Failed attempt at primitive 3-day outing

After months of being "too busy", I finally got out for another survival experience. The plan was: a 3-day, minimal supplies wilderness outing. No pack. Just a knife, some water purification tablets with liter size water bottle, and a length of paracord.

My goal was a little fuzzy - just spend 3 days out there, get a shelter up to survive the predicted 5-degree (F) nights, and try to find some food. It's been so long since my last outing, I was anxious to make up for lost time.

I wanted to do it all, and with almost no gear. 

I didn't think much of the fact that I've never done a primitive outing for more than a night at a time, and I'd only done one single primitive outing in the winter. What's the worst that could happen?

After pouring over a handful of maps, I settled on a general destination: a large swamp (Stevens Swamp) near a section of the M-M trail just south of Stratton Mountain, in Northfield. This is one of the more isolated areas in Western Massachusetts.

I sought a body of water because I figured there would be more potential food sources.

I was hoping to experiment with digging cattail roots from the frozen mud.

My girlfriend was good enough to drop me off a few miles south of the area early Monday morning. With nothing but coffee in my system, I embarked up the trail.

I constantly scoured the surrounding area as I hiked, trying to imagine various types of shelters built in different spots. I was envisioning a fire-based shelter: a sort of lean-to with fire reflector wall and long-log fire (thanks to Alex for introducing this concept).

Not long into the hike, I found my first food source: rock tripe.

I collected a few handfuls of the crumbly flakes into my pants pocket.

I wasn't yet sure how I would cook them, since I had no cookset.

Rock tripe is only edible after boiling the rock-dissolving acid out of it. 

Boiling also softens the fungus into a chewable texture. I thought I might put them into a stream overnight, but I wasn't sure how I would hold them in place. Maybe I could weave a little basket from twigs, or fold a sheaf of birch bark into a container and hold it in the stream with a rock.

I found plenty of other rock tripe sources as I hiked on

After descending a few hundred feet, the M-M trail kisses Stevens Swamp just south of Stratton Mountain. I scouted around the northwest side of the swamp for a bit, seeking potential shelter spots and food sources. Hiking was somewhat difficult because the snow up here was still 18 inches deep. It had almost thawed and then re-frozen so many times that the snow was like ice - in most places.

Every third step or so, I crashed through the icy crust, then crashed through a secondary crust 9 or 10 inches down. It was a fairly exhausting and very slow-going.

Stevens Swamp
I was surprised to find a part of the rocky shore exposed, perhaps by regular sun light and/or wind. There was a huge patch of my old friends, wintergreen and partridge berry plants.

And they were chock full of frozen berries!

These guys always seem to grow together
Most of the berries were in perfect condition, just frozen

Closer to the ground, some of the wintergreen leaves were also good

Pull back the debris to find several handfuls of partridge and wintergreen berries

I ate several handfuls of the berries before moving on.

I was disappointed to not find any cattail in this swamp (not just for the roots; I also wanted to use the leaves to make a sleeping mat). I remembered from the map that there was a larger body of water a mile or so east of Stevens Swamp, called Great Swamp. I thought about trying to find it by bush-whacking. But, why not just climb up Stratton Mountain and try to get a visual? Besides, the view of Mount Monadnock from Stratton's summit is stunning.

So, I spent a whole bunch of additional energy hiking up the steep mountain. The view was indeed rewarding.

Monadnock from Stratton's summit
I didn't accomplish getting a view of Great Swamp. I could just make out Stevens Swamp.

You can just make out Stevens Swamp, but not Great Swamp
I was getting fairly anxious about the time - it was getting close to 1PM.

I'd been hiking around for 4 or 5 hours, and still did not have a shelter location pinned down. Not smart. 

This is a bad habit for me - I get indecisive about shelter location, walking around for hours hoping to find the perfect spot. Every once in a while this pays off in the form of a pre-made shelter such as a cave, but usually it just means I don't get my shelter up until the sun goes down. As I walk around feeling indecisive, I get more and more anxious.

A preferable strategy would be to settle for the first acceptable spot and get to work right away.

Before hiking back down to Stevens Swamp, I noticed a small freshly downed hemlock tree.

Evergreen bows would be the only thing between me and the icy ground tonight, and I didn't have an axe or saw, just a knife. 

Here was a downed tree with lots of beautiful, needly boughs that would otherwise be out of reach.

The base of the downed hemlock
The downed section
I located a solid "whomping stick" and used it to help me chop the limbs off of this tree with my knife. With all the limbs piled up, I realized I needed a way to transport them.

