“Look,” I said, “we’ve got maybe half an hour of daylight left, and we’re not going to make it to the city in that time. We’re going to have to sleep out here tonight.”
Alisa protested. “But you guys don’t have enough layers! We won’t be warm enough! And we can see the city – we should keep going.”
Valerie shook her head. “It’ll be more dangerous to keep walking after dark. The ground’s too uneven – even with flashlights, someone will break an ankle.”
“Can’t we call someone?” Alisa asked. “I’ve got phone service.”
But the rest of us shook our heads. Yes, we could – and should – call people to let them know we wouldn’t be back tonight. But “in the mountains south of the city” is an awfully vague location, and we’d no way to narrow it down. No one was coming to get us tonight; we were on our own.
(Apologies for the absurdly long wait after the last cliffhanger in this story. If the segment above wasn’t enough to remind you what happened in Part I of the Hiking Fiasco, I don’t blame you; feel free to click back and reread. I’ll wait.)
As dark began to fall in earnest, we took stock of our resources. I had a plastic bag containing one box of wind- and waterproof matches, about eight feet of ultra-lightweight rope, a pocket knife, and one of our two flashlights. We all had cell phones, most of which even had service. Valerie had her iPhone, which had served as our compass all day and was now running low on batteries. We had a little water left, and some food. All of us had rain jackets, but only about half of us had other layers to put on. Several of us were still in short sleeves, myself included, and my rain jacket’s sleeves were not insulated.
The day had been hot, but the temperature was already dropping, and it would fall even further once night set in. Those of us who wouldn’t sweat right through them put on our jackets in order to conserve what heat we had, but even so, we knew we were in for a miserable night. We had no tents, no sleeping bags. Fire, then, was to be our first priority.
Alisa fretted aloud about our predicament, our unpreparedness, whether we’d get hypothermia, and how much trouble we’d be in, her voice growing more panicky and high-pitched with every sentence. “Firewood,” I said, looking her in the eye. “You’re in charge of the big sticks. Nothing alive or rotting. Go.”
She drew a deep breath, nodded, and went.
We chose a largish, flat expanse near but not directly under a tree and piled our bags together, moving flashlights and other important items to our pockets so they wouldn’t get lost in the dark. I set the other girls to collecting wood as well, while I sat down to sort it according to size. I grinned when they returned with a thick piece of birch and again when I was presented with a branch thick with the tiny pieces of pine deadwood we call “itsy bitsies” at camp.
“More of these,” I said, gesturing to both. “Birchbark is campfire gold, and the little pine twigs make the best kindling.” The light had dwindled so far that they couldn’t clearly see what I was asking them to get, so I held up the pine for them to feel its distinctive scaly texture. Once they knew what they were looking for, I was piled with armloads of the stuff.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t doing so well with the fire. I’d started with the classic log cabin fire but failed twice to get it lit. Wind- and waterproof these matches might be, but they were horrifically difficult to light, and once I did get them lit, their weatherproof coating burned down much faster than an ordinary match. I couldn’t reach into the log cabin structure and light enough tinder for the twigs to catch without singing my fingers. At this rate, I would run us out of matches before I got anything lit, and we’d be at serious risk of hypothermia.
In frustration bordering on desperation, I resorted to the most basic fire-making technique of them all: bunch up some toilet paper, light it, drop a few handfuls of kindling on it, and blow. I heaved a sigh of relief when the twigs caught, or would have if my lungs weren’t already busy supplying our fledgling fire with oxygen. One of the other girls handed me sticks of increasingly larger sizes as the tongues of flame increased in size and brightness, and slowly we built the blaze into a more stable size and shape.
