Bone tired and thirsty, I had been walking for hours. Suddenly the quiet around me was shattered by a rhythmic thump-thump-thump. I looked up through dense tree branches and saw a helicopter. A big helicopter, with red Coast Guard markings. For a few seconds I couldn't figure out why they were this far from the coast. Then it hit me. They were looking for me.
My wife, Lynn, and I are avid birders, so when a friend from the University of South Florida invited us to go camping for a weekend, we eagerly accepted. We went along with a group that regularly camped in the Croom area of the Withlacoochee State Forest because of its equestrian trails and excellent facilities for horses and riders. We were in it for the birds, and thus hoofed it on foot.
On Saturday, we saw a new species for us, Carolina chickadees, a "lifer" as birders call adding another species spotted to their life list. On Sunday morning, hoping for more birds, we went for an early walk on a trail close to the campsite. It was about 8 in the still-cool morning when we finished the trail. Lynn wanted to go back to the campsite, but I wanted to hike a little more. She waved and said, "Don't get lost." I waved back, but was a little bit irritated at her remark, as I have an excellent sense of direction.
Walking through the woods on this May morning was pleasant. There was no hum of distant traffic. There was a background chorus of cicadas and crickets, and the occasional rustle of a breeze in tree branches. I didn't see any birds, but it didn't matter. I had traveled light, with birding binoculars, a guidebook to Eastern birds and a couple of cough drops. It was easy going.
After an hour or so I began to wonder which direction the camp was. I kept finding bits of trail that seemed familiar, but all they led to was more trail. I did notice gravel roads every so often, which I presumed were for fire control. I didn't have the good sense to just sit down and wait until someone came by. I was lost.
Maybe two more hours passed, and I kept walking. It got warmer as the day went along. I got thirstier and thirstier and had little sense of how important it is not to get dehydrated. I found no streams and no pools, and even if I had, the water likely would have been dangerous to drink. This wilderness area was nothing like the kindly county parks I was used to, with their readily available water and restrooms.
I kept walking. A bit of trail would look familiar and lead to more trail. I must have hiked 15 or 20 miles. I had neither a map nor a cell phone. The sun got lower and lower, so I decided to find a place and stay put for the night. I found a tree trunk lying next to a gravel fire lane. I ripped my sweatshirt and put it on the log. I was so tired it felt fairly comfortable. That's when I heard the helicopter. I yelled and jumped up and down, but there was no way they could see me through the trees.
Night soon came. I sat on my log by the side of a fire lane, grateful for a little moonlight, listening to the sounds of the night and wondering what a pack of wild hogs could do to a lost hiker. I remembered horror movies in which unnameable creatures jumped out of the dark onto unwary campers. I recalled stories about snakes and alligators. And I wondered what facing my wife would be like.
I was alone with my thoughts for hours. Then I heard distant voices. The voices got louder and I shouted, and suddenly I was in the beam of several flashlights at once. I felt a dog's wet nose pressed against my knee. Police dogs had followed my scent and found me. Relief overpowered my considerable embarrassment.
Everything after that became a blur. I found myself in an emergency vehicle being examined by EMTs. They found nothing wrong except dehydration. I declined transport to a hospital, and was soon back at the campsite.
There I was, fully aware that my stupidity had caused a lot of people a lot of inconvenience. My wife had spent hours driving trails with the park ranger looking for me. The other campers had spent the entire day searching. I really couldn't say anything to them except "Thank you," and "I'm sorry." Not only were the Coast Guard, park rangers and police dogs searching for me, even the Boy Scouts were mobilized. All told, more than a hundred people. I shudder to think of how much it all cost.
My wife had the good grace not to say, "I told you so!"
Greg Brecht is an adjunct professor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, teaching, among other things, professional writing and humanities.