hatchet, logs
Photo by Kevin Estela
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One of the most popular young adult survival-adventure stories of the 20th century is found in the book Hatchet. The story follows 13-year-old Brian as he is stranded in the Canadian wilderness after the pilot of the Cessna 406 plane he’s traveling in has a heart attack and crash-lands in the woods. Alone in the wild, Brian is left with only a few supplies and his survival hatchet.

Prompted by a recent discussion around a campfire, I decided to revisit the book, reading it much faster and with greater comprehension and understanding as an adult. I found the book just as entertaining the second time around, and it made me want to simulate some of the conditions and challenges with a handmade hatchet at my side. During the summer of 2018, in various locations throughout New England, I sought out scenarios and faced survival concerns with my single tool as the answer to the same problems Brian faced in Hatchet, and here I will detail the journey.

Shelter: Part I

In the novel, Brian survives the crash-landing of the plane into a lake and must swim to shore and address his situation. He realizes that he needs to make a shelter, and after he constructs one, he discovers it is not, unfortunately, porcupine-proof. I wanted to have a similar experience, but I knew that crashing a plane was out of the question on a meager writer’s budget. I settled for testing the waters in an Adirondack lake with my hatchet in hand. With a simple sidestroke, I could use my legs and free arm to keep my hatchet above water for an extended period of time.

Swimming wasn’t an issue, but staying warm was. My first order of business after my dip was drying my clothes. If I couldn’t get my shelter completed in the first night, I would have to sleep outside in my clothes. I stripped down to my underwear and twisted my shirt, pants and socks until they were damp. Being just on the cusp of late summer and early fall, I still had to contend with mosquitoes against my bare skin, and while the flying bloodsuckers were not life-threatening, they were annoying enough to make me consider taking the easy way out.

I donned my damp clothes and focused on the tasks at hand while the wind and sunlight did the rest. As long as the weather cooperated with me, my clothes would dry in the breeze if I didn’t sweat too much. If this were a cooler time of year, I would need a fire to help fight off the cold, so I focused my efforts on getting one going, as it could dry me out and serve as a companion throughout the night.

Fire

In Hatchet, Brian manages to get a fire going by using rocks to strike his hatchet and create sparks. I brought a steel striker with me to the Adirondacks, and although various cherts like Onondaga and Normanskill are said to be available in the region, I couldn’t find any. I tried many rocks on my striker and could’ve spent hours repeating the futile attempts which yielded only failure.

Not to be defeated, I settled for making a bow drill friction fire instead. I used the length of paracord around the handle for the bow string. Since the lanyard was relatively short (only about 18 inches long), I removed the inner strands, separated them into two groups of three and tied the three inner strands to the outer braid with a sheet bend. This gave me a cord approximately 54 inches long that I could use with my bow. Cordage is arguably the most important factor in the bow drill.

When I had that squared away, I ran through the process methodically, finding medium-density wood for the spindle and fireboard and using the hatchet to cut a poplar branch from a well-seasoned downed tree. I proceeded to carve these into the essential components and used an actual abandoned bird’s nest as a tinder bundle. After running the bow drill a few times, I was able to dry out the fireboard and spindle enough to get a decent coal that grew with the powder left behind from previous unsuccessful attempts. And finally, fire was secured. That alone could get me warmly through the night, but it wouldn’t shield me from the elements in a storm.

Shelter: Part II

With an abundance of downed trees in the area, shelter construction was straightforward with a hatchet and saplings nearby. Since I had a fire, I wanted to create a shelter that would work with an open-flame heat source. I used a Liam Hoffman hatchet to limb the branches from multiple downed trees, and I put the branches from those trees in the ground to form the framework for a bent-sapling dome shelter and weaved them together.

The benefit of this shelter is the ability to make it out in the open by driving the saplings and branches into the earth. More branches were added horizontally, followed by debris. Being short on time but with plenty of resources at hand, I could’ve elected to complete the shelter, but I moved on to other tasks. Remember, with each day that passes, a shelter can be improved upon. All told, I made good progress with my hatchet and a couple hours of work.

Water

In the northern forest, water is not difficult to come by: It can be found in countless streams, creeks, ponds, lakes and swamps, as well as trapped in and dripping off of rocks. Finding water isn’t usually the concern; treating water is. I found stands of birch trees, but none in particular was large enough to remove sheets of bark from. Making a container would allow me to boil water with hot rocks and transport it easily.

