Sunday, June 21, 2009

A Night to Remember

I came across this post a couple of days ago while doing some research for the John Muir Trail. I have not heard of SPOT before, but I do understand why she used the 911 button. Her story reminded me of one particular night during my first week working at SUWS of the Carolinas:

During my first week, I still considered myself somewhat of an experienced camper. I realized quickly that I had a lot to learn. While at SUWS, the instructors as well as the kids were required to make A-frame shelters to protect ourselves from the elements. Basically, we used blue plastic Wal-Mart tarps (I believe 8x10) and some P-cord to construct shelters in between a couple of trees. Ideal shelters were tight, about waist high, and securely fastened to the ground with stakes that were either made from branches, or just random sticks laying on the ground. (I later made my stakes from rhododendron branches which worked really well.) The shelters usually provided just enough protection to stay dry, or keep out the wind, but keep in mind that both ends were still open lengthwise.

This only being my third or fourth night creating such shelters, my construction was less than ideal. Anyone who has spent any time in the mountains of North Carolina understands that it rains all the time out there. I was unprepared to say the least. The first night of rain started off shortly after we all went to bed. "This is nice," I told myself. "I probably don't need to worry about any of the kids running in the middle of the night and the sound of the rain popping off my shelter is very relaxing." I assumed the rain would last a couple of hours, but it kept raining and raining all night. I was having difficulty sleeping because as the rain would splash in the dirt near my head, the water would sprinkle on my face and wake me up. After falling asleep only to awaken to water splashing on my face numerous times, I started to get pissed. Anyone who has ever been an instructor at a wilderness program also understands the importance of a good nights sleep. At this point it was about two in the morning, it was pouring down rain, I was awake, I was angry, and I was starting to stress about not sleeping and the small river of water that was making its way into my shelter. (The other thing that I later found essential to a good shelter was a well constructed "canoe." Basically, instead of a ground tarp, we used a second piece of plastic which one cold roll up the sides and tie off the ends and slightly elevate both ends lengthwise with P-cord to create a type of hammock canoe. Once the sleeping bag is securely placed in the canoe and even though one's body would still be in contact with the ground, if constructed properly, any water that enters the shelter would simply run underneath the "canoe" and one would stay completely dry.) Again, this only being my third or fourth night attempting such construction, my canoe was less than ideal.

As the rain began to increase in intensity, I made my first mistake. I was so fed up with water splashing in my face, I tugged on both corners of my tarp near my head, pulling out the stakes, thus collapsing the head of my shelter to the ground. "OK, this is not so bad." I told myself. "At least the rain won't continue to splash on my face. Even though the tarp is on top of me, the rain should at least roll right off the tarp." What I failed to realize was that there was enough condensation on the inside of the shelter to completely soak the outside of my sleeping bag. Within 5 minutes, I could feel the cold penetrating into the bag, and I started to stress when I felt how wet the outside of the bag was.

It's interesting to understand how your own mind will work in these types of situations. I am, by nature, impatient when it comes to problems, especially when sleep is involved. I wanted fix the problem immediately and began reacting instead of responding. If the problem is mechanical in nature, if I can't fix it (which usually I can't) I prefer to break it trying rather than calm down and think the problem through. Anyways, back to the story.

So I was lying in a wet sleeping bag with the tarp laying on top of me and the rain was still coming down in buckets. "I've got to get this shelter back up." I told myself. So again, without thinking, I got out of my sleeping bag without rain gear and immediately got to work rebuilding my shelter- third mistake. It's absolutely pouring at this point in the night. Within minutes, my clothes are completely soaked and I'm only halfway done putting up my shelter. By the time I'm done, I'm drenched. Since I'm already soaked, I decide to check on the kids and make sure everyone is doing OK. I have to say, it was humiliating to check on these kids and see them sound asleep and completely dry in their shelters. One boy was only 9 years old and was completely dry, protected, and peacefully asleep in his shelter as the rain continued to pour.

4th mistake: I still can't understand why I did this looking back on it, other than I couldn't figure out how to put dry clothes on in these conditions: I crawled into my sleeping back with my wet clothes on. That was the final nail in my coffin. Now, not only was the outside of my bag soaked, but I completely drenched the inside of my bag with my wet clothes. As much as I wanted to sleep, I started shivering so bad that sleep was impossible-and this was August! I was doomed to catch hypothermia in my sleeping bag or spend the rest of the night sitting under the group tarp and attempt to get a fire started with the remaining coals. Fortunately, a fire was still possible, and I spent the rest of the night sitting on a rock amongst puddles of rain and mud and burning every last piece of dry and wet wood that I could find under the group tarp. Needless to say, I was not a happy camper.

Who knows what would have happened had I been alone and had no group tarp to sit under and stay out of the rain. I feel bad for the girl in the blog, I understand she was probably really scared.

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