How am I going to carry these down the mountain?
I wrapped a length of paracord around the pile and started dragging it behind me. This was too much work. So, I took down a couple beech saplings and constructed a crude, triangular sled.

The whomping stick allows me to take down sizeable saplings with my knife
The sled's frame, lashed together with paracord
I lashed the bundle of hemlock boughs to the sled's cross-beam using a power-cinch knot
I could then drag the sled wheel-barrow least until it started coming apart
Dragging the sled down the mountain was tough work, though certainly much easier than just dragging the bundle behind me. The apex of the triangle really dug into the icy crust of the snow, making it harder to pull than it should have been.

Plus, I repeatedly slipped and fell forward, banging my knees and elbows into the hard icy crust. 

I had to stop several times to repair my lashings, which kept coming apart (I learned a much better knot for this when I got home). It was frustrating work, but I eventually made it back down to the Stevens Swamp area.

By now it was around 2PM, and I was extremely anxious about finding a shelter spot. Lots of negative thoughts and general irritability replaced the fun and joy of the outing's first few hours. I was really feeling incompetent and stupid. And let's be real - I was being incompetent and stupid!

Just pick a spot! 

I decided to return to a large boulder within view of the trail. My plan was to use its flat face as a fire reflector wall. I'd build a lean-to opposite the rock wall, and build a long-log fire next to the rock wall. I'd sleep on a bed of evergreen boughs in the lean-to.

The first step, then, was to clear the shelter and fire area of snow. Easy enough, right?

The snow was at least twice as deep around the boulders as everywhere else. OK, no big deal. Just have to do some extra shoveling...without a shovel, of course.

My initial approach was to hack at the icy crust with my boots and clear out the chunks by hand.

After bruising toes and heels, I changed my strategy. 

I sharpened a green beech sapling to a chisel tip, and used that to perforate large squares into the crust. Then, I could kick in the squares and remove the chunks by hand. This was totally exhausting work - I had to go at the snow crust with all the force I could muster. Five or 10 minutes of this led to a 2' x 2' area cleared - but only of the first layer! There was another, similar layer half way down, with a thicker and harder crust. Then, under that, was a good 2 inches of solid ice on top of the ground. Shit, this could never work.

Can you see how much deeper the snow/ice is around the boulder?
Maybe an hour of work, and I've barely made a dent
After another half hour...yeah...
Maybe it was time to give up the idea of a fire-based shelter. I was REALLY running out of time. It was around 4PM by now - I had 2-3 hours of daylight left.

On another side of the boulder was a narrow protected area just about the size of my body. Maybe I could pack that cavity with hemlock boughs, roof it with limbs and cover with a final insulation of more hemlock boughs.

Then I'd have a workable body-heat-based debris shelter of sorts. Right?

I could just fit into this cavity...possible debris shelter?
All the evergreen boughs from Stratton Mountain, broken down and packed into the crevasse

I unlashed the hemlock boughs from the sled, and broke them down into more comfortable pieces, discarding the thick limbs. With them packed into the cavity, I could still barely squeeze into the space and stay below the level of the snow.

I figured I could just lay crossbeams on the snow such that they hang over the cavity and just touch the rock face. It wouldn't be air-tight but surely better than nothing.

I was really beginning to dread nightfall. This shelter would be extremely uncomfortable at best (aside from the cold, I would not be able to move at all once inside the shelter). And I was seriously doubting whether my half-baked plan for the remaining construction would work at all.

In a manner similar to my last outing, my own brain began to mutiny, trying desperately to convince me to just call it quits and hike out. This wasn't an actual survival emergency - if it was, the correct survival strategy would indeed be to hike out to the nearby civilization.

I was losing the willpower to remain in my simulated emergency. 

To calm down a bit, I lay down in the bed of hemlock bows and tried to talk myself into staying. Sure, I'd be cold - maybe extremely cold - and very uncomfortable, but it would be a good learning experience. Just stick it out, see it through, it'll pay off in the end. Tired, frustrated, and hungry, I took a little nap.

20 minutes later I awoke to the unpleasant sensation of my soaking sweater, which had absorbed melting ice from the side of the cavity. Forgetting my pride, I stood up and hiked out. I walked all the way to my girlfriend's apartment.

A 25 mile walk allows for lots of introspection.

I was really upset that I'd failed to stay even for the first night. I felt like a complete failure. Supposedly, I'm really into wilderness survival. And yet, I've never done a primitive outing for more than one night! And I couldn't even stay that long this time!

How am I still such a novice?

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