mountain camp

Wilderness Survival

By Diomedes | Robert O'Reilly | 1 Mar 2023



          One morning, as we were breaking camp at the river's edge, there came out of nowhere a young man dressed in furs, wearing a fur cap and carrying a rifle on each shoulder.  He asked if he could join us.  We gathered round him and asked who he was.  He called himself a trapper and had been living in these regions all alone for the last seven years.  He said he knew the area well and could help us out in the matter of survival.  Besides this he informed us that he’d been watching us since we’d set up winter camp and wished to join us now because he knew we were decent people, not like some others he had spied on.  After a minute of deliberation we gladly agreed that he join us.

          On his advice we made another camp on a more elevated bank a few miles upriver.  While we were setting up our tents he went off in the afternoon and returned a few hours later with a fresh-killed buck on his back, proving he was worth any five of us in procuring food.  The whole tribe feasted on its good fortune that night.

          After dinner we sat by the fire and asked the newcomer about the people he’d seen in these parts.  The news was a little disappointing.  There were no communities anywhere near, just a few scattered bands of Indians who would have nothing to do with us.

          There had been one clan like us several years earlier, wandering to no purpose.  But they were less adapted to the wilds, sicklier, and suffered in the end from internal dissensions.  In the middle of a cold winter they split into two factions of about twenty each and parted to die miserably of starvation in the next months.  He said he’d watched the sad drama unfold through his binoculars.  He even regretted not aiding them, especially towards the end.  But he said both groups had bad leaders.  The last survivors even took to cannibalism in one camp, but they all died of cold and hunger in two wretched hovels less than ten miles apart.

          Besides these, he told us, there were a few others, always in groups of two or three or four, but no women.  These men were to be avoided, he said, because they robbed and killed.  The especially violent ones the Indians themselves killed, as he had come across the remains of those slaughtered.  All these men depended upon their dwindling supplies of ammunition, and their days were as numbered as their bullets.

          His name was Hiram and he was a remarkable fellow.  He had grown up in the mountains with his father, in a cabin.  As a boy he’d learned all the skills so valuable now.  When the plague broke out he’d just been sent off to school.  He quickly made his way back to the wilderness and to his father to escape the contagion.

          Realizing that their stay in the wilds might be a long one, they set up a string of caches full of supplies and ammunition.  This took over a year to accomplish but it was enough to last them a lifetime.  Then his father fell sick after buying the last of their stockpile.  His final words to his son was to avoid humans at all costs, and he took this advice to heart and spent the next three years in the deepest recesses of the Rockies.

          But loneliness and a lack of purpose finally led him down the mountains, and he developed his habit of spying upon others and shadowing them, for some shadow of company.

          He was surprised once by several Indians.  But he discovered by the gift of a rifle and some ammunition that he was welcome to trade and coexist with them, an honor they extended to no one else.

          He told us that in his opinion we should go west, for milder winters and better game.  He was heading in that direction himself before he spotted us.  If we were to find any others like us it would be there.  The mountains were barren.

          It didn't take much debate on our part to agree.  We told him our own stories of 'rovers' and our policy to stay well away from any towns wherever we went.

          So we followed the advice, almost the leadership, of our newcomer and organized ourselves along more military lines.  Our first order of business was to collect some of the supplies he’d hidden in the mountains.  We built a small stockade for our group while I and four others left with him for two weeks to help carry back his treasures.  He left behind the two rifles since he also carried a pistol which he never parted with.  The six of us set out, straight into the wilds.

          It was on this very first trip that he began teaching us about survival.  He showed us how to make and set traps, track game, find our way, and what plants and roots were edible.  From my eagerness to learn and from some similarities in our characters it didn't take long before he and I became close friends.

          We travelled high into the mountains and, after visiting two of his stockpiles, descended loaded with twelve more rifles, scopes, thousands of rounds of ammunition, metal traps, fishing gear, binoculars, maps, compasses, knives and four more pistols, with holsters.

          From now on we felt like a little army, and for the first time, the masters and not the wretches of our environment.  We still took every precaution though and sent out armed scouts ahead of us whenever we moved.  The first and last members of our column were also armed, while the baggage carriers and weak ones filled the center, in comparative safety.

          We kept to the valleys and forests.  We avoided roads and open spaces and the charred remains of towns.  I was often a scout and soon learned to hunt with a rifle.  Hiram and I would most often be ten or fifteen miles ahead of the others, marking a trail, roughing out camps and even stocking them with supplies of fresh meat for the others to enjoy at their day's end.

          With all my questions about every detail of the woods, and his endless questions about my past life in the city, before and after the plague, our conversations were almost continuous, from dawn till late into the night.  I suppose he was catching up for all the years of solitude.  But I couldn't tire him, with questions or answers, no matter how long-winded or detailed they were.  For every fine lecture he gave me about the properties of plants or the habits of animals, he expected one back, on history or government or anything else that I knew.

          By late summer, without a single accident or encounter, we reached the Pacific coast at a spot that we calculated to be about eighty miles north of the old city of Vancouver.  There were islands off the coast and good fishing, but no sign of man.  We made canoes and searched the region and built a solid winter camp a five miles inland, along a rushing river.  It would have been dangerous to settle on the coast, where any passing ship might surprise us.

