Monday, December 23, 2013

A Kayak Fishing Adventure

I haven't been doing much fishing or hunting recently. And because of that, I haven't had much to write about. But I haven't, however, been sitting around idly. I've actually been planning quite the kayak fishing adventure, and it less than three weeks, I'll set off on my journey to start the new year.

I will be paddling the Everglades Wilderness Waterway in it's entirety and fishing it the whole way. Based off of the path I have planned, the entire thing should take me 8 days to paddle in my kayak and about 110 miles to complete. I will also be paddling this alone.

I've mapped out my path and each stop as shown above. Some camp sites are ground sites while others are chickees. If you don't know what a chickee is, it's pretty much just a raised platform above the water with a roof and no walls. These are placed out in the 10,000 islands because there's little to no solid ground in the endless mangrove maze.

The planning process is still underway. I've been making/going through checklists and trying to get all my ducks in a row. Where I'll launch, where I'll finish, who will pick me up, etc. These are all things I've been trying to sort out in addition to just gear. But I will have a chance while on this trip to do quite a bit of gear testing. I've got a stove, and several other pieces of equipment that I plan on putting through the wringer over the 8 day paddle.

I'm a little nervous and very excited about taking this trip. I've never done anything quite like this before, so not only will it be an experience of a lifetime, but also a huge learning experience. With any luck, I'll learn quite a bit about fishing in the backcountry, and maybe even land some fish in the process.

But overall, I'm really looking forward to this trip. I may post my plan, in detail, prior to leaving as well as my checklists for gear and what not. After I return, I'm sure I'll have some things to change up about my planning process and might come out of it with a good "how-to". Stay tuned!

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Deer, Pigs, and Shame

The dull blue-grey of early dawn had already begun to illuminate the surrounding woods. But there would be no sunshine on this morning . A thick, wet fog was beginning to settle in and everything was soon soaked by its subtle misting. Though the day was truly beginning, the woods seemed suspended in a dark twilight under the shadow of the fog. It took longer than usual for the birds to start chirping and squirrels to begin chattering. It was a peaceful morning under the fog, and even the wildlife seemed reluctant to wake. That was, at least, until a long, terrifying growl echoed through the twilight…

The rumbling in my stomach hadn’t been going on for very long. In fact, it felt fine as I was busy attaching the climber to the base of the tree. But now, three quarters of the way up the tree, it hit me:

I think I have to poop

Situations like these are all mental games. Most of the time you can overcome the urge by just ignoring it or even telling yourself “You do not have to poop”. So I climbed on, inch-worming my way in my tree stand, all the while muttering to myself that I didn’t need to climb back down and take care of business. 

It wasn’t long after I’d settled into my stand before my gut rumbling shifted gears to full blown emergency. Reluctantly, I admitted defeat and with a great amount of frustration, I got ready to descend the tree to answer mother nature’s call. But I was quickly reminded that when mother nature calls me, she actually screams. And I hadn’t made it six feet down the tree before I realized what was about to take place. 

Oh no

There’s a real “Come to Jesus” moment that occurs when we, as adults, realize we’re about to crap our pants. It’s a humbling experience when you’re forced to make a snap decision based solely off of your inability to control your bodily functions. How you react in a moment of crisis defines who you are, and I had almost no time to think beyond the quick thought: “How does this even happen?”
Three days prior to this emergency, I found myself sitting in a Southwest Georgia hospital patiently awaiting my meeting with an orthopedic surgeon. I’d spent the entire night before in the emergency room for a very different emergency from the one happening up the tree. After nearly cutting off my index finger (a story that I won’t get into yet), the nurse who stitched me up flatly told me “Oh yeah, you’re gonna have to have surgery. You went right through the tendon and artery. I’ll schedule you an appointment with the surgeon”

So when the surgeon finally came in, I was fully expecting the worst news and that I would indeed need surgery. But in a bizarre twist of good luck, he looked at my finger, made me move it around some, and said “You’ll be fine without surgery. Here’s a prescription for some meds”. He then sent me on my way. 

I was on a hunting trip after deer on some of the plantations that I used to work on. I’d already missed my first morning hunt thanks to the finger fiasco, so I was excited to finally get some hunting done. This year I put away the bow for the time being. I darted deer enough. I was ready to blast one with the rifle, and I quickly set about doing just that. 

Just a few minutes before sunset later that evening, I lined the crosshairs of my 30-06 on a fat doe’s chest as she stood broadside, and squeezed the trigger. I was, however, shocked to see her kick, stumble, and run off. I was using the same 175 grain VLD bullet that took down my monster boar earlier this summer. It was almost expected for her to just fall over. So I climbed down and immediately found blood, but as soon as I did, the overwhelming smell of guts hit me. Looking down, I also saw half digested corn.

