Somehow, over the course of Tread Lightly/Toby Cowern's survival class I somehow shifted from "Extra guy planning on swimming and laying on warm rocks all weekend" to some kind of assistant. Which was very cool. It gave me more time to hang with some extraordinary people and a chance to talk far into the night.
The last night, the students had been dispersed to their separate sleeping accommodations. One had made a swamp bed and was literally sleeping on a latticework of branches and leaves suspended over the river. Several were sleeping on the beach, heated by fires they had buried. Toby and I were sipping coffee by the fire at the main camp.
"I should go mess with them," he said. "They expect it." Several students were returning and had harrowing tales of winter courses (Toby's specialty is cold weather survival, which skill he hones in Sweden) where misplaced bits of gear would disappear on Toby's incessant nightly patrols.
I was neutral. People often lose more sleep worrying about being messed with than they do over being messed with. On the other hand, we had checked in and at least observed each student each night, just to be safe. So we decided to check things out.
It was pitch dark. I turned on a light and kept it in my pocket, intermittently covering and uncovering the glow to imitate a firefly. We followed trails, quietly. One student was sleeping quietly in a stripped down shelter. We could hear four talking by a fire through the trees. That's when we got the idea. I got the idea, rather. Toby is far too intelligent. It occurred to me that it would be fun to stalk into camp through the trees.
We had no camouflage. Toby had a white bandage on one hand and his big glowing wrist watch on the other. I was wearing beige pants that had faded to near white. And a bald spot that I'm sure reflects in the moonlight. All against the darkness of a temperate deciduous forest. What the hell.
I took point and the first yards were easy. After that, we realized that two were looking across the fire directly at us. There was enough cover to be noisy and to push around and give tell-tale wobble, but not enough to block vision.
It turned into a slow, measured belly crawl. No profile. One hand creeps forward, slowly moving twigs, if necessary, to the side. Then the other hand. Then the toes press forward, one, two, three, four times to catch up with hands. Eyes stay down, since reflections from eyes and teeth are the shiniest and trigger a very primitive part of the brain.
Toby stayed off my right flank. A former Royal Marine, he was ready to give covering fire had it been that kind of stalk. He matched me silence for silence and slow advance for slow advance.
One stretch of crawl was fingertip and toes for almost a body length without chest, belly or thighs touching to cross a dry stick too big to move. At one point I chewed a big jewelweed down so that my body wouldn't keep it swaying.
Twice, the people at the fire started and played lights over us, looking for the 'raccoons' that had made the leaves rustle. We held still, not looking. Weird that, had this been a different environment and not a game, not looking would have been the best survival strategy and yet would have made us helpless if it failed.
We continued. Torturous twisty crawl under a net of dry twigs on a fallen branch. It was almost completely open right there, no plant cover to speak of, just the twigs, silver and barkless when two of the people at the fire decided to go for a walk. They headed this way, passing no more than two yards to my left. I couldn't look, it would give away the eyes. I wondered, if one stopped to urinate if I would have the discipline to stay still just for a game. Sure.
They passed on. We waited a long time, expecting the two to return, but they had gone to their own camps. We continued the crawl. The last stretch was eight feet of dry leaves with no cover whatsoever. I motioned Toby ahead. These were his students.
The student had his back to us and was laying on his side, occasionally throwing wood in the fire, staring at the embers. Toby inched forward, slowly, until he was just behind the prey's head. Then he motioned me forward. That was pushing our luck, but it was too good a challenge to resist. At one point the target did hear me rustle the leaves and quickly looked around. His head almost slammed into Toby's...and he never saw a thing.
When I was in position we counted off by fingers and Toby grabbed his neck as I grabbed his legs...
It was a good stalk.