          After our fort was built it was decided that before winter set in Hiram and I should journey south along the coast and see what had become of the city there.  We travelled slowly, on foot and by canoe, as there were many inlets to cross.

          On the fifth day, after rounding a point in our canoe, we saw across a wide bay a white fortress commanding a small port, with concentric circles of streets and rows of houses going off into the distance, covering the uneven terrain of small hills behind it.

          We could also see through our binoculars a long, white tanker at one end of the port and smaller boats that looked like fishing trawlers, lining a row of wharves.  We paddled our canoe to shore, in case other vessels were nearby.  We could tell that the city was bustling with activity and could even hear the sound of hammers banging upon metal and traveling across the still waters on that quiet afternoon.

          Though I’d never seen the city in its former state it was obvious that a large extent had been razed to the ground.  The hills on every side were barren, denuded of trees and structures for miles around.  When we reached the border of these hills we had a better view.  We could see with our glasses the specks of people and carts moving along streets.  On the waterfront behind the tanker we saw factories with smokestacks smoking.  Behind them, on another hill, there were reservoirs like those once used to store oil.  On the furthest hill, to the south, were rows of shiny glasshouses, no doubt the food supply of this thriving community.

          What amazed us most was the dazzling whiteness of the place.  Everything was so bright it almost hurt our eyes to gaze upon.  It was not like the dull, greyish-white cities I remembered, full of the dust of demolition and reconstruction.  This was obviously the perfected result of such toil and zeal, and countless coatings of paint.

          Around the edge of the city, forming a margin or belt about a half mile wide, stretched an extremely smooth and white cut of land that appeared to stand in some symbolic way for a wall.  We were intrigued by it and wanted to get a closer look.  So we hid our canoe and circled around to the east.  We kept to the woods in this maneuver, crossing an inlet far upstream from the town and then approaching it again from the south-east.  It was almost evening as we reached the margin of cleared ground.

          We crossed the first naked hills hastily, as there was no one in sight, wanting to get another look at the place before the light failed.  I noticed now in the low weeds and grass I was treading over that there was a great deal of rubble, pieces of concrete and charred wood and the outlines of streets.  This must have been an old suburb of the city, destroyed by fire, and now crudely razed.

          Soon we came to the top of another mound at the edge of the trimmed hillside.  It must have taken immense labor to smooth and plant so many acres so finely.  Before us lay a thick and close-cropped lawn of the whitest grass.  On the opposite hillside we spotted a small flock of unattended sheep, which accounted for the trimness of the grass.  It felt strange to walk upon, almost slippery beneath our leather boots.

          We went another quarter mile to another crest from which we could spy.  Only a small portion of the city was visible, most of it obscured by another height, but we dared go no further because the dark hues of our fur clothing would stand out against this backdrop.  Indeed, this was the only purpose I could imagine for the lawns themselves, to give a visual warning of someone's approach.  But the labor of this defence must have far exceeded any other work imaginable, and I guessed right that it was just one more of the sick aberrations that had infected the thinking of the Church.

          One thing we could see was a road painted white and in good repair, coming east towards us and then turning south through a valley before disappearing in the distance.  Then we saw someone on a bicycle traveling it towards the city, probably a messenger just as I had been.  So this signified the presence of another city to the south.  From what I remembered it would probably be White Seat, the capitol of the Northwest.

          The light was fading and we were about to retreat when we caught a glimpse of another scene that bothered us.  Across the bay to the north of the city we spotted a landing and a road that wove into the hills, right in the direction of our own camp.  At the water's edge there was a dock and a ferry boat, and it was now being loaded with what looked like a platoon of men, coming home from some kind of work.  They were standing in a close, square formation and wearing the same uniforms of long, white robes.  We were at a loss to guess what their business in that direction might be, but knew we had to discover it for the threat it posed to our own people.

          It was dark now and we retreated to the cover of the woods to camp for the night.  By our small campfire deep in the forest we debated the possibility of another city to the north.  But this seemed impossible, unless it was further to the north than our own camp, and the highway to it broken or just being built.  We had scoured the coast all the way down and found nothing.  But perhaps roads were being built further inland and from both directions, as they usually were, and about to converge somewhere dangerously close to our own camp.  The situation was potentially critical.  We had to get more information before we returned, which spying through binoculars seemed unlikely to yield.

          So I unluckily conceived and volunteered myself that night for a daring mission, the outcome of which I was to ponder and rue for many years to come.

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B.A. in Latin and Greek from U.C. Berkley. Writer, Blogger and retired Electrician.

Robert O'Reilly
Robert O'Reilly

I am educated in the Western Classical Tradition, B.A. from U.C. Berkeley in Latin and Greek, English major, one year at U. of Toronto, studied under Alain Renoir and Northrop Frye, read most classics full time for many years after university in French, English, Latin and Greek to the modern day. I am interested in the near future of technology, what changes it imposes upon our heritage and character as humans. Short stories and Essays are my medium.

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