Death Tree: The Story Of How I Could Have Died Before Even Graduating From College

It’s February of 2016. It’s cold, but not unseasonably so. Cold enough, however, that you feel it in your bones, especially if you’re spending the entirety of the weekend outside, like we are. I’m with the boys from Bushcraft School, John and Ronald, (I’ve changed the name of the school and of the people) and they’re going to guide me through a crash course on how to survive the great outdoors in the winter. We’re prepared. We’ve got pots to cook in, wool layers, canvas tarps, military grade sleeping bags, knives, rope, food, and alcohol. We’re prepared for anything…except what happens on the second night.

Sandilands Provincial Forest is a massive expanse of undeveloped land south-east of Winnipeg, stretching from the Number 1 Highway down to the US border. The roads are not maintained, so travel is hazardous, even for a jacked up 4×4. Luckily for us, we only have to dig out once, despite almost sliding off the treacherous road a couple times on the way in.

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It’s quiet here. Eerily so. There’s few signs of humans, and you can’t hear the highway. But for a prairie boy, the high pines and rugged terrain means peace and serenity. We make camp on the high bank of the Whitemouth River. Narrow and long, this river winds its way through the area for kilometers, carving a deep trench in the soft, sandy ground, until draining into Whitemouth Lake.

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By the time John and I arrive, Ron’s already got camp set up, which means fire. The way to make fire when winter camping is to burn torso size logs about four-feet long. If you burn three before bed, you should only have to wake up once, at about three in the morning, to stoke the fire (depending, of course, on the wind). I walk in and set down my gear. Camp is two lean-tos forming an open ended triangle, at the centre of which is the fire pit. Over the fire is a make shift tipi to hang pots. Pots are used to melt snow for drinking water, and to cook food in. The only way to wash them is with a fistful of snow.

I’m here to document the process of camping/surviving in winter. With me, is my t5i, six or seven batteries, three lenses, my tripod/monopod combo, some food, and layers. It’s my first major solo project. My goal is to create a 5-10 minute mini-documentary for my documentary production course. I knew heading out that I’m light on storyline. But the extreme length that I’m willing to go to capture footage, I’m hoping, will play into my favour (this is not how one goes about creating doc films, by the way, lesson learned).

Fire is absolutely the most essential part to lasting any amount of time in the outdoors. Without, it’s impossible to survive. I quickly learn that it’s not as easy as heading out and cutting down a few trees. The trees need to be already dead so they burn, and they need to be thick enough to burn for long.

Each day we head out on a wood gathering expedition. The second day was no exception. We take turns pulling the toboggan with 200+lbs of dead tree on it back to camp. I return to the cut site with the empty toboggan to learn that the chainsaw got stuck inside a back-leaning tree. The plan? Get rope, tie it as high above the cut as possible, pull the tree in the opposite direction just slightly enough to pull the saw out, continue cutting. This plan sounds good enough for everyone, so I run back to the truck and grab a long bundle of rope.

With the rope slung over my shoulder, I walk back to the cut site. I can’t believe how quiet it is out here. Aside from a few gun shots last night from hunters at least two kilometers away, I’ve heard nothing but my own camp, my own footsteps in the snow, animals in the night. On one hand, it’s kind of terrifying knowing that if anything goes wrong, the chances of anyone knowing about it are slim. There’s no help. Where we are, cell signal is sporadic at best. Go a few kilometers deeper still…nothing. But on the other hand—the hand I prefer to use most—it’s a peaceful reconnection with nature. Moreover, it’s a lesson of need versus want. Out here, you have the time to learn the difference, and I’m learning that most of the stuff I have in life is based out of want, not need. This kind of camping is a throwback to a simpler time, with simpler technology.

John and I stand at the end of about fifty feet of green rope. Ron stands at the chainsaw stuck in the tree. He gives the order to tug the rope; we tug…

I hear a sound like thunder, only with much less bass. It’s a sound I’m not prepared for…a sound none of us are prepared for. The dead tree gives way with a sharp, soul-shattering crack, and begins to fall right at us. Time stands still for a moment and everything plays out like a dramatic, slow motion scene in a movie. All of a sudden I realize the gravity of the situation. All of a sudden I realize that as a group, we balanced the weight of a chainsaw against human lives. Everything is so quiet…

I snap back to real time. John is yelling “Right! Right!” My brain can’t make sense of this command. I run left. I run directly into the path of the falling tree. One last scream from John. I realize I made a terrible choice, but I’m all in now. I have to pump my legs harder than they’ve ever pumped before. I hear the falling tree break branches of other trees. I know it’s close. I dive…

Things go slow again. I’m very aware of the fact that I’m about to be crushed by a massive tree. I’m also aware that my panic in the moment led me to put myself in more danger, like a deer running into the headlights. I can only hope that my effort was enough, that I ran fast enough, and dove far enough for the tree to miss my head and torso, and land on my hips or legs. I’m okay with the prospect of living in a chair, but I’m not okay with not living. I think of my family, my girlfriend, and imagine the pain they’ll feel upon getting the news of my death. I wonder if I made a selfish decision by organizing this trip, which is currently putting another in danger as well.

Everything stops. All is still. For a split second, I have no idea if I’m alive or dead. Everything is black.

I hear John’s voice. He’s asking me if I’m okay. I unbury myself from the snow, and tell him I’m okay. The tree is laying about a meter away from my feet. The tree missed John by a similar margin.

I get up laughing, even though it’s so not funny. John and I plan a shot of whiskey for when we’re back at camp before he goes off for a long, contemplative walk alone. Ron and I clear the tree and haul it back to camp for firewood. Survival doesn’t stop for near-accidents like this.

 

After the above trip, I came back with a really cool story to tell my friends, but the reality of it never fully sunk in. I spent this past summer not even thinking about the tree. But with the return of the snow came the return of the memory. The realization of what almost happened out there hit me harder while writing this story than the day it happened or any other day in between. That’s the power of writing, sharing, and storytelling.

For the record, I don’t blame the boys from Bushcraft School (not the real name, as I stated in the story, I’ve changed the name of the school and the people involved) for the tree incident. We all decided the plan was sound. And if I really remember hard enough, I can remember being the one who posed the idea initially. Lucky for all of us involved, no one was even so much as scratched.

In hindsight, though, the question becomes: Is the task at hand worth paralysis or death?

I guess at the time it was.

Thanks for reading.