By Matt Skoufalos
Ben Pridgeon describes himself as a country boy, with all the familiar trappings of one. Growing up in a small Southern town, he’s spent much of his life camping, hunting, fishing; anything outdoors. It was the way the family recreated, and remains a tradition he’s carried on with his sons.
Somewhere in his teenage years, Pridgeon took things to the next level, and started backpacking with only the basics – a sleeping mat, some fishing gear, a survival knife – and started staying for three nights to a week. Pridgeon grew up in Florida, and usually confines his adventures to a plot of family marshland. After a couple-hours hike into the wilderness, however, things can get quite eerie, he said. Friends have tried to convince him to tackle something out of his comfort zone, like the Appalachian trail, but for now, he’s sticking to the land he knows best, because that knowledge is one of the only things keeping him alive.
“I have yet to try to get outside of an area or a territory that I know,” Pridgeon said. “This is my area and where I grew up. It’s my knowledge base.”
Some times were better than others. Once, a weeklong outing marked the first time Pridgeon can remember ice forming along the swamps of the Suwannee River. Since he only eats what he can catch, the conditions made food difficult to come by.
“It was somewhere in the 20s, and I remember not wanting to get my clothes wet, so I dropped down to my boxers, and broke ice barefoot to get into the water so I could fish,” Pridgeon said.
“I fished for an hour that day, and caught one brim that was maybe the size of a dollar bill or half a dollar bill. As I brought it up, it flipped off the hook and got away.”
Pridgeon ended up eating some gooseberries that time – think blueberries with a lot more seeds and a lot less juice – which he said “give you enough energy to get to the next bush, but that’s about it” and foraged roots. None of it tasted good, he said, but it replaced the energy he’d expended fishing, and set him up for the next day.
“I’ve eaten some animals that live in trees and birds; I don’t think I’ve ever been lucky enough to kill a hog,” Pridgeon said. “After the third or fourth day you haven’t had that much to eat, you will boil feathers if you have to.”
In just two to three days of camping, Pridgeon said he’ll shed eight to ten pounds from walking, foraging, and exposure to the elements. One trip offered no game, 25-knot winds, and 20-degree weather, which he said introduces “the wait factor,” an aspect of the survivalist encounter that tests mental and emotional fortitude. Complicating matters, he suffered an injury early in the going.
“I ended up cutting my finger pretty hard getting my lean-to set up,” Pridgeon remembered. “My knife was a little sharper than I expected, and it cut through very deep. Then I had to wrap it with leaves and grass, and it bled for a while.”
Pridgeon knew his Jeep was about a half-a-day’s walk through thick swamp, but he wanted to press on. The next day, his wound continued to bleed, and he felt himself weakening from blood loss. For another day after that, when Pridgeon went without any food whatsoever, he started to feel vulnerable, like prey. The encounter was trying but also enlightening.
“You’re in the swamp, you’re injured, there’s so much that can go on,” he said. “If you go in there either mentally or physically unprepared, it can be damaging. In putting myself in that situation, it’s sheer determination not to give up [that keeps me alive].”
The trick, he’s found, is to keep his mind and hands occupied in between hunting and gathering.
“You always have to stay busy, even if it’s making your lean-to bigger, softer,” Pridgeon said. “Staying busy, sheer determination, and a set time that I give myself out there, to say, ‘Ben, you just have to last until this.’ You always look for the opportunity, whatever it is, for food. If it’s a squirrel, a bird, you’ve got to be ready.”
So why push himself to such unforgiving limits? Pridgeon says the discipline that survival in the wilderness requires helps him to appreciate the comforts of home.
“It’s to see if you can do it,” he said. “I always like pushing myself to the limit. You definitely come back and you appreciate life; how easy we do have it.”
Absent the amenities of modern life – cellphones, cars, food, technology – Pridgeon says he finds self-awareness and humility. The weakness that overtakes the body after going a day without food brings with it a realization that people live similarly in certain parts of the world, and that far more people lived the same way not very long ago.
“It’s a realization that when you come home you’ve got a roof over your head,” Pridgeon said. “You go inside, you lock your doors; you don’t have to worry about something coming in to physically eat you. I’ve run into bobcats. I’ve seen bears in the territory that I’ve been in. It’s intimidating knowing that something out there is that big.”
To impart similar lessons on his children, Pridgeon takes them camping, too. The boys are younger, so he doesn’t push them to the same limits by which he tests himself, but the experiences build confidence and character, he said. Everyone has a role to play, from hunting for game to building shelter to keeping the fire going. The combination of challenges gives everyone opportunity for growth.
“It’s them growing up; it’s us growing up together,” Pridgeon said. “This is life. This could be life. Any time for a teenager to come up realizing that they can fend for themselves is true growth. It’s a confidence booster when you can make it through a couple of nights relying on yourself.”