COMMENTARY: What I Would Do If I Found Myself Naked in the Woods

Two entries in our "Naked in the Woods" contest stood out, and they are presented here in full. Naked in the Woods is the title of E Editor Jim Motavalli’s new book, which tells the true story of Joseph Knowles, who went alone and naked into the Maine woods in 1913 as a publicity stunt for the Boston Post newspaper. Contestants Genevieve Jenkins and Marc Warren both win copies of the book and online publishing fame.

"Naked in the Woods" contest winner Genevieve Jenkins.© Genevieve Jenkins

Contest Winner 1

By Genevieve Jenkins

On an oddly warm morning, I found myself naked in the woods. It was the type of day that rushes in just before spring, that blusters in the tops of trees, shaking budding limbs, threatening to wrestle birch bark from trunks. The air was warm, wet with the threat of rain, and it felt pleasant to strip myself in the middle of the forest. No one could see me, and I wanted to feel the coming spring, the brilliance of this young day.

I had walked miles barefoot, my toes reveling in the alternating wetness and rough crunching of the leaves left over from winter. I picked up bunches of the drier ones, bundled them with strips of birch bark. I had been here before, had been planning this trip, and knew where the stream ran. I headed for it.

On my walk to the stream, clutching dry leaves in one hand, I lifted wet leaves to look for roly-polies underneath. I collected a small handful. Dinner. I ate them, hesitantly, but methodically, making sure to crunch each one firmly in between molars to save myself the squirming feeling of legs on my throat. After drinking from the stream, hoping it was clean enough not to kill me, I started looking for a fallen tree. I wanted to set up my shelter before darkness fell.

In these Virginia woods, the trees were fairly small, but I managed to find a thicker one, fallen at an angle. Tall enough at its higher end to be propped up about three feet by the bottom of its trunk, this tree was the perfect spine for my shelter. I cleared leaves away from the base of the trunk, at the highest point of the fallen tree. Clearing a circle of damp leaves, I laid down my parcel of dry leaves to use for kindling. The winter storms had blown tree limbs askew, and, greedily, I gathered them. Each size was helpful. The bigger ones I lined up against the backbone of my tent as drafty walls. The smaller ones I kept for kindling.

The fire took a long time to spark. Rubbing the point of a straight stick into a furrow in a flat piece of wood, I blistered my hands before I got an ember. Eventually, I dropped the ember into the waiting nest of tinder, and waited for it to catch. I started the fire in a hole, lined around with rocks. Gradually, I added tree branches until I felt sure that the fire would not die.

It was still warm enough that I didn’t mind my nakedness; still, I wanted to cover the branch-hut and myself before it got too dark to see. I gathered drooping mosses from around the woods, and draped them over my shoulder. By the light of the fire, I tied them together to make robe-like clothing. I also collected the low-lying lichens and used them to fill the many crevices in my hut. Home.

Contest Winner 2

By Marc Warren

"Naked in the Woods" contest winner Marc Warren.© Marc Warren

Lacking pockets, I’m limited in my survival gear to only things I could carry in my hands: knife, hatchet, lighter, a can of Husky (cheap Skoal knockoff) and some small twine wrapped around my upper arm.

Every year I look over the small survival manual, Lost in the Maine Woods, while at the town office purchasing my fishing license. Recalling any of that information has proven all but impossible—middle age perhaps, or more likely I never actually read the material. Seems a shelter was mentioned somewhere in there and that seems like a good starting place.

As I hack fir bows to make my bedding and haul downed limbs to make the frame of my structure, insects appear from the darkened woods and begin the feast. What these things ate before I got here I haven’t a clue, but it couldn’t have been much as they seem ravenous.

On the brink of insanity, I seek refuge from the attacking blackflies by wallowing like a new species of polar hippo into Allagash Lake. As the sun begins to hang high I find myself not running from the Maine State Bird, the blackfly, as much as from the sun’s incessant rays. Most of my body parts I’ve kept well hidden under layers of clothes for the better part of three decades and I’m not responding well to the direct sunlight. I finish my encampment in spurts, running from the cold water to the tree line then back to the water’s protection.

I must admit my shelter looks dang good, at least from the water. As midday crosses into afternoon I’m torn between gathering firewood and finding food. Since the firewood would mean exposing my naked body to both sun and bugs, I’ve decided to try my hand at fishing. Sitting in my shaded pool, I’ve fashioned a hook from a twig and fastened that to my twine. I’ve caught fish with nothing but a bare hook in the past but this time opt for the more traditional worm.

Not long afterwards, I have a small brown trout on the line and now wish I had a fire. I’ve seen Survivor Man eat raw fish and I do hear it’s popular with some, but I’m not in "survival mode" yet—I"ll build a fire.

2 p.m. The blackflies have been replaced by deer flies a/k/a horseflies, a/k/a mooseflies. Taking a tip I’ve read about but have never tried, I smear the back of my hair in tree sap. So far it seems to be working well. As the deerflies land they become stuck in the sap. I feel a bit of sweet revenge as I listen to the flies buzzing, trying to free themselves as I gather my firewood.

4:30 p.m. I have a substantial pile of firewood all within easy reach of my shelter and start a small campfire. Holding my pine stick I invent what I like to call a fish kabob.

After that good meal, a nap seems in order. Burrowing deep beneath the bows, I make my den a comfy home. Unfortunately for me, I don’t sleep well and wake up alone, naked in the dark, and still in the woods. Now frightened, I rekindle my campfire and massage it into a towering inferno of light and safety. I hadn’t counted on such a majestic fire when I gathered the wood so now I’m forced to scavenge more in the darkness. Each foray into the wood line just on the fringes of the light leaves me with more scratches and abrasions than wood.

As dawn relieves me of my fear, I hear the faint hum of an aircraft. The warden’s plane travels along the shore and is heading directly for my campsite at an altitude I guess to be 50 feet off the water. My sleep-deprived mind is stumbling to recall how to signal a rescue plane—damn, I wish I read that manual. As the plane slips past I find myself spread-eagled on the ground trying to simulate a cross. The warden makes another pass and this time I leap to my feet and begin waving my arms—and everything else—frantically trying to convey my distress.

The third pass, I think, is for the amusement of the warden. The plane rolls and comes in on another track, heading up the shoreline. I swear I see the flash of a camera from his s

ide window as he passes, but I"ll never dare to ask. On the fourth pass the plane floats to a stop just yards from camp and the warden steps onto the pontoon. Without as much as a glance he throws me a blanket and pulls me in. "Anyone with you?" is all he ever asks. A long moment later I respond with a quiet and simple, "No, sir."

Being naked in the North Woods of Maine poses many problems other than the obvious, hypothermia, which at the onset was my main concern. Oh, how wrong I was.

CONTACT: Naked in the Woods