Oh no

I’d never gut shot a deer before. Ever. And I couldn’t believe I’d done it to this doe. My rifle was sighted in earlier that afternoon. So how had I shot so far back? And why was there SO much blood on the ground. Seriously, it looked like someone had dumped buckets of red paint on the ground.
Once my buddies showed up to pick me up, we began tracking her. Luckily, the blood trail was heavy, and we found her piled up about 100 yards from where she was shot. The entire time we were trailing her I was nervous and honestly kind of embarrassed to have gut shot a deer. When I shined my light down on her, it was obvious that the bullet exited the guts. But what about the entry wound? We flipped her over to discover a hole right in the shoulder. Exactly where I was aiming. 

So how did I manage to shoot a deer, perfectly broadside, in the shoulder and the exit wound come out mid rib cage? The only thing I can imagine is the bullet. The VLD is highly frangible and honestly not made for hunting. The bullet must’ve hit the shoulder blade, fragmented, and simultaneously ricocheted through the animal. Regardless, it got the job done, but I’ve stopped using VLD’s for deer hunting. Attempting to clean a gut shot deer one handed was enough to make me switch rounds. 

With meat in the freezer, I set about looking to shoot my first nice buck. Unfortunately, nothing aside from a spike and a little 6 point made an appearance the rest of the weekend. But my final day was anything but dull. 

Years prior to this day, me and my buddies had a long, drawn out conversation about peeing out of a tree stand. Some of us did it regularly, others (like myself), considered it a mortal sin. I know there’s tons of data explaining that deer can’t tell/don’t care, but it’s still a rule of mine. One of my friends, however, admitted that he’d had to poop from the stand before; a statement that we regularly ridiculed him about afterwards. I don’t know of a hunter who likes to poop in the same zip code as their tree stand, much less OUT of it. So we all gave him hell for years afterward about being the one guy we know who’s done it…

At least, until, my emergency 30 feet up a pine tree. I won’t go into detail as to how I managed to take care of business out of a climber. All that matters is that disaster was averted. I shamefully climbed the six feet back to the top, and sat down feeling extremely thankful that such a terrible outdoor experience was over. I’d made it 13 solid years of hunting without that ever happening, and I prayed that was the first and last time I’d ever have to do something like that again. 

Until 10 minutes later when round two kicked in…

Later that afternoon, I felt infinitely better and with a freshly restocked toilet paper supply in my bag, I deemed it safe to return to the tree stand. While walking down to a creek bottom with a lock-on stand, I caught movement out of the corner of my eye. I turned to see what looked like a small possum. Suddenly another one appeared. And another. I wanted a closer look so I walked within just a few yards of them. It was then that I realized what I was looking at. They weren’t possums. They were tiny little piglets. And that only meant one thing: Momma was nearby. 

It took me a second to figure out exactly what I was looking at. The stump that was only 4 yards from me suddenly moved and I realized momma pig was staring right at me. Now I’m still not entirely sure why she didn’t run, or charge, or anything. But I had time to take my rifle off of my shoulder, flip the scope covers off, turn the power from 9x to 3x, flip the safety, find the pig’s head, and pull the trigger without her moving. And as if that wasn’t enough, I heard a snort and looked to see a second sow just 10 yards away. Also not moving. I chambered a new round, found the pig’s head, and squeezed the trigger. Almost immediately I heard more snorting through the brush as a THIRD sow moved in close. This one, however, never stepped out, and just grunted at the piglets as they ran to her through the brush. 

I left the pigs on my path to grab them on the way out and went ahead to climb my stand. I was hunting over a scrape line and there was a nice looking scrape just 30 yards in front of my stand. The evening was pretty uneventful. I saw a bunch of turkeys, and a bobcat carrying a dead squirrel walked directly underneath my tree. It wasn’t until about 45 minutes before sunset that I saw brush moving just beyond the scrape. 

I raised my rifle and waited. The entire time I was envisioning what this buck was going to look like. Would this be it? My opportunity to –finally- kill a noteworthy buck? I’m generally very slow to excite, but I began to get a little excited with anticipation. 

All I need is for him to step out

But to my EXTREME disappointment, what stepped out was not a buck. Rather, a giant boar. Frustrated that my hunt was over without a buck, I flipped off the safety just as the boar stopped to sniff the air, and I put a round right behind the eye. The boar did a front flip, and as if to really prove to me that my chances of killing a buck were gone, he flopped down DIRECTLY on the scrape. 

As I was busy dragging bacon back to the road, I couldn’t help but reflect on the whole weekend. I was grateful to still have my finger, it was amazing getting to spend time with some of my best friends, and I was lucky enough to not only take a deer, but also pigs. It was my first and only chance to hunt this year, and with the exception of a few hiccups, the weekend couldn’t have been more fun. I got to spend some much needed time in the woods, and even did something out of the tree stand that I’ve never done before. 

