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Saturday, March 07, 2009

Mistakes I've Made

Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, March 7, 2009.)

Soft, dry cotton is comfortable.
But perspire in cotton, and it doesn’t ever dry.

I’ve made my share of mistakes while hunting. All of us have, and some we might never admit. Today, I’ll admit two of them.

Do you know anyone who has ever used a survival “space blanket” or “space bag”? You know – one of those silvery foil-like survival essentials that folds up to the size of a hanky? Yes, you do. It was me.

My brother and I used them once on a mountainside high above the Resurrection River on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula. We had spotted a black bear, stashed our gear along the trail, and climbed the north side of the valley.

Thanks to a quarter-mile of tangled alders, it was a long stalk. We finally reached our destination, well above a group of mountain goats that were on one of the rocky ledges below us.

By the time we got there, the bear was gone. And with the sunlight waning, we decided to remain on the mountain rather than fight the snarled alder brush in darkness on the way down. We figured we were adequately prepared. We had some water, a couple of snacks, and our trusty space bags. So, we slipped into them and hunkered down.

An Alaskan mountainside is very cold at night during the first week of May.

The cold was only one problem. We also couldn’t find a flat spot and kept sliding down the mountainside. We solved that problem by bracing ourselves against a couple of stunted spruce growing in the meager soil.

That was a short-lived solution that led to a worse problem. The spruce needles were poking tiny holes in the spacebags, and in no time they were shredded.

I repeat: an Alaskan mountainside is very cold at night during the first week of May.

This wasn’t quite a life-and-death emergency, but it was one long, frigid night. Lesson learned: When using a survival space bag, find a position in a spot that is stable, keep movement to a minimum, and make sure nothing that can poke even a single hole goes anywhere near the space bag.

At least we stayed dry. But I was never so cold and uncomfortable until a few years later, again in Alaska, when I made an even worse mistake. We had hiked about three miles into a remote valley that was loaded with black bears.

A trail provided good footing, except where it crossed a half-dozen muddy spots or was washed out. Carrying a backpack with 50 pounds of gear was no cakewalk, and we worked up a sweat.

We were headed for a spot in the valley that was flanked by a steep hillside to the west, and grassy meadows to the east. We climbed a snowpack from an avalanche and settled in to watch the grassy meadows for bears.

It sounds like an easy hunt, but it wasn’t. Even though this hunt was the third week of May (and considerably warmer than the earlier hunt), I had made a mistake at home that made me miserable on the mountain. I was wearing cotton underpants.

Soft, dry cotton is comfortable. But perspire in cotton, and it doesn’t ever dry. There I was, perched on a patch of snow packed as solid as concrete, probably 10 feet deep. And my underwear was soaked with perspiration. It was like sitting on a giant ice cube after a sauna.

I couldn’t get comfortable, and I couldn’t stop shaking. I had to get that wet underwear away from my body – far away. I finally pulled my knife out, pulled down my pants, and cut those icy underpants off.

Somewhere, there is a photograph of me doing that. I hope it never sees the light of day.

Lesson learned: Never wear cotton next to your skin in cold weather. Wear ABC – Anything But Cotton. Alaskans have two words that very clearly explain why: “Cotton kills.”

I’m sure I’ll make more mistakes, but I won’t do that again. Not in Alaska. Not in Pennsylvania. Not anywhere.
***
Cure your cabin fever by attending a sport show. Here is a calendar of some of the shows in our region:
March 6-8, Erie Sport & Travel Expo at the Bayfront Convention Center in Erie, PA.
March 12-15, Western New York Sport & Travel Expo at the Fairgrounds in Hamburg, NY.
March 20-22, Ohio Deer & Turkey Expo in the Bricker Building at the State Fairgrounds in Columbus, Ohio.

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