My errors turn into real trials

Standing in chest-deep water alongside a spoil island in the middle of Tampa Bay I suddenly realized why ancient mariners invented anchors.

You don't realize how important a good anchor is until you need one. My friend — who at that moment was probably wondering how he could kill me and dispose of my body — had a perfectly good anchor that would have held us fast after his boat broke down.

But "had" is the key word.

The anchor, a little rusty but nonetheless functional, was now sitting somewhere on the bottom of the nearby shipping channel.

How it got there, well …

People expect outdoor writers to be experts in everything from basic woodcraft to advanced navigation.

Some, and I am not one of them, will tell you they know everything there is to know about the outdoors and they always have. There was no learning curve. They were born that way, straight out of the womb, fishing pole in one hand, shotgun in the other.

Others, and this is the group I fit in, learned through trial and error. In my case, it has been mostly the latter.

While I went on my first camping trip when I was 6 months old, most of what I have discovered about the woods and the water has been self-taught.

Looking back, sometimes I wonder why I am still alive.

People have suggested that I write a book about my adventures and give it a catchy title, such as Life on the Edge: 20 Years in the Great Outdoors.

But to be honest, a more appropriate title would probably be The Knuckleheads' Survival Guide: Confessions of an Outdoors Writer.

A taste of what might be in the first couple of chapters:

You can start a fire numerous ways. Real men rub two sticks together. A piece of flint and steel also works well, especially when you have some nice, dry tinder to hold the spark.

My boyhood Scoutmasters taught me to never play with matches, but they never said anything about gasoline. Years ago, when I was a college student camping in Ocala National Forest, I just couldn't get a wet pile of wood to burn. Then I got this bright idea ... Well, you know the moral of that story. And who needs eyebrows anyway.

Some years later, a pal gave me a new pocket knife as we prepared to paddle across Georgia's Okefenokee Swamp. With a little practice, this nifty little knife could be opened and closed with one hand.

"Be careful," he warned.

But before he could add, "It's sharp," I had sliced my middle finger to the bone. Fortunately, he was able to stitch and splint the digit, but I spent the next three days giving what we used to call the "New Jersey salute" to every paddler we passed.

Then there was the time that I decide to paddle by myself from Chokoloskee to Flamingo, roughly 100 miles through Everglades National Park. I considered myself an experienced paddler — I could tip a canoe as well as anyone — but I knew a kayak would be a more seaworthy choice for such a venture. I wasn't going to let the fact that I had never actually paddled one stand in my way.

Halfway through the journey, I was hopelessly lost. On second thought, that is a bit of an exaggeration. I knew I was somewhere on the southwest coast of Florida, but exactly where, well, there's the rub.

But I'm not a complete idiot. I did have a map and compass. Once I figured out that these navigational tools work best when used together, I eventually found my way out of the wilderness.

It sounded like a good idea: park along Virginia's Skyline Drive, which crests atop Shenandoah National Park, and hike down into the valley below.

It was spring 1979, and I had everything a wannabe mountain man could need, including a faded denim jacket, Zippo lighter and two packs of Marlboros in a box.

While I had no tent, I did bring an old Army poncho to string between some trees if April showers decided to bring May flowers.

That evening, the sky looked a little gray, so I rigged my shelter. Everything was fine until 2 a.m. when the tarp collapsed beneath 18 inches of snow.

Hiking back up to my car I was cold, well, freezing. But at least I looked cool, stumbling along, cigarette clenched in my teeth. That's one way to quit smoking.

But back to my recent boating adventure …

Note to self: Whenever somebody hands you an anchor, make sure you attach the line to a stationary object, the boat, for example, before you toss it overboard.

When he wasn't stranded in Tampa Bay, Terry Tomalin paddled or swam 28 days in August, short of his New Year's goal of being on or in the water every day in 2010. Even though he is an outdoors writer, he is only human.

My errors turn into real trials 09/02/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 1, 2010 10:37pm]

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