That’s right. I’ve never actually shot a pig from a tree stand before. 

What? Did you think I was talking about a different tree stand experience? 

The question “what in God’s name did I eat?” actually did bother me for a while. And it wasn’t until a week later that I solved the mystery. Out of sheer boredom, I flipped over my prescription bottle to read the back. 

That explains a lot.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Tree Duty: An Inward Look

Every person should spend some time alone in nature. It’s remarkable how quickly you learn to appreciate things previously overlooked, and how everything’s suddenly put into perspective when you’re forced to face yourself with no distractions. 

I first picked up a bow and began hunting whitetail when I was twelve years old. I’m still not entirely sure why my dad decided to start me off bow hunting on Florida public land but I can only assume it was one of two things: 

1. To make me a better hunter. After all, killing a Florida public land deer with a bow is sort of like seeing a unicorn. Or…

2. To break my will to hunt at an early age in order to save my time, money, and mental health. 

I like to think it was the first reason. 

Fast forward thirteen years and I still find myself up a tree every fall. But I often ask myself “Why?”

Why do any of us, as people who love the outdoors, do the things we do? Why do we hike up mountains, paddle absurd distances, or sit in a tree all day? Different people must have different reasons. Perhaps it’s an excuse to just get out of the house, go exploring, continue a tradition, put some meat in the freezer, or even spend some time alone for self reflection. Whatever the reason may be, people continue to flock to the outdoors every day. And though I’ve ventured outside for almost every reason imaginable, I’ve lately noticed much of my time spent outside is in self reflection. So I’ve recently been having to ask myself “why?”

As a twelve year old, I can vividly remember bowhunting on Eglin Air Force Base over a game trail so ancient that the last living creature to walk it must’ve just recently sprouted legs and crawled out of the sea. What I can’t tell you, however, is what on earth I was thinking about. Was it video games? Dinner? Maybe it actually was just as simple as ‘I really hope a deer steps out’. I can certainly tell you that I wasn’t caught up thinking about jobs, finances, relationships, school work, etc. What was on my mind then, and what’s on my mind today are definitely different. And perhaps some of my reasoning for stepping outside today is different too. 

While darting deer out in the woods, we usually sat up in a tree stand, alone, in the dark, for about 6-8 hours. Every day. For months. We all took turns doing this to help keep our sanity, and it wasn’t long before we affectionately dubbed our turns as “tree duty”. Tree duty honestly wasn’t bad at first. We had a competition going where the person who darted the most does got a steak dinner. And it wasn’t so much the prize we were after as it was simply the bragging rights. So during the first few weeks, we practically fought over the chance to sit in the stand. But as the weeks went on, the willingness to sit in the stand began to die, and soon we were all just looking forward to –not- having to sit. 

During the first darting season, I probably got sick of sitting in the stand sooner than everyone else. I had just gone through a terrible break up and had suddenly found myself every other night sitting alone, up a tree, in the dark, and with no distractions. At the time, it was the last place in the world I wanted to be. I wanted to be around friends, family, anything. I just wanted to be doing something and get my mind off of my personal problems. I’d also recently graduated college and was finally having my “what am I going to do with my life now?” – freak out. But without even the ability to use a cell phone, I had no choice but to sit there and think about things. With no distractions, it’s easy to over think or over-analyze something.  To go over what-if’s, would’ves, could’ves, should’ves. Distractions like television, cell phones, friends, family, or social life are all great and extremely helpful to get your mind off of things. But when those things are taken away and you’re forced to face yourself, you learn to solve your problems. And quickly. For a while, I thought maybe I was just going crazy. It can’t be –that- hard to sit around in a tree at night, right?. After all, none of the other technicians had any complaints other than “it’s boring” or “I’m dying of blood loss from mosquitoes”. That was, at least, until this year. I knew one of my coworkers was going through some personal stuff and while riding around in the truck discussing tree duty, he turned to me and said “Dude, I don’t know how you did it last year”. 

Looking back, I’m –extremely- glad I was essentially forced to seriously think about my issues. I now feel as though spending time alone in nature, with no distractions, is something everyone should do. I’m not saying to go climb a tree in the dark for hours on end (unless of course you want to just drive yourself insane). But go on a hike alone. Go fishing, or kayaking, or mountain biking. Allow yourself to face your issues without distractions. Chances are you’ll solve your problems and by the end of it all, you cannot help but have a new found appreciation for almost everything in your life. Things that might otherwise be overlooked; those friends and family that are always there for you, the pleasant waitress at the restaurant, or the funny sitcom on TV. I have a true appreciation for those things because I know, at one point, I would’ve killed to have them around as a distraction. 

