Humble hunter recalls mistakes in the marsh

Petty Officer Nate Littlejohn

Petty Officer 2nd Class Nate Littlejohn


By Petty Officer 2nd Class Nate Littlejohn
U.S. Coast Guard

Sunday, December 17, 2017

I was shivering in a marsh one drenched December dusk with only a bruised ego for company. My pride was giving way to a growing fear about my predicament.

The pelting rain and occasional taunt from a duck's beating wings were all I could hear over my chattering teeth. My mind churned with stories of accidents in which a hunter didn't make it home. Ones that people read about it in the newspaper, then shake their heads and think, "That guy was so foolish."

I knew because I'd been one of those readers. Now I was “that guy.”

My excitement about a duck hunting trip earlier that morning had really clouded my judgment. Now I was stranded in an aluminum boat after a rapidly-receding low tide. If I'm not lying, I was worried.

Duck hunting is an inherently dangerous, labor-intensive endeavor. That’s largely because of the cold conditions and the places you need to be to successfully hunt. There are countless reasons to always hunt with at least one companion. One reason is to make critical decisions together.

A friend had canceled on our hunting plans that morning, and my mistake of going out alone now haunted my old boat, which was stuck and surrounded in waist-deep mud. So did some other foolhardy assumptions I had made.

I convinced myself there was no real need to tell anyone where I was going or when I'd be back since I was planning to hunt less than a mile from the boat launch. I had my cell phone; that was enough. EPIRBs and marine radios were for people heading offshore or into the middle of nowhere, I told myself. I chose to ignore that I had no way to recharge my phone, as well, I ignored the brisk weather that robbed it of its battery power.

I assumed the depth of the water where I was hunting would remain good for two more hours at least, based on what the tide seemed to be doing.

Finally, completely wrapped up in the hunt, I lost track of the tide and the time. As far as duck hunting, I was in an awesome position: Hidden from sight, with ducks approaching my decoys both on the water and from the air.

It wasn't until there were less than four inches of water left under me that I realized I was stranded. I tried to push out of there through the reeds and the mud, but it was useless. Soon my boat was sitting on the bottom. An icy rain began to pelt my back as I dug into my pockets for my cell phone.

I made a call to my buddy and explained my situation. He rightfully mocked me for being a fool, but told me to check in with him later. I'd simply have to wait for the tide to return. At least now I had someone back on shore who understood my situation and location.

As the day's light began to dim, I was shivering. I'd dressed for a day hunt and was wearing relatively waterproof pants and a jacket. The rain was now pouring, coupled with an air temperature of about 39 degrees. Water was penetrating my gear.

I was in the early stages of hypothermia when the cold killed my phone's battery.

My shivering grew steadily more violent and I began to experience mild confusion. While silhouettes of mice climbed reeds to peek at the quivering intruder, larger shapes of the marsh played tricks on my mind. I began to wonder what sort of dangerous, hungry creatures lurked nearby.

Still there was nothing to do but wait. Those were some long hours. I ate some crackers I'd brought along, sipped a sports drink and passed time by making up haikus. I recall one in particular:

“Stuck in marsh nine hours

Cold and wet but stay with boat

Patience, tide rolls in”

The tide did eventually turn. By around 10 p.m., I could feel my boat begin to float. With weak and trembling arms, I used an oar to push the boat through the suction of the surrounding muck. I pulled the start on the ’76 Johnson 2-stroke. It didn't start at first. That engine never did, but attempt number 17 was the charm.

An hour later I arrived at my house, boat in tow behind my truck.

The buddy I'd called just happened to be walking past, returning from a late dinner out.

"Dude, are you okay?" he asked. "I've been calling. You're an idiot, you know that right?"

"Yeah, I know." I said. "I'll be fine after a hot shower."

I'd made it home without help, but was lucky to be home at all. I'd soon have been too weak to get myself out of there.

Nobody plans to break down or get stuck out there in the dark. We all strive to avoid that. But going out alone, with no flares and no reliable means of communication, is a bad way to show our families we care.

I no longer go out alone. I always go prepared for the worst. And I'll never forget how lucky I am to have suffered those mistakes unscathed.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Nate Littlejohn is a public affairs specialist assigned to US Coast Guard 5th District in Portsmouth, Virginia.