Wednesday, July 8, 2009


This is a photograph of my father on his 74th birthday, smiling and laughing after a dunking in the fifty-degree tailwater at Lees Ferry. Minutes before I snapped this pic Dad was floating calmly downstream, feet first, waders filling with water, taking care not lose track of the fly rod his son gave him while using his arms like oars to steer himself in the style of a seasoned driftboat guide. I moved into position below him and gave him a quick assist into shallower water and to his feet. As is always the case when the unexpected happens, his eyes sparkled with delight as he extolled the virtues of an invigorating swim.

Clearly, I inherited what a friend once called “the sick gene” from my dad. Richard diagnosed me with this genotype during a midnight march out of the Tuolumne Meadows backcountry. We’d spent a spectacularly long day with our wives on the Matthes Crest Traverse and staggered our way toward the trailhead in the dark with two headlamps between us. “The worse things get,” Richard said to me, “the happier you get.” Actually, I was hungry-loopy going on dehydrated-delirious rather than happy but it had the same effect a good attitude has on getting one through a rough spot.

My dad’s good attitude came to mind again the other day when I was reading Laurence Gonzales’s Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why. I’ve been fascinated by survival stories since I was a boy and read Slavomir Rawicz’s epic, The Long Walk. The tales in Gonzales’s outstanding book affirm the attributes that carried Rawicz, and six other escaped prisoners, thousands of miles on foot from a Siberian Gulag to British India: Stay calm, be decisive, and don’t give up.

My early interest in survival stories eventually led me southern Utah, way back in the eighties, and into the care of an outdoor survival school. Upon completing the demanding, 30-day program I was invited to sign on as an apprentice instructor. I jumped at the chance and stayed in the field for another 75 days. During that extended summer, I experienced everything from flash floods under lightning skies to the biting deer flies that made the most pious students among us question Intelligent Design. Along the way, I learned first hand that the key to survival is to stay calm, be decisive, and don’t give up.

I’d like to add one thing to Gonzales’s maxim for survival, something essential that I learned from observing my father. Laugh.