All of this is, however, only one way of looking at getting outdoors. I realized this as begin packing for an upcoming hunting trip. Though I’m excited, I thought of sitting in a tree stand and this bizarre, involuntary shudder ran through me. Why am I going to do this again? 

The answer comes from the other side of the spectrum. There are those of us who turn to the outdoors as a way to “get away from it all”. The outdoors acts as an escape from the busyness and responsibility of every day life. It’s a chance to rewind, relax, and –not- think about things. What’s odd is that I’m now trying to distance myself from those distractions I once prayed for. Internet, bars, television , restaurants, etc. Maybe there really can be too much of a good thing, but I find myself now looking forward to sitting in the stand rather than dreading it. 

Perhaps the outdoors serves as the best of both worlds. Time alone in nature can serve not only as a means of self reflection, but also a distraction in itself. It can help solve your problems, or help you take a step back from them. It all depends on your current perspective. What I do know is that no one has ever spent some time alone in the outdoors and come back a worse person. Whatever your preferred outdoor activity is, it can only help make you a better person. All you have to do is step outside. 

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Darting Deer and Calling Coyotes

"But something caught my eye. A small white dot that wasn’t there earlier was moving toward us. It continued to get closer and I soon realized what it was.

“Yote…Yote. Get ready”, I whispered to the guys that were with me. It was sprinting directly at us from about 400 yards away. I watched as it got closer. 300 yards, 250, 200, 150. And the moment it hit 100 yards, our spotlight shined it."

This is just a snippet of a short story I recently wrote for Legendary Whitetails. The whole article can be found here:

If you're an avid hunter like me, be sure to head over there and check out their pages/merchandise. It's definitely worth a look!

If you've noticed that my writing has slowed a little bit, it's because I'm in the process of planning some pretty big things. The whole "figuring out my career" thing also takes a bit of my time up. But stay tuned! Big things on the way.

Friday, November 1, 2013

The Offshore Drag

There’s something refreshing about running offshore to fish. Maybe it’s the change of scenery, species, or even the tackle. But it’s something that I love to do. 

Unfortunately, I’m poor. Most of my fishing consists of inshore fishing not because it’s ALL I like to do, or I’m some inshore purist. Alas, it’s merely because running offshore is so freaking expensive and I can't afford it all the time. Gas, chum, bait, etc. It all adds up and before you know it, you’ve had to take out a loan with the bank to cover your fishing trip. 

It’d been well over a year since I had a chance to venture offshore. And it –just- so happened that during the week I ran home to visit family, the Red Snapper season had been re-opened. After getting hold of my brother, I convinced him that taking his boat offshore would be an awesome brotherly thing to do, and before I knew it, we were on our way out of Pensacola pass in route to slay the snapper. 

Our first stop was to pick up some live bait. It was here that we discovered the live well wasn’t working. Rather than simply not have any live bait, we opted to fill the live well the old fashioned way and I quickly found myself leaning over the gunnel with a five gallon bucket to fill the well.
After a short trip out to the wreck, we anchored up surprisingly well (it never goes smoothly) and started fishing. This is where I often note the subtle differences between offshore fishing and other types of fishing. Rather than throwing out an elaborately designed fly, or an artificial that perfectly mimics a small shrimp, I was looking down at an entire cigar minnow which was hooked brutally through the eyes. There was a giant bag of chum hanging off the back of the boat, and with the rough seas, every step was more of a controlled stagger. These are things you miss while wade fishing inshore, or trout fishing in a stream. 

It only took a few seconds after my first drop to feel a bump. I quickly reeled up, and was immediately doubled back over. Pinned to the gunnel, I watched as my line slipped away almost instantly, and before I knew it “Snap”. I was cut off on the wreck. There was nothing I could have done to stop the fish. I checked my reel and confirmed that I absolutely could not tighten my drag any tighter, and upon reeling up what was left of my rig, I noted that my 80# leader had been easily broken off. Whatever was down there was big. 

After rerigging, I dropped back down and it wasn’t long before we started putting fish in the boat. With the limit being only two red snapper per person, it took no time for my brother and I to limit out. 

In addition to four Reds, my brother also caught a Mingo and a Black snapper. At one point, I felt a small nibble and reeled up my rig to discover I had a small ruby red lips on my line. But rather than unhooking him and tossing him back into the drink, I opted to lower him on my line about half way to the bottom. And sure enough, it took only a minute before my rod was doubled over, and the fight was on. 

Behold the world’s luckiest Amberjack. Measuring in at 29.5 inches, he was exactly one half inch too short to keep. Reluctantly, I had to throw him back, and in the course of only a few seconds, watched this fish transform from the luckiest to the unluckiest fish in the world. There was a sudden flash, a cloud of red, and then half of an Amberjack floated up to the surface. Barracuda at their finest. It’s actually infuriating to see this. Rather than us get to keep the Amberjack, I let it go (to live) only to watch it get fed to a barracuda. 

