BY V. Paul Reynolds

In America today a once respectable word has taken on negative connotations. The word “survivalist,” to the average contemporary news consumer, conjures a vision of a bearded, wild-eyed anarchist who shoots at FBI agents from his mountain cabin.

Yet there are other kinds of survivalists, from mountain climbers and deep divers to corporate titans. Most of them are respectable. To one extent or another, anyone who is an adventurist, who gets off the beaten path to face nature on its own terms is a survivalist.

Most serious deer hunters are survivalists. Those of us who spend anytime in the big woods know that there is always that chance of, as they say, “getting turned around” – lost. Most hunters, even if they have never had to spend a night in the woods, have known that uncomfortable feeling that comes from not being sure where you are or how best to get back to the truck.

The wise hunter prepares for the contingency. He carries a survival pack that contains the bare esssentials to get by if the worst happens. Sporting goods companies market survival gadgets, from radio locator transmitters to space blankets and energy bars. Hunting safety instructors lecture newcomers about the need to be prepared and the kind of gear to carry. Aspiring new hunters are repeatedly subjected to this refrain: “Admit that you are lost and stay put. Start a fire. Someone will find you.”

This is all well and good. There is, however, another element of surviving woods shock that is crucial yet rarely gets discussed: the psychology of survival. Author and adventurer Laurence Gonzales examines the psychology of survival and risk taking in a fascinating book titled “Deep Survival.” He delves into the mysteries of survival and addresses the contradictions you will find if you start reviewing stories of survival. For example, why is it that a perfectly healthy and strong deer hunter can perish after one night in the woods while a 4 year- old child can survive the same woods for a week under similar conditions? And what about that December deer hunter in Western Maine last fall? He wandered aimlessly for a couple of days in the cold and snow. He fell through the ice. He didn’t know how to use his GPS effectively. In short, he violated just about every survival rule in the book, yet lived to tell about it.

Gonzales writes: “A survival situation is a ticking clock: You only have so much stored energy (and water) and every time you exert yourself, you’re using it up.The trick is to become extremely stingy with your scarce resources, balancing risk and reward, investing only in efforts that offer the biggest return.”

Gonzales maintains that people who perish in the woods die from confusion, or what he calls woods shock. He contends that there is more to surviving than what you have in your survival pack, or even how much training you have had. “At the moment of truth,” he writes, “those might be good things to have but they aren’t decisive.” In fact, he claims that these things, the cell phone or what have you, can betray you.

So mental preparation, as well as survival gear, equals survival, some of the time. There is yet another dimension. “..it’s not what’s in your pack that separates the quick from the dead. It’s not even what’s in your mind. Corny as it sounds, it’s what’s in your heart,” asserts Gonzales.

By example, Gonzales recounts some real-life survival ordeals of people adrift in lifeboats. All aboard were dehyderated, starved and desperate. Some lived; some died. The ones who went first “gave up” before their bodies did. There was a sort of spiritual collapse. By contrast, a solo Atlantic sailor managed to survive for months adrift by saving and rationing rainwater and catching an occasional fish. He finally drifted into a shipping lane. Upon being discovered, he told his would-be rescuers not to hurry. He was “fine.”

Clearly, some of us are born survivors and some are not. Which are you? ________________

Reader Feedback

The Northwoods Sporting Journal is the largest hunting and fishing magazine in the Northeast.