Survival Challenge on the Oregon Coast

Tule reeds are soft enough for bedding, or, here, can be tied into bundles for roofing. / Photo by Joni Kabana

The past forty-eight hours were different shades of wet masquerading as day and night on the Oregon coast. Best I could tell, from the back of the van, was that we were in the Siuslaw National Forest, scarred as it was by clear-cutting. I made a mental note to take up that nonsense if I survived the next day and a half in the heart of the county of Umpqua.

What mattered for the moment was that I had been kidnapped by a benevolent faction of outdoor survivalists, who had sharp knives and more knowledge about how to get along in wilderness than I ever would. The rules were that we could bring only knives and a flint and magnesium to start a fire. No food, no water, no cell phone—nuthin’. Fire turned out to be everything.

It was the first day of a survival challenge that I had arranged with reality show Man vs. Wild consultant Mark Wienert, whose outfit, Lifesong Wilderness Adventures, operates from a secluded lodge south of Reedsport and another camp farther south near Mt. Shasta.

Wienert is built like a bear, has a child’s heart and talks in a voice humbled by Mother Nature and experience. As a young man on the Oregon coast, Wienert filled himself with the lessons of nature. When he turned 15, he discovered that he enjoyed sleeping on the bare ground in the path of wolves and grizzlies in British Columbia and Alberta. Still consumed by nature, he formalized his outdoor education under the tutelage of Tom Brown Jr., an Apache-trained tracker who had spent ten years wandering America’s wilderness with no manufactured tools.

“When all else fails, fire is the simplest means of providing comfort and warmth against cold and wet in the northwest forests”
— Mors Kochanski, Bushcra

Lately Wienert has worked with Bear Grylls, the Man vs. Wild survival monger, whose British accented narration makes starvation, dehydration and hypothermia sound more gamely—even fun. “If only Oy cood foind a bit of wahta, Oy cood fashion a spot uff tea from this poyne tree.” If this malnourished punter from the U.K. could hoist his arse up a rock face with his belt repurposed as a camming device, why couldn’t I?

The Lost County of Umpqua

Months ago, I tripped over a blink of text about Wienert and Discovery Channel’s Man vs. Wild in Outside magazine. The unlikely connection between the show and Oregon was all I needed to start a phone conversation. Now, wet and trekking into 630,000 acres of the coastal Siuslaw Forest on a winter morning, I questioned having made that call and my own ability to grasp the reality part of reality TV. What the hell had I been drinking/thinking?

What if my belt failed as a camming device? What if Bear Grylls was only an actor whose stuntmen were so plentiful and dispensable that three to five of them perished un-remarkably each episode only to be replaced by the next?

Wienert is built like a bear, has a child’s heart and talks in a voice humbled by Mother Nature and experience.

For the span of 1851 to 1862, Umpqua was its own county before being absorbed by Coos and Douglas, and has the distinction of being Oregon’s only county lost in transition from territory to statehood. How long could I, a descendant of Starbucks, mobile technology and good wine survive in the primitive wilderness of Oregon’s only lost county?

“Panic kills,” Wienert shared on the first day of training, as if he were still contemplating all of the prior campers who had panicked and died not knowing they were only five feet from Highway 101. I hadn’t actually planned on panicking, but his grave-like gravitas stirred panic in me. The fact that he had softly said, “Panic kills” with an inaudible comma and not a fully exclaimed exclamation point put me in an a full ellipses fit. And so … ?

He paused and surveyed the five of us in the cabin. There was Shane, my neighbor and a deliberative civil engineer with a well-protractored garage interior; Roger, a tougher Clint Eastwood who prefers wilderness to walls and compasses to company; Ely, the youngest of us by a more than a decade and a survivalist protégé who’d already taken a full battery of life-sustaining courses; and Josh, a bearded Ohioan and former Peace Corps missionary just back from a decade of survival in Madagascar. Then there was me.

My prior survival credentials consisted of getting lost in Brooklyn twice (age 31), pushing an overburdened VW microbus over the Tetons on family vacation (age 7), and hauling ass from a flooded canvas Sears tent into the same VW bus during a violent electrical storm in the middle of the night before the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (psychological degradation, age 10-40).

The National Geographic Society would not consider the Max family “campers” by any fair reading of the word. We had a tent, but it wasn’t for our love of the great outdoors. My dad was simply a cheap bastard (ongoing) who believed the money saved on accommodations was better spent on six tickets to The Mikado and a single appetizer divvied according to the eater’s height and weight.