With our Red Snapper limit reached, we decided it was time to see what we could get in the chum slick behind the boat. We began cutting up small pieces of frozen bait, and in combination with shaking the chum back, it wasn’t long before we were seeing fish under the boat. They –looked- like big Red and Black snapper. The problem was that we couldn’t catch them. Using a small hook and fluorocarbon leader, we fly-lined small pieces of bait into the chum line, watched the fish pick it up, and then proceed to never stop them. Straight down to the wreck, drag screaming, the fish just couldn’t be stopped before cutting us off on the wreck below. This happened several times, even with the heavy tackle we were using. It was almost like our drag just didn’t exist. 

Unfortunately, we were unable to solve the mystery as to what was kicking our butts behind the boat. A look at the clock told us it was time to go as my brother had a work meeting that he needed to get back to. Just before cranking the motors, however, he happened to look down in the water and see some monofilament floating near the props. We climbed over the gunnels and began pulling on it to discover it was completely wrapped around the port motor’s prop. 

Taking everything even remotely valuable off of my body, we raised the motors and I climbed out onto the foot of one and began unwrapping line. It wasn’t our line, just someone’s that had been left floating around near the wreck. After quite a bit of unwrapping, I discovered that it wasn’t just mono. It had wire leader attached to it as well. I was sure I was never going to get it all unwrapped, but as I sat there on the starboard motor’s foot, leaned over in 4 foot swells while trying to cut away mono from the adjacent prop, I noticed it started coming loose. To both mine and my brother’s shock, it suddenly all came right out. Disaster averted. Getting back INTO the boat proved to be much more difficult than getting out of the boat, but I somehow managed to do it without killing myself. And after a minor issue that involved us losing the anchor, we left the wreck on our way back to dock with a cooler full of fish. 

Overall the trip was awesome. I very rarely get to run offshore so I was overly thankful that I had the opportunity to do so. I really do enjoy everything about it. Big fish, big bait, big tackle, big boats, big water. It’s a unique way of fishing and something I wish I could do more of. Hopefully I can make it out again soon. And maybe next time we can stop those fish.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Wandering at Home

Last week I was lucky enough to get to run back home to visit family. It'd been a little while, the middle of July in fact, since I'd gotten to go home, and I was extremely excited to get out on the water.

So after taking care of some family business, I loaded up the truck, hitched the Gheenoe, and picked up a buddy to go inshore fish. We launched at an area where I usually catch fish, and took off across the grassflats in search of trout and reds.

The wind was, of course, blowing. But thanks to the Gheenoe having a trolling motor, it didn't affect us nearly as bad as it would have had we been in kayaks. I love to paddle, but Lord is a motor nice sometimes.

I quickly discovered that the topwater lure I was using wasn't going to work. Every cast brought back about 20 lbs of sea grass that was floating on the surface, most of which was assuredly from prop chop. I'm not really one to get on my soapbox about issues (the main problem being that I can't be taken seriously...well...ever), but this really irks me. Only stupid people run their engines trimmed all the way down over grass flats, and I have zero tolerance for stupid people. Seriously. Just trim up and slow down. It's not that hard.

Realizing that I'd be pulling grass off of my lure after every cast, I opted to run across the sound. The wind was coming out of the south, so it made sense to me that going the direction the wind was coming from would result in less floating grass. And for once, I was right. The south side of the sound had almost no floating grass. The issue here, was that I'd literally never fished this area. I spent 20+ years in Pensacola, and yet there are still plenty of places I've never even attempted to fish. And this was one of them. But as luck would have it, we almost immediately began spotting fish.

Redfish, mixed with mullet, began showing up along the broken sandy bottom and it wasn't long before we had our first hook up. The screaming drag immediately told me that it wasn't some trout that I'd hooked.

After a few more misses, we took off again to a different area; another place I'd never fished before. We scouted some promising looking spots, and it wasn't until we were just about to give up that my buddy hooked into a fish.

The two Reds in the boat were near identical. Both right at 25 inches. Just before dark, I landed one little Speck on topwater, and the setting sun told us it was time to leave.

Aside from actually catching fish for a change, I really enjoyed myself on this particular trip. I'm not a huge fan of having "go-to" spots. Areas where I -know- I'm going to catch fish. I really like to explore. To learn new areas, and try different things. I feel like if you aren't willing to switch your game up, you're never going to improve as a fisherman. So striking out and having this new area produce fish simply tickled me pink. I can't wait to get back and explore a bit more, hopefully landing some fish in the process.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

When the fish aren't biting...

Break out the snatch hooks.

On a recent trip to St. Marks, I arrived early and began tossing topwater lures in hopes of hooking up to some Trout or Reds. I'm not sure what was going on that day, but I couldn't get a strike to save my life. Topwater, subsurface, DOA's. Nothing would work.