Fire lit and compatriots notified, it was time to get what sleep we could. Four of us bedded down a flat stretch of moss a few feet from the fire, chain-spooning to conserve heat, while the fifth sat the first fire watch. We’d evenly divided the approximate hours until dawn and allotted an hour and a half to each person, during which they were to keep an eye on fire and firewood alike to keep the fire from either dying out or spreading to the downed and very dead pine only a few feet away. Given my difficulties in starting the first fire, none of us wanted to wake shivering in the dead of night to stir desperately at a pile of ashes that refused to reignite.
The first fire watch was really a formality; I don’t think any of us actually got any sleep as the night grew darker and the thunder louder and more persistent over the next hour. I think the others were plagued with the same worries that ran though my head, their frequency increasing with the thunder. Our raincoats could keep us only so dry; we had no way to protect the fire. Visions of sodden huddles, chattering teeth, and genuine hypothermia danced before my open eyes.
When the first few droplets fell, we all leaped to our feet in unison. If it really was going to rain, we needed shelter, and we needed it fast. We cannibalized our woodpile for the biggest sticks, wishing we hadn’t broken so many when we gathered wood earlier. Then we broke into groups to gather more materials.
Alisa watched me as I lay long branches between a log and a stump and then used them to support smaller ones, creating a framework about two feet off the ground. “How are you making this?” she asked, and I explained that we needed the frame to be dense enough to support pine boughs that would shed at least some of the rain. “Oh!” she said. “Like a sukkah!”
I grinned. “Exactly.”
Given her greater experience in the field of sukkahs, I left Alisa in charge of the construction while I joined the pine-collection effort. The local pines sported dense collections of needles at the tips of their branches, but only there; the rest of the branch was bare. It took an awful lot of branch tips to cover even a small section our 5′x3.5′ framework. Thank goodness for the moss. Even if it just absorbed the rain rather than repelling it, it was still a roof of some kind. With a little care in peeling and carrying, we were able to detach two-inch-deep sections of nearly a square foot. I felt a little guilty about killing so much moss and cutting off so many live pine branches, but not enough to stop.
Our finished shelter wasn’t about to win any contests for beauty or comfort: the roof was patchy and small, leaving most of our legs exposed, and too low for us even to sit up underneath it. But it was more shelter than we’d had before, and building it had given us a sense of purpose and accomplishment. It had also kept us moving enough to accumulate some more body heat, which we knew we’d need. We crawled back in, curled up together, and tried once more to sleep.
Oh, moss, how we love and hate thee.
It was a long, cold night. Even with my arms pulled into the body of my jacket, I wasn’t dressed to withstand temperatures in the low forties (single digits, for the Celcius-minded), and no one was much better off. The moss beneath us made a soft bed, but also a damp one that refused to warm. Even packed together like sardines we were cold. One by one, we left the shelter for spots closer to the fire. Alisa remained curled up in the shelter for nearly half an hour after the rest of us had abandoned it, but eventually she too awoke at the loss of shared heat.
Fire watch turned out to be unnecessary: even curled up as near to as we dared, none of us slept soundly, and there were always a couple of us awake. The shelter, too, proved superfluous; despite its loud and frequent threats, the promised rain never fell. On us, that is. We learned later that the city had gotten drenched, while our area remained miraculously dry. Perhaps the shelter wasn’t so superfluous – if we hadn’t built it, it probably would have poured in our part of the mountains too. Murphy’s law is not to be tested, especially when it teams up with mother nature.
At long last, the sky began to grey, and then to brighten, and though the trees and mountains blocked direct light as well as any view of the sunrise, we were all awake by dawn. We ate the last of our food and sipped at our precious water reserves, wishing desperately for coffee or hot chocolate, something to banish the chill from our bones.
As we extinguished the last of our fire with yet another chunk of moss, I smiled wryly at the other girls. “Well, I hadn’t expected to teach Wilderness Survival Merit Badge on this hike,” I said, eyeing our shelter through the final wisps of smoke, “but congratulations. You all pass.” They chuckled and finished got to their feet, donning their packs.
We weren’t out of the woods yet, literally or figuratively, but we’d made it through the night. Now we had to get home.