Surviving the Trip of a Lifetime

By Ryan Woythaler

It’s the fishing trip you’ve waited your lifetime for. Years of hearing stories and dreaming about Canada’s north woods fishing and you are finally making it happen. A week with your best friend in a remote fly-in lodge, what more could a guy ask for? You did everything right, you researched the best lodge on an otherwise deserted lake, well away from all the other tourists and newbie fisherman. You are in the back woods and that’s the way it should be. The memories made from this trip will never be lost; but if you aren’t prepared you might be.

Towards the end of your trip your fishing partner comes down with a cold and says he’s going to take a day off and lay around the lodge. You being the ambitious fisherman you are decide to take off in a lodge V- bottom boat on your own. You’ve fished the lake for a few days and know how to get around and have a few new places on the far end of the lake you wanted to try out. The thought of spending a day catching fish and exploring at your own pace and on your own terms sounds like a well deserved reward. That is until you’ve got that little outboard wound up tighter than a watch spring on the leeward side of an island and hear the gut wrenching sound of rock on aluminum and get thrown forward out of the boat into 50-degree water.

You are now dog paddling in water that can cause the first stages of hypothermia in under five minutes while wearing boots, jeans, and a flannel shirt that are hell bent on dragging you down to a meeting with Davey Jones. As you watch your boulder-gouged boat sink to the bottom and try to clear your head as to what actually just happened you need to think of the “Rule of Three’s”.

A human will die within:

3 minutes without oxygen
3 hours of exposure to freezing temps or without shelter
3 days without water
3 weeks without food

All survival should be addressed in the order of the rule of three’s.

The first one should be pretty obvious, but what you need to be doing is grabbing as much gear as you can floating on the surface and head for dry land because rule number one is about to rear it’s ugly head quickly if you’re not wearing a life vest. Add in the panic of suddenly losing a boat and all your gear and you are in a very bad situation.

Luckily the nearest shore is close, but unluckily it takes you to a side of the lake that is barren of even a logging road. When you crawl ashore all you have is what is in your pockets and whatever floating debris from the wreckage you were able to secure.

You now find yourself in a unique situation, one of those that unprepared people often find themselves on the losing end of Murphy’s Law and finished off with a solid dose of Mother Nature’s unremorseful behavior.

The next rule of three’s mandates that you get yourself a fire started immediately to keep yourself warm, dry your clothes, signal any rescue, and to help ward off the evil thoughts that are about to creep into your mind when that last ray of sun disappears behind the conifers.


Gathering the proper material for a fire is just as important as having a source of fire. You are going to need everything from tinder, like dry pine needles to logs several inches in diameter. Starting a fire without modern convenience is something most people take for granted, starting a fire is only half the battle. Keeping a fire burning is the goal. The last thing you need is to be running around looking for larger logs to burn once you have the tinder glowing and ready to go. Have stacks of starter fuel (dry leaves, pine needles, grass) next to an ample supply of aged twigs 1/8” to ½” in diameter with a pile of 1” and larger diameter logs standing by.

If you were prepared you had a lighter in your pocket or some waterproof matches in your dry bag that floated to the surface or the bank. If not you are going to have to get creative. You can create fire using the bow and drill technique. There are several components to a bow and drill, most of which are easily gathered from the forest. You will also need a knife (you had a knife in your pocket, right?) and some paracord. A bootlace will work if no paracord is available.

The Fireboard
The fireboard is the bottom piece of the setup where the heat and coals will be created from the friction of the spinning drill. Start with a branch or log that is flat on at least one side, preferably both. The fireboard should be roughly 12” long and 4-5” wide. On the edge of the board create a V-notch shaped cut. This will allow oxygen to get to the drill point.
The Drill 
Luckily in the soft woods of Canada finding a drill is easy. Select a straight limb roughly ¾” in diameter and 12-20” long. Whittle one end to a tapered point like a pencil and the other end to a rounded blunt point.

The Handhold or Socket
The handhold will be used to put downward pressure on the drill. It should be a semi flat piece of wood roughly the size of a bar of soap that is easy to hold onto. Use your knife to carve a small indentation where the drill will rotate without slipping out. It’s a good idea to lubricate the area where the drill spins in the handhold to prevent this end from becoming hot. You want the other end to produce the heat. Oily plants work well for this as does ear wax or oils wiped from your forehead and nose.
The Bow and Bowstring
For the bow select a limb roughly the length of your arm and about 2” in diameter. If you can find one with a slight curve to it, that would be preferred. Use your paracord or bootlace and tie one end onto the bow with a permanent knot and the other end with an adjustable knot. There will need to be enough slack for one loop around the drill.

The Coal Catcher
For the coal catcher locate a small flat piece of wood or bark to place underneath the V-notch in the fireboard. The hot dust and embers created from the drill will fall out of the V-notch and collect here.
Tinder Bundle
Collect dry grasses anything very lightweight that will ignite easily. Cattail fluff works great for this if it is available. The bundle needs to be loosely put together; the idea is that you will dump the hot coals that gather on the coal catcher into the tinder bundle and ignite it by blowing gently on the coals to provide them the oxygen needed to spark the tinder into life giving fire.

