Into the Wild: Part I

Watt Key poses in front of his makeshift shelter in the forests of Alabama.


The first time I moved away from Point Clear was when I went off to Birmingham-Southern College. I mainly wanted to get this college thing out of the way without disrupting the finer sides of being a young man. Of the schools I applied to, BSC was the closest to the Bay and hunting camp, making it the obvious fit.

I soon found that most of the other students were more concerned with traditional education than hunting and fishing. Somewhat alarmed, I buckled down and tried to do the right thing. However, like any good Southern boy, I really just pined for the outdoors.

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BSC had a month-long term in January called interim. For most, it was an opportunity for community service or additional study related to one’s major. I learned that it was also possible to design your own course. Ever since I was a child, I’d dreamt of living in the woods like a Native American. I immediately saw this interim term as the perfect opportunity not only to do it,  but to receive college credit for it.

In order to get my course approved, I needed a college professor to sponsor me, then I had to develop a formal proposal to present to a panel of faculty for final review.

I approached my history professor after class one day in early November and presented my idea. “I want to go into the woods wearing nothing but my underwear and live for two weeks.”

He studied me. “And do what?” I was surprised the idea needed more explanation — that it wasn’t immediately the most interesting proposal he’d ever heard.

“Just live there, ” I said. “Try to survive like an Indian.” I approached a second professor and was once again rejected and dismissed for similar reasons: They couldn’t find any academic merit to my proposal.

Optimism dwindling, I tried a third time with my young psychology instructor, Dr. Goodrich. I thought this was likely a long shot as she was from the Midwest somewhere and probably wouldn’t understand a Southern boy and his desire for the woods. But she listened to my one-sentence proposal and, to my surprise, I saw a faint glimmer of interest in her eyes. “That’s a fascinating idea, ” she said. “But I think we need to work on your presentation of the concept before we present it to the interim board.” I finally had a sponsor. The rest, I assumed, would work itself out.

Well, the rest turned out to be much more than I’d imagined. First of all,  we revised my proposal to suggest a study of isolation for the psychology department. And there would be required reading, such as Thoreau’s “Walden” and several survival books.

Two of my college mates soon got wind of what I was up to and expressed their desire to be a part of it. Once they were involved, modifications were made that included a full outfit of clothing, a limited supply of matches, and bows and arrows. I concluded these things were reasonable as it would be January and cold. We could find ourselves in real trouble without fire, and it could take us two weeks just to make a weapon. Otherwise we agreed to take no food, no water and no shelter. Our extra items included a knife, axe, skillet, water bottle, cooking pot, poncho and sleeping bags.

We submitted the proposal and waited. A week later, Dr. Goodrich called and told me BSC had approved their first-ever survival interim course. We were going into the woods.

The day of our departure, we woke at 5 a.m. in my house in Point Clear. Mom cooked us a big breakfast of bacon, eggs and biscuits and saw us off. By 7 a.m., we were 60 miles north at the end of a dirt road in south Monroe County. We spent another hour hiking under overcast skies into the Alabama River bottom swamp to a place I knew from previous hunting seasons. We spent that first day building a palmetto and pine bough shelter in the rain, all of our gear soaking wet within the first two hours. Late that afternoon, the rain finally stopped, and darkness fell over the woods. I was concerned about going to bed in a wet sleeping bag, but I was growing more concerned about food. For the first time in my life, I was facing the possibility of going to bed hungry.

Like a gift from the heavens, I saw a cottonmouth, obviously washed out with the rains, making his way sluggishly through the leaves. I shot at him with my bow from about 10 feet away. To all of our surprise, I hit him. It was the first thing I’d ever killed with a bow and arrow. And I thought, “This is going to be easy. We’re going to live like kings out here.”

We skinned the snake and gutted him and placed him in our skillet with some rainwater. After much effort, we managed to find some wood dry enough to burn and started a fire. We watched the snake writhe in the boiling water (without head, skin, or guts) for about 10 minutes. Finally, the snake turned a pale color and appeared done. We cut it into lengths about the size of Vienna sausages and bit into the rubbery meat. The pieces flinched.

As we nibbled at our snake meat around the dying flames of the fire, night sounds pressed in on all sides. Despite a long, wet day, our shelter was mostly done and we were optimistic that we could spend the following day hunting and gathering food.

An armadillo waddled by and began blindly rooting in the leaves a few feet away.

“I don’t care how hungry we get, ” I said. “There’s no way I would ever eat that thing.”

How hard could it possibly be?

To be continued in next month’s installment of Bay Boy…

Text by Watt Key

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