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Rapid breakdown

3/4/2009
Pilot News Editor Maggie Nixon

Gayton Marks' favored bird hunting area, a little southwest of Plymouth, Ind., isn't always the easiest to reach, even in normal conditions. "It's a nasty swamp, and the ducks like it," the 33-year-old says by phone. "A lot of other people don't like it."

When he does wade into the public hunting grounds, he typically hunts from a dry bank or from a makeshift blind of camouflage net in shallow standing water. In case he needs to retrieve a bird from deeper water, or cut across deep water to another position, he drags along a kayak.

At the end of December, he realized he'd been goose hunting only once all season, and figured he'd take a couple of vacation days before the new year turned over. He lives just across the border in Niles, Mich., but works in sales for a construction company in Elkhart County, Ind., an area big in the manufacture of mobile homes, boats and RVs — and now racked with unemployment. A hunter in such a clime has to make the most of any weekday he takes for himself.

The morning of Dec. 30 was a cold one in northwest Indiana, about 25 degrees. Marks was swaddled in neoprene waders when he started the slog through the knee-deep swamp waters, dragging his kayak. He noticed the standing water along the banks was frozen again after a week of temperamental weather. A week earlier, the Weather Service recorded a low of 7 degrees — but just three days before Marks' hunt, the high was 62 degrees. That warm spell had melted 4 inches of accumulated snow and brought with it another half-inch of fresh rain.

The air was cold. The water was both high and cold.

Near a broad bridge that spanned both the swamp and the Yellow River, Marks got into his kayak to cross the swamp. Where he entered, the water was shallow and still. When he made it across, he says, he unexpectedly hit moving water. He paddled against the current as it dragged his boat toward the river channel and into some logs. Marks turned into the flow to avoid the debris. As he dodged obstacles, he drew all the closer to the main river.

He picked out a spot on the bank and paddled to it — but got tangled in the crook of two fallen trees. "Once I stopped," he says, "it whipped me around sideways and rolled that boat under in about a second and a half."

And like that, Gayton Marks' bird hunt had turned into a test of his survival abilities.

Experts on survival point to an ability to understand changing conditions as a first step to getting out of emergencies alive. In Marks' case, he failed to notice the speed of the water he entered — but he had the sense to cut his losses, at least, once it became clear the river was about to turn his boat into an anchor. He clambered onto the logs, grabbed his shotgun (lashed to the kayak, as always, with a piece of parachute cord) and struggled his way to a submerged tree with brush around it. There, Marks grabbed a branch with one hand and his gun in the other, and tried to regroup as his boat went downriver without him.

The neck-high cold water slapped his face as he worked his way up the trunk. His Fausti over/under .12-gauge, Marks realized, would have to go. He clutched the tree trunk with his feet and heaved the shotgun to the bank. He wiggled his way to chest-deep water and held fast to the branch.

He was exhausted and freezing. He didn't have a plan. He looked to the bank and imagined trying to swim to a clump of trees, then — hey! A van came bouncing down a backroad.

Marks got the guy to stop. He told the guy he was in trouble, to call 911. The guy told him he should just swim to the bank. "I don't know what his line of thinking was, if he thought I was standing on the bottom," Marks says. He thought the guy was going to call for help, but about 10 minutes after the driver left, Marks realized he had to go for the one trick left in his bag: his cell phone, tucked away in a chest pocket, protected in plastic.

It was an old trick he picked up during his six years in the Army to keep electronics dry. "Whenever we're hunting alone, we always make sure we have a cell phone and have it in a Ziploc bag," Marks says. "I've never had to use it before."

His hand was so cold he couldn't feel anything but the pressure of an object. He just squeezed and groped until the phone appeared in his grip.

He paused. He didn't want to be that guy, the schmuck who heads into the great outdoors for some solitude, some independence, and winds up involving the fire department. He thought maybe he could get across the running water to the nearby bank, but what if he didn't make it to water shallow enough to use the phone ...

"If it was my wife or kids, I wouldn't have hesitated," he says. "I stared at that phone for 10 seconds. I just couldn't do it.

"I felt like I should get myself out of it, you know. I came to the conclusion there was no way I was getting out of it. At that point I was too cold and too exhausted to make it to shore."

Once he called for help, Marks' day improved quickly. Authorities quickly swarmed the scene. They tied a rope to a tree, and a diver brought Marks the rope, and Marks hung onto the diver, and they followed the rope back to shore. He even stubbed his toe on his gun in the shallow water as he shuffled to the bank.

"He was happy," said Chris Miller, one of the Plymouth police officers to respond that day. "He couldn't move his legs real well, but he walked out himself. He was lucky, definitely."

Marks estimates he arrived at the ambulance about an hour from when he first went into the water, making him a candidate for hypothermia, which can set in within 15 minutes of exposure to water so cold. But he'd been able to keep much of his torso out of the water, and the neoprene waders had not only kept him from getting waterlogged and sinking, they'd insulated him from the worst of the chill.

At the hospital, physicians were expecting him — "You know you're in trouble if you arrive at the emergency room and they're waiting for you," Marks says — but sent him on his way after only a few minutes.

He took a ribbing about the incident, first from his kids. "I've canoed down smaller rivers but I just always taught them to stay away from the river," he says. They kept asking him, "'Why were you in the river? You can't even follow your own rule?'" he says.

Others told him he should have been wearing a life jacket. "I can't argue with that," he says. "I wasn't planning on being in the river."

But at least he kept calm, recognized his peril, and made the call before things got any worse. As it turned out, the only casualties on the day were the lost kayak — and his phone. That 911 call was its last before it got soaked and conked out.

ESPNOutdoors.com thanks The Pilot News for its photos.