To use the bow and drill, first prepare the tinder bundle and have a fire pre-built and ready to ignite once you have the tinder bundle burning. The tipi or log cabin technique both work good for this. Begin by placing the coal catcher under the V-shaped cut in the fireboard. Place one foot on the fireboard. Loop the bowstring over the drill and place the drill in the precut depression on the fireboard. Place the handhold in your non-dominate hand on the top of the drill to hold it in position. Press down on the drill and saw the bow back and forth to spin the drill. Once you have established a smooth motion, apply more downward pressure and work the bow faster. This action will grind hot black powder onto the coal catcher causing a spark to catch. When you see the smoke don’t stop, continue to spin the drill awhile longer to get some coals going. You then take the coal catcher from under the fireboard and dump the hot powder and coals into the tinder bundle. Blowing on the tinder gently will hopefully get the tinder bundle to ignite, and then transfer the bundle to your pre-built fire and congratulations you’ve built fire! On paper it sounds like a hard tedious job, if done incorrectly it can be. However if you follow the directions building a fire this way can be done in a matter of minutes.

Make sure you have some green or damp wood standing by to throw on the fire and create some black smoke should you happen to see or hear a search plane or boat. Green pine needles work well for this. If there is plenty of wood available three fires in a triangle is the universal signal for distress. Maintaining three fires may prove difficult, so at the very least have two more fires ready built to be lit if a plane should be seen or heard. You can also drag logs to a clearing to signal planes. Logs in the shape of a “V” indicate that assistance is required and any planes flying overhead will notify people of your location.

With a warm fire going and some dry clothes the immediate dangers of hypothermia are behind you. Now you are faced with a bigger problem, getting yourself found. In most situations it is best to stay put and wait for the rescue workers to find you, but you will need to be realistic about your situation. Who is expecting you, when are they expecting you, do they have a means to contact the authorities to report you missing? How soon could a search party be formed? Terrain, proximity to civilization, and time are all going to dictate whether staying put is the best move or walking out is your best option. In this case you are not at all familiar with the terrain and the view from the flight in confirmed that there are no roads or towns close. Your fishing partner back in camp is going to know within a few hours after nightfall that something has gone wrong and will get the search and rescue put in motion rather quickly. In this case staying put is going to be your best bet. You might as well make your stay on the shoreline as comfortable as possible because you might be there for a few days.


Luckily building a shelter in the soft wood, coniferous forests of the north is usually pretty easy and doesn’t require the use of an axe as limbs can be easily broken by hand. First, you’ll need to select a long, sturdy pole. It should be at least five inches in diameter and strong enough not to break under the shelter’s weight. This pole will be the width of your lean to, so keep that in mind when selecting the timber. This pole is than lashed horizontally between two trees or propped up on two vertical poles of similar diameter with sturdy forks on the end. The next step is adding ribs, typically limbs that are roughly two inches in diameter and roughly six feet long. These are placed at a 45-degree angle from the horizontal pole to the ground on the windward side and need to be placed close enough together to keep leaves and boughs from falling through that will be added next to act as shingles. Green pine boughs make excellent insulation and waterproofing. Start at the bottom and pile pine boughs and leaves onto the ribs so that wind and rain will be kept at bay. Pile enough that you cannot see any light seeping through. Green pine needles also make excellent insulation for laying on the ground to be used as sleeping pad and to cover yourself to be used as a make shift blanket.


To try and keep things on the bright side consider yourself lucky in the aspect that you are shipwrecked on some of the most pristine water in the North America so water procurement is not going to be an issue. One thing to be sure and to check for is any dead animal floating in the water or on the bank nearby. If a rotting animal carcass is found in the vicinity do not drink the water. Giardia is a nasty little parasite that can be found in waters with decomposing animal matter in them; keep moving until you find an area with good water.


There are many ways to procure food in the wild, but the best ones burn the least amount of calories. If you are actively hunting food with primitive means chances are you would have been better off staying put and saving the calories. Traps, deadfalls, and snares are all good methods of securing small game, and the advantage is that you set them and leave them. Fish spears can also be whittled out of long limbs with the knife that was in your pocket (you did have a knife in your pocket, right?). If any of your fishing tackle was saved during the sinking or floated ashore; you can make a spring loaded fish snare out of a green limb, some carved down pieces of wood and a hook and line. Bait can be found under rocks and by peeling back bark on trees and searching for grubs. Those grubs aren’t just for bait they can also be dinner!

Most people recoil in horror at the thought of eating grubs but after a few days without anything in your stomach you might find yourself looking at grubs in a completely different light. Not only are they packed with protein they also provide calcium, iron, and B-vitamins. Natures very own juicy power bar! A loop snare for small game such as rabbits and squirrels can be made in the same fashion as the fish snare by simply placing an adjustable loop on the trigger end of the setup in place of the line and hook. The advantage to using the spring-loaded snare as opposed to a traditional snare is that you are most likely not going to have any wire available and will be using cord or bootlaces for your loop. Any animal will quickly escape a rope snare by chewing its way out; the spring-loaded snare will hopefully dispatch the animal before it has a chance to chew through the loop.

Food is important for morale but not as important as fire, shelter, and water for survival. In a situation where you are waiting for rescue don’t ever risk injury to yourself or wander too far from camp and risk getting lost in the procurement of a meal. If you are hiking out of a survival situation then food moves up a notch or two on the importance scale to provide you with energy and calories for the walk out.


I think that deep down just about every outdoorsman has at sometime had a thought of being lost in the woods and to be found prospering with a well built shelter, some warm food in their stomach and maybe a manly beard to complete the look. But pride can be a killer; the main goal is to survive long enough for someone to find you. Stay put and wait for the rescue. The fire is keeping you warm, the shelter is keeping the wind and rain at bay, you have plenty of water around, and the traps are set. Keep your head about you, stay positive and stay near camp so you can light your signal fires. The search and rescuers will find you. There are many good books and web sites dedicated to survival and backcountry first aid, with their help coupled with the skills I brushed on in this article you should be able to return home safely with nothing more than a few good stories to tell your friends about around a campfire. Don’t ever leave home without your pocketknife, stay safe, and hope to see you on the trail!