If there was a weak link in the group, it was me.

Eating Out

Wienert had arranged a condensed four-day version of his six-day extreme Edge camp. For the first two nights, we bunked in yurts at the Umpqua Lighthouse State Park. With the exception of a few isolated outposts, this yurt was the most rustic thread count I’d endured to date. This is what bear cubs suffer to become Bear Grylls.

Over the course of the first two days, we learned how to start a fire out of nothing, how to build a shelter from branches and leaves, and how to decide which plants and bugs made good eating. My first foray into this primitive Whole Foods Market was almost my last. While Wienert was teaching us about the staph-infection fighting Old Man’s Beard, the green mossy drape over trees on the wet side of the state, a slow-moving piece of sashimi squirmed out from underneath a clump of leaves. I pinched it and brought it to my mouth.

One rule in fire fuel collection, so stupid it’s clever, is to never collect kindling or tinder lying on the ground.

“I wouldn’t do that,” Wienert leveled with no urgency. “The neurotoxins on the newt will kill you within ten minutes. … Oh and you might want to wash your hands, too. In the dirt. Right now.”

The Siuslaw National Forest stretches nearly 130 miles up the Oregon coast from Coos Bay to Tillamook with an unforested interruption around Newport. The easternmost edge of the forest is Marys Peak, a designated scenic botanical area ten miles west of Philomath. Ubiquitous on the floor of the Siuslaw (and elsewhere throughout the Cascades) is a juicy salamander called the rough-skinned newt, or Crater Lake newt, or Mazama newt. In all cases, you want to keep your distance or die. Bear Grylls would have known that. Canvas camper didn’t.

Into the Wild

After two days of cub training, mama bear Wienert chased us from his warm and dry cabin and out into a wet world where I saw more obstacles than opportunity. It was 7 a.m. and there had been no French press, in fact, no breakfast at all in the morning scrum into the wild. I tried not to let my stomach’s revolt reach my head.

Father Nature told us that we might reasonably expect to find tule along our path. If I was sacrificing food and water, I reasonably expected a foot-thick Tule-Pedic bed to ease my suffering.

Maybe it was because we were unspoken failures of our compulsory exercises of fire-making, tree-eating and shelter-conceiving the prior two days. Maybe it was because Wienert didn’t trust the ongoing weather we’d been having. Or maybe he had read my dad’s unauthorized biography, Profiles in Panic, The Disastrous Story of One Family’s Sole Outdoor Excursion. But, at the last minute, the survival master decided against blindfolding us along the kidnapper’s route into the forest. We weren’t fit to be blindfolded, as promised. Panic crept into my head and back to my stomach as the van drove deep into the forest and kept going.

Then the van stopped suddenly and we stepped into the void for the next day and a half.

“Remember what you’ve learned,” Wienert said, his soft voice barely audible over the falling rain. “You’re going to need tinder. Keep an eye out for places that would make good shelter. Don’t panic.” I felt as prepared as The Jerk’s Navin R. Johnson Jr. being cast into the real world with his family’s advice: “Never trust whitey,” and “If you find it, see a doctor and get rid of it.”

It was now around 8 a.m. and we set out along the trail, getting wetter and farther from food and drink and medical remedy. I kept an open mind all along. After all, the Man vs. Wild guru had opened my eyes to new possibilities in survival situation that, just two days ago, would have put the stink of fear on me.

Off trail to the left and to the right, we found branch-covered dens that could have adequately served as shelter should five grown men with knives want to spoon for the night. We walked on.

As we hiked the trail, we occasionally looked behind us to commit to memory trees, stumps, branches, rocks and clearings should we consider high-tailing it out the same way. This was a tracking technique I’d used on longer trail runs in the Deschutes National Forest but without the looking back part and with much less anxiety.

A good chunk of any survival challenge is stopping the creep of panic in your mind—a Man vs. Mind. More obvious obstacles for us were that we had only knives and the clothes on our back. We were vulnerable to a three-pronged attack: weather, Coastal Range bears and ourselves. I was in decent control of the latter, trusted in hibernation for the second and at the mercy of the first. In January, the central Oregon coast gets about ten inches of rain and the temperature averages 45 degrees. The hypothermia bacteria thrive in these conditions. As we tramped farther into the forest, our chances of finding dry tinder were dimming. I could feel the bacteria organizing on my limbs, along my spine and up to my hypothalamus.

