One thing was certain – if we were going to be staying here, a more advanced camp towards the interior of the building would be required. While this would increase the immediate land perimeter we’d need to secure and increase the supply distance to water, we would obtain a much lower sight, sound, and smell signature if we moved inland. In a long-term bug-out, security was deemed to be more important than a shorter walk to fill the water containers. We laced our boots up tight, grabbed water bottles, and the topo map, and headed into the depths of our island to see what it could offer us.
We immediately noticed two things: The ground was terribly uneven and rock-strewn, making for ugly footing – and the foliage was THICK. Our scouting confirmed what we could see from the canoe: the whole damned island was rugged and somewhat impassable – definitely inhospitable. We agreed that finding a new inland base of operations would be a tough deal; even if a sufficient amount of flat space for a campsite and a couple tents could be found, getting around the island would be a perpetual pain in the posterior. Damaged ankles and other limbs would certainly be on order as well – especially after any rain. While this would certainly dissuade anybody trying to raid our camp or find us, you have to wonder if the heightened chance of broken ankles with no immediate medical attention would be worth the extra security. We decided to head back to our camp and discuss if a remote, boat-access-only shoreline camp on the mainland would be a better bet. But wait…where was camp?
I Thought YOU Brought The Compass!
One of our two real serious eye-opening experiences on this trip occurred when we decided to head back to camp and we found out that each of us thought that the other had brought a compass. Of course, between the two of us, we had at least four compasses back at camp. We did know we were on an island so there was no actual danger of being lost – hell, we could follow the shoreline in one direction and find the canoe and camp eventually. However, the ramifications would potentially be serious if we were not so lucky to be island-bound.
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Conditions were poor for using natural tells (the sun) for navigation – rain was threatening, so the sky was a deep gray overcast, completely eliminating any possibility of even coming close to gauging where the sun was in the sky. We also had gotten so completely turned around navigating the interior of the island and its rough terrain that we each had differing opinions on which way camp was. We started to just follow the shoreline in one direction, but the ground and foliage was so disagreeable that eventually we wanted to just say “screw it” and make a beeline for the camp.
Though we would have made it back to camp eventually – possibly with twisted limbs and/or contusions – I finally pulled out my secret cheater weapon and fired up the BackCountry Navigator app on my smartphone. Just in case, I had previously downloaded the topo, satellite, and hybrid maps of the area to the phone’s memory to we could use it for planning trips or zooming in for further details. Even though we were WAY off the grid and had no cell reception, the phone picked up a GPS signal and gave us our position on the topo map. Both of us were skeptical (and highly ashamed) at having to depend on a no-connection cellphone for accurate navigation, but miraculously it got us straight back to the camp with zero hassle. Lesson learned – ALWAYS have a compass and shoot a return azimuth to get back to a known location – ESPECIALLY in new territory. Don’t put yourself in a position where you must depend on electronics to save your bacon – ‘cause the possibility of breakage, dead batteries, or just no signal/information is very high. Some guy named Murphy even made a law up about that sort of thing, I hear.
Once back at camp, we relaxed a bit and rested our aging joints for a few minutes. After a while, there wasn’t much to do – camp was set up, we knew our immediate area relatively well, and we had a basic plan for moving forward here if there was a long-term SHTF event. Eventually, boredom set in. I’m sure in a real, long-term bug-out, we could have been preparing defenses, scouting the shore and local camps for people, animals, and local resources. We could have relocated the camp, or been long-term stockpiling resources, caching gear, planning for weeks or months out. But, we got bored. I imagine this would be a real issue in real-deal survival situation, especially if one was successful in bugging out away from people. Soon, though, we had the survival radio going and picked up a local station, and Jarhead Survivor started collecting materials to teach me how to start a fire with a bow drill – something I’d been bugging him about for a few months. (spoiler alert – it’s a hell of a lot more difficult then they make it look in the movies!)
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Once that played out, we decided to hop in the canoe with minimal gear (including a compass and topo map!) and we did some reconnoitering. A small trail marked on the map turned out to indeed be a small trail. No recent human traffic, but plenty of fresh moose and deer sign in the mud by the water. We followed the trail for a ways, but made the call that the rest of the trail probably looked exactly the same, so we headed back to the canoe. The northern end of the lake (by the inlet from another lake) had a mayfly hatch going on, and we watched fly fishermen reel in a couple beautiful brook trout. Good to know for future reference. The rest of the lake was, well, a lake, so we returned back to camp after a couple hours. It was getting close to dinnertime anyway.
Evening Routine And Big Lesson Number Two!
Back at camp and with nighttime falling, tents were set up (I strung a tarp with paracord horizontally over my tent as heavy rain was possible – I hung the tarp at a slight angle to drain the water off to the low-side ground behind my tent), gear was consolidated, flashlights were readied, lanterns were deployed ready to be lit of once it got too dark to see. We got the firepit loaded up for the evening. Out on the island, the black flies and mosquitoes weren’t so bad due to the constant breeze. Life was good, we were a bit tired from the day’s activities – we were “in” for the night.
