This episode of Everyday Marksman Radio is a bit more improvised than what you’ve heard so far. I’ve been doing a lot of writing, talking, and interviewing about the guns and shooting side of the house. For this session, I wanted to pivot a bit more towards the survival and skillset side of things.

It is one of the blessings of wilderness life that it shows us how few things we need in order to be perfectly happy.

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In this episode, I’m going back into some of my adventures to talk about two in particular. One was a fantastic three-week canoe trip through Northern Canada, the other was a jaunt along a section of the Appalachian Trail.

I chose these two because they are different kinds of outdoor endeavors, and each taught me different lessons. In some cases, lessons learned in one actually contradicted the other, which is what led me to the importance of planning for the environment and situation.

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McLennan Lake Canoe Route

As a young boy, I participated in the usual boy scout things. We did the weekend jaunts around local campgrounds, small canoe trips, and the summer jamborees. In hindsight, though, nothing was really that serious compared to what I would do later in life.

After graduating from high school, and just before starting college, a few friends and I took off to do a canoe trip in Saskatchewan, Canada. We arrived in Saskatoon and drove up to the McLennan Lake complex.

There, we met up with our guide and hit the water. For three weeks we paddled for 6 to 8 hours per day, found an island, pitched our tents, and rested up for the next day.

It was an incredible experience, and I don’t want to give you any impression otherwise based on some of the things I’m about to say. This is about the lessons I learned from that trip, and that means I have to focus on the things that didn’t go well.

Lesson #1: Paddling is WORK

I don’t know why I didn’t think about it at first, but getting in the boat and powering yourself through the lakes for that many hours per day gets exhausting. I didn’t train for this trip whatsoever, and it served as my introduction to endurance rowing.

Perhaps that’s one of the reasons I still enjoy it today as my go-to cardio workout, besides rucking.

So, once again, I’m back to talking about how fitness makes everything easier. It wasn’t just the days where we fought with bad weather and rough currents either. Up until that trip, I’d never done portaging.

If you’re not familiar with it, portaging is carrying your boat and gear as you move from one lake to the next. Sometimes, we had to carry our stuff for up to 3 or 4 miles at a time, in a single direction. Making three trips was pretty standard: one for the boat, one for the packs, and one more for the supplies.

Yeah, being fit helps.

The other component of this is that rowing with another person in your boat takes a lot of communication and coordination. I’m pretty sure my boatmate and I cursed up a storm on that first day while we figured out how not to zig-zag across the water and go in a straight line.

You see, sometimes you have to step back and learn to follow the lead of others. Even more important, you need to communicate your intentions to those around you so they know what to expect.

We eventually figured out how to get in sync, and we became exceedingly quick on the water together.

Lesson #2: When it’s Gone, It’s GONE

On this particular expedition, we had no resupply points. The only supplies we had for the entire three weeks was the buckets of stuff we could fit in our boats. The first supplies to start running out was, of course, our food choices.

We still had enough food for the entire trip, but the “favorite” items like cheese and dried meat were the first to go.

My takeaway from this was that any future trips required me to bring all of the food. That was actually a bad take, and I paid for it in another trip.

Lesson #3: Safety is NOT a Joke

I can already see former military officer me rolling my eyes at the mention of “safety.” But you know what, it’s still a correct statement.

There were two particular instances on this adventure that stand out to me.

First, while the bunch of us were roughhousing, someone ran into a nice pointy branch that went through a good chunk of skin next to their eye. Had it been a mere half inch the wrong direction, it would have gone through their eyeball entirely. Now keep in mind that we were in the middle of nowhere, with minimal supplies, almost no communication, and in a tough spot if things went wrong.

We got lucky that the guide was also a trained paramedic and patched up the wound.

The second incident happened when I was chopping firewood. Or at least attempting to.

I thought I knew what I was doing because I saw it on tv one time. Well, I didn’t.