One rule in fire fuel collection, so stupid it’s clever, is to never collect kindling or tinder lying on the ground. Of course, the ground gets wetter and stays wetter than its upright cousins. Instead, look for recently dead tree branches on vertical trees.

Roger, our Clint Eastwood, snatched twigs and grasses and pocketed them inside his rain shell and close to his body. His body heat would help dry out the material over the next couple hours of hiking. Those materials would help, but they might not be dry enough to bring about ignition.

It was after 1 p.m., and we had been hiking and gathering for five hours without food and water.

Among other trees, the Siuslaw has Douglas firs, Sitka spruce, the Western red cedar and Ponderosa pines. The Ponderosa pine tree is one-stop shopping for survival. It’s a survivalist’s all-you-can-eat buffet and makes good bedding as well as being the ignition key for pyromania. The inside of the bark is high in protein and can be eaten. Indians across this continent knew this long before the white man and made good use of it during harsh winters and while being chased by U.S. Army Infantry. I munched a bit and quickly decided to save the rest for my own prolonged flights from infantrymen.

Pine needles not only make good bedding, they also make an aromatic tea that is high in vitamin C. Douglas fir needle tea, however, is the Celestial Seasons of the wild. It’s aromatic, soothing and even a little spicy—the mood-enhancer among courting survivalists.

The rain continued as we pressed on. We were still hours from our destination when young Ely drew his knife. He halted abruptly before confronting a Ponderosa pine. He carved tumorous lobes from its bark. Our survival dojo had taught us to look for these tumors of gum, or “pitch,” clinging to the bark of Ponderosa pines. This rosin is highly combustible and burns intensely at lower temperatures. We would need these lobes of pitch to bridge the gap between dry tinder and wet kindling.

Things were looking incrementally better and our spirits lifted an inch or two.

Must keep feet dry: Still on the Trail

During training, we had spent some time inside a dry cabin trying to make fire from wet grasses that we rubbed into finer, dryer fiber. Our survival master had taught us to gauge the dryness of the fiber by pressing it against our lips. Strangely the same lips that are often coated with saliva, coffee, beer and other life-sustaining liquids are highly sensitive to trace amounts of moisture.

In the cabin, we had shaved wet branches down to their guts and then shaved piles of dry sawdust from those guts. We tested them against our lips and then pushed them into small piles of varying moisture. For hours, we had hovered over bundles of tinder and shavings, throwing sparks at them with flint and striker. Among the most advanced piles was Ely’s. Spark number 5,436 caught and festered, and Ely gently blew it into a flame. At last we had ignition! We whooped with elation.

Behind that elation crouched an ominous feeling that we were likely going to have to replicate that effort in a downpour.

As you’re plodding through a drenched forest in the winter and looking for tinder for the night’s fire that you know may never happen, and contemplating hypothermia as the witching hour descends like a blackbird, it helps to recall Churchill’s famous redundancy: Never, never, never give up. Ahead in the path, lay a large pine tree, inconsiderately forcing us up and over it. The others had crossed over marched up the trail. As I came to the fallen giant, I crouched down and reached into its scar.

“Shangri-La!” I shouted.

When it fell, the tree had cracked open and left a splintered interior that was bone dry with rivulets of sap. This discovery of dry timber on a planet awash tingled with the same euphoria as finding the fossil link between African Homo Erectus and modern man. Piltdown Tree! Pinus Non-erectus! Bear Grylls certainly would not understate a discovery of this magnitude. “It’s extreeeeeemly rayah to encounter wude this dry in the middle of a veritable dayluge! That will make fa supahb kindling latah and keep me aloive through the noight.”

Non-erectus had thoughtfully left a big enough gap that you could get in there with your knife and carve out some of it. We stashed the dry kindling under our rain jackets and merrily went up the trail and into history.

For one euphoric and delusional moment, I considered revising the Max Family History to account for an achievement of this magnitude.

Three Mile Lake and Tule in the Afternoon

The trail ended in a clearing at the southern tip of Three Mile Lake. We skirted the western edge of the lake and found detritus like rope, which we frayed into fine and more combustible material.