A filling dinner of camp-grilled burgers, B&M baked beans, and frosty beers had us happy and relaxed. We gauged it was dark enough so that we could touch off a small fire and not have a smoke signature. All the tourists in fishing boats had motored by in the past half hour, likely excited to eat burgers and drink beers of their own. The dry cedar branches practically jumped at the opportunity to create a friendly, warm flame when the firesteel sparked. We, the two temporary residents of this island pretending to be long-term occupants, sat back on our coolers (camp chairs stayed back at camp, which ended up being kind of a sucky thing when it came time to sit back and enjoy the fire) and chewed the fat as we wound down.
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I heard one last unexpected straggler in a fishing boat motor by towards the camps and throttle back after he passed the island. Had I really been paying attention like I should have, I would have thought more of it. But I didn’t – the exhaustion was setting in after exploring the island and paddling a canoe in the wind around a large Maine lake. The Pabst Blue Ribbons and belly full of grilled burgers probably didn’t help.
“Hello in there!” The booming voice from the darkness caught us by surprise and we leaped up. The disembodied words came from on land – far too close to be yelled by a passenger on a boat. In one fell swoop, we both knew without speaking that this happenstance represented a huge failure on the part of the mighty survivalist’s bug-out planning. “You guys having a fire?” Our invader stayed out of the circle of light – I couldn’t see him, though I was facing him – and he continued engaging us verbally without moving closer. In the unlikely event of an actual bug-out, this guy would have had us dead to rights, and we’d never have seen it coming.
“You boys got a permit for that fire?” came from the darkness. Finally Jarhead Survivor said, “Hey, we’re all friendlies here. Why don’t you come into the light so we can discuss this?” Branches hesitantly cracked as the man worked his way into the low, shifting light thrown by the fire and Jarhead’s hurricane lantern. He emerged, showing us he was a tall, lanky kid in his early to mid 20’s. He never gave us his name, but his demeanor changed a bit once he was in our face. He mumbled something about us having a permit to be on the island at all. We asked if we needed permits, and the banter went back and forth guardedly. Mumbly said (without really definitively answering many of our questions) that he worked at one of the camps, they hadn’t had rain in four weeks, and we needed to “reserve” the island if we were going to be there. (Reserve what? I don’t know – there wasn’t a single campsite or improvement anywhere)
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Finally, we said we’d douse the fire, and ol’ Mumbles plodded out of the light and headed back to the land of mealy-mouthed communication from whence he came, leaving Jarhead Survivor standing there, blinking at each other.
Blinking soon turned to swearing as we explored the options of what might happen from here. Jarhead Survivor wanted to avoid a visit from a Maine Game Warden, who would likely give us a summons or two if we didn’t have permits for the fire or whatever permission we needed to be on this rock. It was well after dark now, and as we put out the fire as we promised, options were weighed. Jarhead wanted to pack up and leave immediately, but I reasoned that we were an hour to the closest cell phone reception, so a warden wouldn’t be visiting until at least 11:00, which I gambled was past their bedtime, or past their caring point of visiting a couple guys on an island after dark. We finally hesitantly agreed to stay there the night, but pack up and leave at first dawn to hopefully avoid any rampant ticket-issuing by North Woods Law.
Then we heard another boat motor coming up the lake, right for us. Super. Now that they knew where we were, they weren’t going to leave us alone. A valuable learning point. I was pretty sure this wasn’t a warden so quickly, but maybe Mumbles got some camp friends together to persuade us to leave by show of Mumble Muscle. We waited – and this time WE were the ones out of sight when the voice came from the boat. I could see the boat silhouetted against the water – one occupant. Jarhead Survivor was a bit grumpy about the situation, so I took the lead.
“Hello, how you boys doing in there?” came from the boat. “You still got a fire burnin’?” “Nah”, I said. “We doused the fire as soon as the other guy left.”
Expressing his appreciation, the gentlemen in the boat let us know that the lake was part of a land trust, and he was one of the caretakers of the lake and islands. Apparently, we should have indeed “reserved” the island for the night via one of the camps on the southern end of the lake. However, respecting the fact that we willfully extinguished the fire when asked, and since we were already set up, the boat guy said we were free to stay the night. If we wanted to stay longer, we needed to come reserve the island for another night. We thanked him, and he motored away into the night on affable terms. A success for the camping trip, a failure of epic proportions for anything close to resembling a low-key bug-out.
Retreating in Bug-Out Failure
There’s not much more to tell from this point on. We agreed that the trip had been ruined on multiple levels – and though we could have easily stayed longer and probably had a decent camping trip, we spent an uneventful night in our respective tents and packed up to head home the next morning. The wind was out of our sails; we were departing the scene with hung heads and some lessons learned indeed.
Jarhead Survivor and I chatted about the “bug-out” the entire way back to his place, and over the next couple days we collaborated via email to come up with a list of lessons that were discovered or affirmed by our pseudo run for the hills. These lessons will be outlined in the next one (or two) articles. Stay tuned. Any critiques? Ideas or theories on what we learned? Sound off in the comments below!