Instead of using bark, I created a container from a decent-sized log I carved and hollowed out by chopping away at the center with my hatchet. After building a small fire, I transferred hot rocks to the makeshift container with a set of tongs I made with my hatchet. It didn’t take more than a few lemon-sized hot rocks to get the water bubbling, and thus, another basic survival need was met.

Food

Surrounded by so much water, an obvious source of food I could seek out was fish. Using the same inner strands of paracord from the bow drill, I took each and separated the two twisted cords to create 14 lengths of thin cordage. I tied these together to form a 21-foot-long fishing line. Since gouge hooks are highly effective but can wound fish unnecessarily, I opted for using commercial fish hooks.

While this is a departure from the methods used in the book, I couldn’t justify hurting fish if I could avoid it for both legal and ethical reasons. I also carry fish hooks in my small daily-carry emergency kit, making this “survival experience” more authentic to me than the lead character in the book. With basic hooks and line in hand, I could catch ample amounts of sunfish and bass. For this article, I used the hatchet to clean a fish caught on another trip, showing the hatchet’s value in all stages of food procurement.

Other food was easily found in the great outdoors with hatchet-made tools. Using a digging stick carved with the hatchet, I could gather cattail roots, and with containers made from bark, I could pick blackcap berries and wild blueberries. With the keen edge of the hatchet, I was able to carve trap triggers and construct deadfalls. Limited by the law, I couldn’t test them, but I know that they would yield good results if placed properly. Much like the events in Hatchet, during the time spent evaluating the merit of using a hatchet for survival, I also fell back on freeze-dried food for my daily sustenance. But unlike Brian, I didn’t have to dive to the tail of a plane in the middle of a lake to access it.

Signaling

In Hatchet, Brian fails to signal a plane flying overhead. The sunken plane did not present much of a presence, and he did not have sufficient training to improvise a distress signal. Assuming search parties are aerial, a large visual signal is needed—ideally three in a triangle 25 meters apart. A smoke generator would have been ideal, and that’s what I created with the hatchet I carried.

I fashioned a movable tripod with a fixed platform about halfway up the poles. A tripod like this could be placed above the water out in the open. With plenty of dried material to fuel it and wet leaves and greens to create white smoke, the plumes created stood out against the green background. I made a single small-scale version, but it could easily be scaled up and duplicated a couple times with the abundance of resources available.

Sharpening

I had the opportunity to spend a week with blacksmith Liam Hoffman while on a hunting trip. Rather than relying on a commercially purchased sharpening device, Liam, an Eagle Scout, made his own. In the field, he found a mostly flat, palm-sized rock and used a larger flat surface to grind the smaller one down to a uniform surface. Liam was able to take my mini axe and put an impressive edge on it with this inexpensive and field-expedient sharpening stone. The ability to maintain tools in the field during a survival situation is paramount when running home to your tabletop knife or axe sharpener is not an option.

Safety Concerns

A hatchet is not forgiving if it accidentally cuts you. The cuts are deep, and if you follow the natural downward arc of the arm, the hatchet will impact somewhere along your thigh. During the course of this field test and exercise, I used my hatchet carefully. This meant splitting wood while on my knees and limbing branches with the hatchet facing away from me. What seems like common sense is often disregarded when the body and mind is stressed and exhausted.

The unconventional holds needed when using a hatchet like a knife will also put your hand closer to the edge of a sharp tool. You cannot have a lapse in judgement or safety when pushing a tool to its limit, especially when your hands become slick with use. A survival situation will already be taxing on the mind and body. Adding a hatchet wound will greatly limit your ability, introduce a life-threatening emergency, and increase your chances of failure when that is not an option.

Survival Hatchet Skills

Gary Paulsen took some creative license with his narrative of how Brian survived, and it’s unlikely that anyone would have the same string of bad luck, animal attacks and misfortune as Brian did. However, the skills presented in the book are very real and can be considered plausible. If nothing else, Hatchet is a cautionary tale if one is accustomed to the “what if” game used in trip planning. I, myself, remembered Brian’s struggle when I planned the gear I carried (including a small satellite distress beacon) in my chest pack aboard a small bush plane when I traveled through Alaska a couple years ago. I’m already working on a way to carry a hatchet comfortably on that rig for the next time I make a similar trip. After all, you never know when you’ll have to star in your own survival story.

This article is from the spring 2019 issue of Survivor’s Edge Magazine. Grab your copy at OutdoorGroupStore.com.

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