long log as I breathe into the fire, inhale more smoke, cough, wipe my dripping nose, then crawl back onto the bench. The hours pass slowly, in a sleepy, teary-eyed blur.
Finally, I hear howler monkeys announce the new day and the sky is starting to look a little lighter. The night is OVER! I have survived the first day and the first night.
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