I was somewhat comforted by the fact that the Lower Umpqua Tribe had lived among the elements here 160 years ago, but I was also troubled by our differences from the Umpqua. They had embraced and nurtured the land like one of their own—Man with Wild. My relationship was more antagonistic and had a “versus” between us. They considered their present actions in a sustainable framework of how it would effect the grandchild of seventh generation hence. I was striving to save my ass and, if needed, those of my companions. The Umpqua had built 20-foot-long wooden lodges with removable roof planks to accommodate interior fires in the winter. Judging from the rudimentary sketches of shelters that Wienert had made the night before, the best we could hope for was a labor intensive lean-to or worse a pile of wet leaves to chipmunk into.

When the shavings ignite the tinder and flame up after a long, wet day of trekking and hoping, stern faces erupt into smiles and whoops. Fire at last!

The nearby Umpqua River and the Winchester Bay are chock full of sturgeon and striped bass, and crabs and clams. The Indians of the Lower Umpqua were likely fish whisperers who could talk fish into their weirs and eat abundantly. In winter, alongside an inland lake, we had only a fool’s chance of catching a winter crawfish or two.

If you subscribe to the coincidence that a broken clock is right twice a day, however, then mine were the hands that would pull the unlikely fish. Fortune favored my second lifetime catch. The first lifetime catch came in Mexico while deep sea fishing in ,90. I thought I was landing my first and only lifetime catch in more than a dozen futile angling attempts. No one—my weathered guide assured me—had ever caught a plastic milk carton the size of mine.

“A full gallon!” he howled. “Raro en el mar abierto,”

“Your tip,” I scowled. “Raro en el mano abierto.”

The Indians had also cut tule reeds for soft sleeping mats. Father Nature told us that we might reasonably expect to find tule along our path. If I was sacrificing food and water, I reasonably expected a foot-thick Tule-Pedic bed to ease my suffering.

From where I stood, Three Mile Lake appeared to be at least two lakes separated by a sandy saddle. We had hiked the length of the first and tipped on to the next. As we did, the rain stopped and the sun broke its three-day fast and gorged itself on the lost county of Umpqua.

We found discarded buckets that we could use for hauling kindling and water, and a piece of plywood to cover the tinder while we threw sparks at it. Around a bend, golden rays of sunlight reached down to golden reeds of tule wading in the lake! There on the second stretch of Three Mile Lake, we had found our camp.

Must keep feet dry: Dusk

The more you’re dehydrated, the less that zombie slogans like, “Must keep feet dry” matter. Death’s pecking order in wilderness survival starts with those who panic, those who dehydrate as a close second and those who starve a distant third. It was after 1 p.m., and we had been hiking and gathering for five hours without food and water. We had about four hours of daylight/graylight left and a load of work yet to be done.

A council of others debated the merits of potential shelters in the area. I didn’t want to join in and prolong the discussion. The break in rain gave us a window of opportunity to begin our pyrotechnics. We needed to seize the moment. The great shelter debate, I feared, would only diminish our chances for fire.

Knife and I slumped off to cut tule mattresses. Zombie slogans like, “Must keep feet dry” not only lose their structure when dehydrated, but invert to, “Must get feet wet” when you’re wading into shallows where the tule grows. I pulled off my boots and socks, rolled up my pants and walked into the lake. It was cold at first, but soon my legs and feet lost feeling to forgive me. Obsessed with the possibility of tule-supported comfort at day’s end, I waded deeper and deeper, squeezing together then cutting bunches of reeds just above the water level. The piles of tule grew, and Shane, the engineer, humped them up a steep dune to where the council’s deliberations had apparently ended.

I was singularly focused on procuring twice the amount of tule needed. If we couldn’t start a fire, we’d need to stuff our clothes with tule until we resembled the scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz. This was an old technique that Wienert had taught us earlier. This concept seemed the most practical and crucial to basic survival in any hypothermic climates.

Exhausted after two hours, I made my last harvest of tule and my first trip up to the council-approved campsite. They had settled on a spot covered by low hanging branches of a Douglas fir, but it was a far cry from the digs of the Lower Umpqua tribe.

My survival mates had used their knives and buckets to dig a pit and were intently trying to make it a pit with fire. Ely, Roger and Josh were huddled under the branches of the Douglas fir and sparking flint with steel knives into a tiny nest of tinder and shaved magnesium. I stopped to watch.

When magnesium shavings go up, they create an ephemeral but intense sparkler-like effect. When the shavings ignite the tinder and flame up after a long, wet day of trekking and hoping, stern faces erupt into smiles and whoops. Fire, at last!