So as I paddled around in search of fish, I looked out to notice a massive school of Mullet. The water was practically teeming with them. And since I was practically starving to death while out there in the kayak, I decided I wanted to bring some fish home.

I know I've gone on and on about snatching mullet in previous posts. But it's something I really enjoy. Unless you've ever hooked up with one personally, I can't describe how hard they fight. It really is a good time, and I just love the feel of drag peeling off the reel.

I wound up keeping six total. That was in under 30 minutes. I counted, and had 4 casts within that time period where I didn't hit a fish with the snatch hook. I also hooked and lost about 10, and had 4 others in the kayak that flopped back out into the water. The school never sounded, and just stayed in the same general area the entire time.

I usually don't keep many fish. Part of it is because I like catch and release. The other reason is that I'm just plain lazy and don't want to clean fish. But I was craving a fish fry, and to me, few things beat a bunch of fresh mullet. Since I didn't bring a cooler with me, I kind of laid on the fish the whole paddle back to keep them out of the sun. It seemed to work decently, but I'm pretty sure I smelled like mullet for the next week.

So the next time you're out fishing and the fish just aren't biting, seriously give the snatch hook a try. Any fish on the end of your line beats no fish.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Spam, Beer, and a Little Bit of Help

The following is what I hope will be part of a series of short stories that I plan to compile into a book. As it has no pictures, it isn't exactly suitable for this site and will be taken down after about a week. But in the mean time, any and all feedback is greatly appreciated. I'd like to know the feasibility of such a project, and it'd be great to know what people think. This is just a rough draft, but please enjoy. 

How do I keep getting myself in these situations?

This was the question I kept asking myself as I straddled the stern of an aluminum canoe while clawing away at the mud in a futile effort to free the boat. My headlamp was dying, the canoe was full of baby alligators, we didn’t know where momma gator was, and the boat was stuck in the mud. No matter how hard we tried, my two lab partners and I simply could not budge the canoe. To make matters worse, the mud was far too deep to get out and push. Things were looking rather dire, and one of my lab partners, Nicole finally spoke up. Waving a little yellow walkie-talkie at me, she asked: “Should we call for help?”

During my time spent as an undergrad in Wildlife Ecology, I was given the chance to go on multiple field trips to…well…The field. One such field trip took place on the Ordway Swisher Biological station. This area of land was specifically set aside for research for the University of Florida. And so while taking a class focusing on Wildlife Techniques, we were forced to spend an entire weekend camping out at the Ordway. 

I say forced because my professor, in his infinite quest to make our lives miserable, planned this –required- field trip to be the first weekend of Spring Break. So while most of my friends were taking off to the beach or heading back home for a full week of relaxation, I was busy packing for a field trip that I had no desire to be on. To add to my misery and woe, I had begun a downward spiral of college life that spring where I hovered between broke and dirt poor. So while packing, I raided the apartment and discovered a half a loaf of bread and an unopened can of Spam. With those two items in hand, I’d made my decision: 

This should last me three days. 

So with my weekend Spam meal packed in a backpack along with a change of clothes and a canteen, I made the drive out to the Ordway late Friday afternoon and met with my class. Once there, we had a meeting with the professor who laid out the evening schedule for us. We were to set up camp, and meet back up after dark in order to do owl call and deer spotlight surveys. 

I hadn’t really worried about camping. We were told in class earlier that week that there would be big tents set up for both men and women. Students were also allowed to bring their own tent should they wish. So I arrived under the impression that I’d just sleep in a giant tent with a few other guys. To my surprise, I was the ONLY person in the class who didn’t bring a tent. Yes, I was that guy. I felt bad for the teaching assistants. They were going to have to erect a tent big enough to house an entire regiment just for my scrawny self. I told them not to worry about it, and I managed to find my buddy Todd who was willing to share some tent space. 

We got the tent set up about an hour before dark and I took advantage of the little bit of time we had before the night began to make myself a quick meal. I got out my can of Spam and loaf of bread, and prepared myself for a dinner of champions. Now, I’m not sure how many of you have ever tried to get that delicious pink block of meat out of a Spam can, but it’s about like forcing a watermelon through a McDonald’s straw. You must squeeze, and pry, and shake, and pray the mystery meat from its container. So as I was busy doing this, a miracle took place, right there in the middle of the woods…

My block of Spam actually slipped right out of its can…and plopped itself triumphantly in the sand.

Not only did it fall into the sandy concoction of leaves and sticks, but it rolled itself around in it. So while my weekend meal was busy frolicking in the dirt, I took the opportunity to teach bystanders several new colorful phrases. Once the filth covered block of Spam had finished rolling around, I picked it up to discover that it was simply beyond washing. Dirt and twigs had embedded themselves into the meat wall. 

