Don't fall victim to vampires! Don't get slashed by a psycho! Don't get stuck, ASK DR. ELDRITCH!
Dear Dr. Eldritch,
Help! We're lost in the woods and something's trying to get us!
We only wanted to party in the forest, where we could be noisy and nobody would hassle us. The plan was to hike about a mile from the road, have a good time and just crash for the night. Right away, things started going wrong. We left late, and it was almost sunset when we parked the cars. Everybody took a long time finding their stuff, so it was getting dark when we finally started walking. Then it got really foggy.
We followed what we thought was the trail, but we walked for a long time and we didn't find the campsite. Jase said we must have missed it in the fog, and we turned around, but we weren't even on a trail anymore. Everyone was getting tired, especially the ones who didn't have a backpack and had to carry all their stuff in their arms. So Jase and Craig told us to wait there and they'd find the trail and come back.
After a while, we thought we heard somebody yelling far away, like they were really scared, and everyone got freaked out. We tried calling, but they didn't come back A bunch of us wanted to go find them, and others said we should wait. We argued about it, and people were getting really mad, until we heard something moving in the woods around us. At first we thought it was Jase and Craig trying to scare us, but it made a really creepy noise, and everyone started running.
We only had a couple flashlights so we could barely see, but we just wanted to get away from whatever it was. It chased us, and was getting really close when we saw a cabin and everybody ran inside. There were big, heavy boards to hold the door shut, which was good because the thing started pounding on the door. When it couldn't get in, it started circling the cabin, banging at the windows, which were covered, too. Then it got really quiet. Someone said they thought they heard Craig calling for us. I said we shouldn't go outside. So everyone argued about that for a while. Fortunately, one guy had his PDA so we could email you and ask your advice. Do you think it's safe to go out? What should we do?
-- Brenda, from deep in the woods
I dream of a day when everyone understands that venturing into the wilderness unprepared is like ordering up a big dish of Trouble in Calamity Sauce with a side of Misfortune and Ranch Dressing for dipping. Well, you've made your order, but let's see if we can keep you from having to lie in it.
I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that after hearing so many reports of lost hikers and missing hunters, one might assume that a trip into the woods is a guaranteed one-way arrangement. This is not the case. Of those who venture beyond the paved roads in a given year, only about 10% don't return. Many people misunderstand these odds. It doesn't mean that you're safe if you only go camping nine times. You have to look at the big picture; some people return from the wilderness successfully for years and others vanish mysteriously every time they go.
Since you can't predict whether a given trip will end happily or as another sad statistic, the best you can do is be ready. Chance favors the heavily armed. Look at your situation; you've already made a number of critical errors:
You wasted time bickering. It's a scientific fact that schools of fish don't argue about which way they should swim, because sharks can sense squabbling from miles away. They zero in on it, and suddenly that urgent argument about whether to turn left or right at the reef becomes minor compared to hungry rows of razor-sharp teeth. While Natural Selection has eliminated fish that argue (it's difficult to reproduce after being eaten), this trait hasn't yet been purged from the human gene pool. As you've found out, predatory things that lurk in the wilderness are also drawn to bickering.
You didn't bring enough light. Sure, it's wonderful to amble through a moonlight forest and admire the multitude of stars above. Until you encounter something that lives in the dark, that is. They have the edge on their home turf, but there's nothing like a million candlepower to level the playing field.
You split up. It's almost embarrassing to have to mention it, because it's such an obvious mistake. Yet people do this again and again.
And there's more bad news. You know how lucky you felt when you found the cabin? Well, it wanted you to run in there! You didn't escape, you were being herded. Think about it; it can obviously move faster than any of you in the dark. If it was chasing, why didn't it catch anyone? If you're saying "Oh, crap!" now, you'd be right.
But all is not lost. You've realized that the Thing is probably waiting to see if one or two people will venture out, like food pellets when the lab rat presses a button. Its Plan B is for someone inside to say that fateful line, "We're safe here until morning, we should all try to get some sleep." Once the snoring starts, it uses the secret entrance to its personal Buffet of Doom. You didn't notice if the door can also be barred from the outside, did you?
So what to do? Take a tip from the armored pangolin or the fretful porcupine: Don't be easy to eat. Build a big fire, so there's lots of light. Improvise weapons. Search for a secret entry point and secure it. Then everyone stays awake until dawn, when you can make your escape. If the Thing gets into the cabin before then, resist being eaten.
If you only plan for the tasty treats in Life, the bitter pills will catch you by surprise. Remember: You will be served Entrees that you didn't order, so next time (if there is one), prepare more for possibilities that aren't on the menu.
Good luck, and let me know how it comes out!
-- Dr. Eldritch