In the end though, survival is never about “ideal” situations. It’s not so much Man vs. Wild as it is making the best possible decisions in less-than-ideal conditions.

We had gathered some kindling, but the appetite of a night-long fire was four times that of the material we had on hand. As darkness folded out, we ducked back into the forest on an earnest fuel-finding mission with a renewed sense of purpose.

Finally, our shelter needed many amendments if it was to continue calling itself shelter. It was too spacious to be cozy and our roof needed roofing. Shane began to tie together small packages of tule that would fill out our branched-in roof. The ceiling was probably too high to lock in heat, but the reeds would help keep out the rain.

The balance of the tule we distributed generously across the floor of the shelter for bedding.

Talk around the fire: Night

Campfire is the perfect lack-of-conversation piece. For all of the day’s experience, we uttered not a word but stared into the hypnotic flames waiting for our water to boil. There wasn’t much to say. We knew that we had beaten the odds, by getting a fire going under these conditions. We knew that we had all put our backs into it. And we knew that a long night still lay ahead.

With the breeze added back, the night temperatures dipped to near 40, but the storm had passed and we had a fire. The well-watched pot of water boiled and then cooled. We drank the best hot water we’d ever tasted and then made tea with Douglas fir pine needles. Our words were re-hydrated and conversation soon returned. Madagascar, food and time were the primary themes of babble well into the night.


Morning broke like the first day on Earth. The sun wormed through dissipating coastal fog creating oceans of bright blue for three bald eagles to rise in the morning breeze. A mile to the west, the ocean was folding itself into thousands of downward facing doggies and breathing deeply. We stood outside our shelter, stomping warmth into our feet and clapping feeling back into our numb hands.

We had kept the fire burning through the night, but it did little against the night’s cold. We slept fitfully, five heads to the fire. Ideally we would have all slept parallel to the fire to keep our entire bodies warm, but that would have required a fire pit at least 12 feet long and gobs more of fuel to keep it aflame.

In the end though, survival is never about “ideal” situations. It’s not so much Man vs. Wild as it is making the best possible decisions in less-than-ideal conditions. It’s making do with what you have and never, never, never giving up.

We kicked out our fire and trudged up over the dunes to the ocean and up the coast to our pickup location. It would be the first time that Josh, by way of Ohio and Madagascar, had seen the Pacific Ocean.

Survival Lessons
Gleaned from the 1859 Man vs. Wild Challenge

Don’t eat newts, they’ll kill you.Bring water to a boil to kill giardia parasite.Ponderosa pine and Douglas fir needles make for good tea and have high levels of vitamins A and C. Dandelions are also high in vitamin C. Common wild berries on the coast: huckleberries and wild blackberries.

Make your shelter small to lock in your body heat. Select a spot that opens to the east for morning sun/warmth. Build your shelter parallel to your fire and parallel to wind direction.
Get off the ground with a minimum of four inches of bedding material. Many kinds of reeds and Ponderosa pine needles make good bedding.

The driest kindling comes from standing dead trees. Grasses can be rubbed into thin fibers for good tinder. You can find dry wood by shaving wet layers off twigs. Pine trees have combustible sappy lobes called “pitch”. Build a fire the length of your body so your feet don’t freeze. Build a reflector wall with rocks behind your fire to reflect the heat toward you.

Hypothermia can occur at temperatures up to 60 degrees
If you can’t touch your thumb to your pinky, you’re on the way to hypothermia. You can stuff your clothes with grasses, leaves and reeds to help stay warm.

Panic kills!

Survival Camps in Oregon

Lifesong Wilderness Adventures
Specialty: Hands-on, personal instruction in basic and advanced wilderness survival; nature awareness and animal tracking skills.
Reedsport, Mt. Shasta

Northwest School of Survival
Specialty: Risk management for outdoor situations; mountaineering, navigation, backcountry and avalanche survival – Gresham

Oregon Peak Adventures
Specialty: Meeting the physical and mental demands of an emergency situation
Portland Community College

Trackers NW
Specialty: Youth and adult programs in survival, tracking, hunting and gathering – Bend, Portland

ReWild Eugene
Specialty: Naturalist and self-sufficiency classes as caretakers of the Earth – Eugene

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  1. After reading this article months ago, I laughed so hard I cried, I raved about it to my husband, and then I went about my life. But now that I’m on Twitter, I had to hunt down this article again to share it. Superb piece of writing! Patrick McManus would be impressed.