My short axe missed the log and nearly buried itself in my shin. Thankfully, it missed by an inch or so and put a big rip in my pants instead.

So the takeaway here is that when you’re on your own like that, miles from help and no easy way to communicate, it’s even more important that you be mindful of what’s going on around you and how to take care of yourself.

Learn some first aid and trauma care, and teach it to others as well.

The Great Smoky Mountains

For this trip, which happened towards the end of college for me, a few of us set out to hike a leg of the Appalachian Trail. Having done the aforementioned canoe trip just a few years before, I thought I was good to go and didn’t need to prepare.

Again, I was wrong.

Lesson #4: Test Your Gear

The first of my failures started months before we even hit the trail. Instead of buying a solid pair of hiking boots, I went to the local military surplus store and got a shiny new pair of tactical boots.

Ugh.

These were stupid heavy and would cause me a lot of pain on the trail. At least I broke mine in, though. My friend who also bought a the same pair for himself didn’t even do that.

He was pouring blood out of his boots by the fourth day.

Even more, the fitness beast raised its head again on this trip. I grew up and lived in flat territory, and barely even got out to walk with a weighted backpack before the trip.

Needless to say, going from no practice at all to managing one of the most challenging legs of the Appalachian Trail with a 70 lb backpack was a mistake.

Between the heavy shoes, the overloaded pack, and the rough terrain, my knees were shot by the end. Every step hurt, though not as bad as my friend who went though everything I was going through on top of his bleeding feet.

A man can stand almost any hardship by day, and be none the worse for it, provided he gets a comfortable nights rest; but without sound sleep he will soon go to pieces, no matter how gritty he may be.

A lot of these things might have been alleviated by a good solid night sleep for my friend, but there wasn’t any to be had.

You see, we didn’t even check a weather forecast before going. I bought a long a nice 30-mummy bag that worked well for summer weather. But my friend had only a cheap promotional sleeping bag his mom had in the attic.

He was miserable, and I often woke up in the morning to find him huddling over the remains of the night’s fire trying to steal any warmth he could.

Horace Kephart, the Dean of American Camping, in 1906

Lesson #5: Plan Your Load

The weight issue gets me to the next problem we faced.

One of my takeaways from the canoe trip was to bring enough of the stuff I wanted. What I failed to account for was that the canoe trip went on for three weeks without resupply. When you do the AT, you’re really no more than a few days away from a stash, or at least bumming someone else’s supplies in an emergency.

Of the 70 lbs in my pack, I’m pretty sure a good 30 lbs of it was food. It was simply too much.

On top of that, we also made dumb decisions like having an entire tent for each of us. We would have been far better off by bringing one tent and dividing the parts between us.

Something else that we didn’t’ even think to bring was a real map of the area. Instead, all we had was a small brochure we picked up at the ranger station before hitting the trail head. It became exceedingly difficult to figure out where we were at any given time.

Wrapping Up

Of course, there were a lot more things to learn. I share a few anecdotes in this episode, but it is certainly far from over.

Now, many years later, I look back fondly on those trips for the camaraderie and friendships they built. But I also shudder to think at just how ill-prepared I was to deal with any serious problems that arose.

These days, you’d be hard-pressed to find me in the woods without a topographic map of the area, navigation tools, cutting, cordage, shelter, and other supplies. But I got there through experience, both mine and learning from others.

Alright, that’s it for this episode. The tone here was a bit more lighthearted than my usual- blame it on the whiskey I was drinking while recording.

Let me know your thoughts down in the comments.

Until next time, take care!

Matt

Matt

Matt is the primary author and owner of The Everyday Marksman. He's former military officer turned professional tech sector trainer. He's a lifelong learner, passionate outdoorsman, and steadfast supporter of firearms culture.

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Colorado Pete

Oh, my.
I’ve experienced some nearly identical fun myself, in my early days of adventuring. Especially when I started winter backpacking. Experience does make a great teacher, if it doesn’t scare you away. Or kill you.

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