I should probably take this opportunity to note that I’m not much of a social butterfly. I don’t have an infinite amount of friends and I’m relatively slow to make new ones. Part of it must be because of situations like this. Many of my classmate’s first impression of me outside of a classroom consisted of me violently cursing a dirty block of Spam. And there probably aren’t many who want to hang out with that guy. 

Luckily, all was not lost. Using a knife, I managed to shave off the dirty outer layers of my Spam and was left with a clean 2/3 of a block. I quickly made myself a sandwich out of some of it, practically inhaled it, and raced off to get ready for the night. 

Owl call surveys were something I was admittedly interested in. I’d never done it before, and though I have a general hatred for birds, I actually find owls to be pretty cool. So when we arrived at our evening meeting, we were told to load up into the truck, and part of the class would go off to do the survey. I’m not exactly sure what I was expecting as far as our transport went. I heard the word “truck” but still assumed we’d all climb into the big vans, drive to where the survey was to take place, pile out, and conduct the survey. My assumptions, however, were quickly proven wrong when I laid eyes on our chariot. It was an old, rusty, beat up Dodge. From the looks of it, probably one of the first one’s ever built. 

So with the teaching assistants driving, approximately ten of us climbed into the extraordinarily uncomfortable bed of the truck. It was at about this time that I felt my stomach give a slight twinge but I didn’t really pay it any attention because I was excited about doing the surveys. 

Fast forward about thirty minutes and a few bumpy dirt road miles later, and my twinge of a stomach ache had become a full blown, apocalyptic scale battle inside my gut. I needed to use the bathroom RIGHT then. But alas, I was stuck in the bed of a moving truck, with ten other people, at night, with no light. 

Maybe it was something I’d eaten for lunch, or possibly some bad water. Who knows? But rather than worry about what caused this bowel erupting stomach ache, I opted to curl into the fetal position and pray for a swift death. Somehow, I either bounced or shoved my way into the corner of the bed, and I sat there writhing in misery while the owl call went off. As my usual good fortune would have it, this was to be one of the longest nights of the whole trip. We were out for hours. And I simply had to hold it in. One of my friends Nicole did actually ask if I was alright, and I reassured her I was fine with a series of dying groans. 

When we finally made it back to camp later that night, I no longer needed to use the bathroom. No, I didn’t have an accident. But the urge had simply left me. At the time, I figured the only possible scenario was that my organs had simply given up and stopped working. But the stomach ache still persisted. Knowing that there was no chance of falling asleep while in such pain, I decided to take a seat on a bench next to a campfire with several students from the other group. And upon seeing me sit down, one of my classmates piped up: “Want a beer?”

Now, I’ve never been one to turn down a beer. And considering I’d spent the last few hours in sheer misery, I figured there was nothing I could do that would make my stomach feel worse. So I cracked open an ice cold PBR, and what would you know?

I was right. For once. It didn’t make me feel worse. In fact, my stomach ache began to subside. I’m not one to advocate drinking away any pain; be it emotional OR physical. But it was blessed relief after what seemed like a stomach ache that was going to be the death of me. After drinking a couple more of the magic elixirs, my stomach was back to feeling fine. About this same time, my buddy Todd was complaining about being hungry. I’m still not sure why, but he adamantly refused my offer of a Spam sandwich.  

Instead he opted to make himself a “hobo pizza” which consisted of pita bread, sauce, pepperonis, and a little cheese, all baked over the fire. It actually sounded pretty good until the problem arose as to what to cook the pizza on. No one had a pan or anything really suitable, and we both agreed that placing it on hot coals would make it taste rather…charred. Instead, and against my advice, he opted to try cooking it on top of a sheet of dead bark from a tree. Smoke from the rotten piece of wood soon began to envelop the hobo pizza and before long, it looked as though it was heated up enough. 

Everyone watched in horror as he took a cautious first bite of his pizza. And from his expression while he chewed, I knew it had to taste something like a burnt tire, or maybe old dirt. I will give my buddy his dues though. He slugged his way through the entire thing and kept his dignity. But Lord it was painful to watch. The worst part was that he still looked hungry, and for reasons unbeknownst to me, he continued to refuse my offers of a Spam sandwich. So rather than watch him destroy another pizza on a piece of old bark, I took it upon myself to make him a pan. By using my multi-tool and empty PBR cans, I was able to flatten out the cans and link them together to create a flat pan. A hobo pan, if you will. And after cooking and eating another pizza, even my buddy admitted that it tasted infinitely better than the bark pizza. The many uses of beer never cease to amaze me. 

The following day was a very busy one and consisted of trapping all sorts of small mammals and amphibians. But once the sun finally set, we were going to get to do something I’d actually been looking forward to for quite some time: Ride around on airboats and catch alligators at night. However, I should have known right off the bat that my night wouldn’t go as planned. I quickly discovered that I had forgotten my headlamp and was in desperate need of another. 

