January 17, 2013
The recent cold snap has reminded me of what a thin line we humans depend on for our survival. When I was outside just after dark Saturday evening and it started sleeting, I was wondering how the wild critters, the birds especially, were surviving in this sudden change of weather.
As I recall, the temperature dropped from 62 degrees to 34 degrees in a few short hours. Then on Monday it dropped to 4 degrees early in the morning.
I have always been fascinated how humans survived during the last ice age, 25,000 years ago, traveling with everything they owned on their backs or pulling a sled. This fixation of mine goes back a long way, not to the point of survival but more than an armchair participant.
When I was 14 or 15 years old, I read an account of a man doing research on how the timberwolves stayed healthy in the snow-covered wilderness of northern Canada. Much to his surprise, he found the wolves were eating only field mice and voles. In his experiment he tried doing the same thing but was losing weight fast and had the ongoing symptoms of scurvy and blurred thinking. When he changed his methods of eating the vermin whole (cooked, of course), his health returned to normal. Why? Because the inside of these rodents is where they stored their fat (energy) and their intestines included the green grasses they were eating (vitamins).
I’ve never gone to such extremes; however I have eaten about everything one can find in the woods — for short periods of time. Of course, almost anything is eatable — blanched in boiling water and loaded with butter or salt.
Years ago when I was a Scoutmaster, I took on the challenge of “light” backpacking. The idea was the satisfaction of being able to be comfortable in the outdoors with the minimum of equipment. Instead of a tent, I used a tarpaulin. A two-pound coffee can, called a “billi can,” was my mess kit and sticks cut on the spot were my utensils. Two wool blankets formed a sleeping bag. Utilizing a pack frame, everything could be wrapped up in the tarp and tied to the pack frame with a diamond hitch. My goal was to have everything I needed, including food, weighing in at less than 20 pounds. Today I look at the packs in the outdoor stores and notice the pack alone weighs more than that.
Once I went to Philmont Scout Ranch and hiked and camped in the mountains for 10 days with just such a light pack. On another occasion, I spent three weeks in the Boundary Waters Wilderness Area using a hammock with a roof and mosquito netting sewn top and bottom. Why do we do such things? Not just to be different but the challenge to overcome what we have lost in the transition of being modern.
Still I marvel at early man being able to cope in such hostile conditions. They did not have a how-to-do-it book to show them how to keep warm and dry. Their only teacher was trial-and-error. With a life span of 40 to 45 years, it is a wonder that we are here today.
The only remnants of these peoples living today are the indigenous groups found in Greenland and the Arctic in the Northern Hemisphere. Certainly we are better off today than we were thousands of years ago. With a lifespan almost twice as long, we spend our lives cushioned in comfort — albeit subject to the whims of modern technology. What happens when we lose all electrical power?
While writing this article, I ran across an old Army surplus sleeping bag I purchased years ago. It is down-filled and guaranteed to 30 degrees below zero. I remember when I purchased it I couldn’t wait to try it out by spending the night on top of the snow. Now, not so much — I much prefer sleeping in my heated bedroom under a couple of light blankets.
Last Sunday I watched the television show “60 Minutes.” They highlighted deep-water free diving. In the show, a man dove to 300 feet without the aid of any breathing apparatus — and survived. Asked why he did it, the man replied, “Because I want to challenge myself.”
The people today climbing mountains, jumping out of balloons and running marathons are not crazy, they are just begging to be different.