As luck would have it, my professor said he had an extra headlamp and he rummaged around a big box before finding it. What he finally handed over to me was a massive, ancient headlamp. It looked like something Galileo and his buddies probably used to go spelunking with and weighed approximately 30 pounds. What surprised me the most was that for being so huge, it put out slightly more light than a lit match. But I didn’t complain. Some light was better than none. 

My excitement grew as we got closer to lake that night. We bailed out of the trucks, and walked down the hill to where the boats would be waiting. Upon arriving, however, I discovered that there were no airboats. Instead, by the dim candlelight of my headlamp, I gazed across a fleet of aluminum canoes. Something obviously fell through with the airboats, so we’d be using paddle craft as our means to catch alligators. To add the hilarity, we were given small grabbers to catch baby alligators. You know, the kind that old ladies use to get things off of high shelves? 

So without too much complaining, my two lab partners and I, Nicole and Jim, climbed into a canoe and set off to catch gators. I paddled from the stern, Nicole sat in the middle with a spotlight, and Jim paddled up front. It was little surprise to me that all basic canoeing rules still apply at 9 pm. The wind will inevitably blow head on, regardless of what direction you’re traveling, and no matter how you position yourself, your butt will fall asleep on the metal seats. 

We paddled around for hours and barely saw any gators, much less got close enough to catch any. Jim and I were exhausted from having paddled all the way across the lake, and just as we were about to give up, Nicole whispered “I see eyes. Lots of them”. 

We looked to see where she was pointing and sure enough, on the far side of some thick vegetation, were a –whole- lot of glowing eyes. Not wishing to return empty handed, we made the decision to force our way through the vegetation and grab as many gators as possible. Jim and I built up a good head of steam, and rammed our way through the weeds and into a clearing on the other side. When the canoe finally screeched to a halt, we looked down to see the water practically teeming with baby alligators. We frantically began grabbing them and tossing them down into the bottom of the boat. We even used the little grabber to reach ones that were out of range. 

I was honestly really excited. All the paddling and searching paid off and we weren’t going to have to head back empty handed. Having grabbed all the gators we could, we decided to head back. I put my paddle in the water and…


I looked up to see Jim having the same problem. Mud. Thick, nasty mud. In our excitement to get the gators, Jim and I managed to ram our canoe onto a giant mudflat, and we were now stuck. The water couldn’t have been 2 inches deep on it. Rather than take strokes with the paddle, I tried using it to push and quickly discovered that there was no bottom. The mud clearly led all the way to hell. To make matters worse, my headlamp was dying. Probably from old age. 

I tried rocking the boat, digging away the mud, but nothing seemed to budge us. I considered stepping out and pushing, but that idea was quickly snuffed out with how deep the mud was. If I’d stepped out, I couldn’t help but imagine that thousands of years in the future, some poor archeologist would discover my bones in an ancient swamp and then be completely confused as to why I was wearing a piece of equipment around my skull that dated back to a different millennia than the bones. 

It was about this time that Nicole piped up: “Should we call for help?” 

“NO!” I shouted. “We’re –not- calling for help”

I was technically the one who’d been steering the canoe, and I could think of few things more embarrassing than having to call for help because we got a canoe stuck in the mud. I had my pride to worry about after all. I’m not one to never ask for help when I really need it. I’ll get directions from a stranger if I’m ever lost. But then again, I’ve never actually been lost. Merely temporarily misplaced. So we weren't going to ask for help.

We opted, instead, to make Nicole walk back and forth between the bow and stern to make the boat rock kind of like a teeter totter. When the bow would rise, Jim would push off. When the stern would rise, I would push off. It felt like it took a century, but we were actually moving and eventually we “walked” the canoe off of the mud flat and into open water.

On the last day of the trip, I found myself sitting in the cab of the truck with the teaching assistant, on our way to check some reptile/amphibian traps. We were supposed to finish up sometime before lunch, and my Spring Break was FINALLY going to start. Even if I had to make the 5 hour drive back to Pensacola first. I barely paid attention to any of the frogs we caught that morning. I was really just ready to be done. I’d finished off the last of my Spam earlier that morning, and I was sore from sleeping on every root that magically poked through our tent. So finally, after identifying the millionth tree frog, it was time to leave, and everyone piled back into the truck. 

As we bounced along back to camp, I had visions of pulling down the tent, packing up what little gear I had, and maybe making it back home in time to fish that evening. As I was thinking about this, I felt the truck slide a little bit, and the back tires begin to spin. I looked out the window to see us stuck in the sand, 15 minutes before my Spring Break officially started. I glanced over at the teaching assistant who was about to pull out his phone. 

“Maybe we should call for…”

“NO! We’re NOT calling for help!”