Sunday, February 27, 2011

You may only get one chance - Do it right !

We spend a lot of time here at Beyond the Fire discussing the importance of the survival mindset and your ability to combat the seven enemies of survival. 

During these discussions we focus on self rescue but rarely discuss the methods of signalling others to assist in our rescue.  These skills may be absolutely necessary should you sustain an injury that renders you incapable of navigating your way out of the bush or physically travelling any great distance.

After two weeks away instructing a winter survival course I was reminded with great repetition the importance, the effectiveness and the power of the smoke signal.

In a winter survival emergency you will often construct your shelter in a location that provides shelter from the wind, is close to building materials and ensures that you are not in a frost pocket or on the highest elevation.  What this means is that your shelter and working area are also sheltered from the sky and any aircraft that may provide rescue.

Therefor the timely and proper construction of your smoke signals is crucial.

Three smoke signals in a triangle pattern is a universal distress signal recognized by military and civilian aircraft alike.  Three properly lit signal fires will send a thick ploom of smoke into the sky above the tree tops and into the view of the aircraft.

To make an emergency smoke signal follow the steps below:
  • Collect 3 poles approx. 8 ft long and 3 inches in diameter
  • Attached the 3 poles approx. 1 ft from the top in a tripod shape
  • Approx. 3 ft from the ground attached all sides of the tripod with sticks
  • Then lay small sticks across the support sticks making a base floor
  • Limb green coniferous boughs and begin hanging them from the top of the tripod
  • As the tripod begins to be covered with greens gather a garbage bag full of birch bark
  • Place the birch bark on the base floor
  • Then continue to cover the entire tripod with green boughs approx. 3 ft thick all the way around the tripod from the base floor to the top.
  • Leave a small piece of bark hanging below the base floor as a wick.
Now that you've constructed the signal fire tripod it is ready for lighting.

When you're ready you will lite the wick which hangs below the base floor.  That wick will ignite the birch bark hidden inside the frame and green boughs.  The intense heat from the flash fire will cause the green boughs to begin smoking.  That smoke will intensify within 30 seconds causing the smoke to rise quickly.  That thick smoke will reach the tree tops within the minute and provide a great signal to aircraft or search and rescue teams about your whereabouts.

Smoke signals are an absolutely vital tool for being rescued in a wilderness survival emergency when your ability to self rescue has been limited by injury or an inability to navigate the terrain.  Any survival course worth its money will ensure that you build and light a smoke signal fire so that you can experience its raw power and effectiveness.

Just remember, in a survival emergency - You may only get one chance - Do it right !

Friday, February 11, 2011

It's around the corner - Are you ready?

If you are a "It will never happen to me" person, than you have two choices.  You can leave this blog, because it's obviously not for you, and go find the website meant for people like you called "Nothing tragic will ever happen to me".  Or you can read on and realize that preparation and a healthy dose of reality could save your life or the life of your best friend.

It's no secret that every year 100's of snowmobile collisions occur on Ontario's beautiful and seemingly never ending trail system.  Some of these collisions end in tragedy with the loss of life.

While spending the last two days re qualifying on my organizations snowmobiles it struck me how absolutely exhilarating and peaceful snowmobiling can be.  It also struck me that anything exhilarating in life comes with great risk.

Last week the Ontario snowmobile world lost an outdoor enthusiast on its trails.  His accident begs the question "Are you ready?".

Picture it...

You have been desperately counting down the days until you and your best buddy Jim set out on your annual boys only 5 day snowmobile excursion.  You have planned every last detail about the trails you'll ride, the gas stations and restaurants you'll use and where you'll lay your exhausted head at night.

You're a smart guy so you've made a travel itinerary for your wife and promised that you'll call each night when you arrive at the hotel.  You also told her that should she not hear from you on any night after 2300 hrs that she is to contact the police.

You have packed cellphones with chargers and GPS' with extra batteries.  You're all set.

As you set out on your first day everything goes as planned.  You make it to your destination without a hiccup.  250 kms from your starting point.  You contact your wife and tell her how your day went and that you'll talk to her around the same time tomorrow night.

As you venture off for day two your plan is to ride a full 300 kms.  You're travelling in your normal lineup with Jim navigating in the lead and you're the rear marker.  You are approx. 180 kms into your trip and you haven't seen another soul.  It's great.  The trail has been all yours.

Travelling with roughly 100 metres between each of you, you enter a winding stretch of beautiful tree lined trail.  As you exit the first corner you are awoken from your glory to the unmistakable sight of a snow cloud filled with flying pieces of snowmobiles.

As your heart races and you stop your machine, the snow cloud clears and what you see next rocks you to your core.  There is absolute destruction everywhere.  Two snowmobiles absolutely destroyed with chunks scattered all over the trail and hanging from the trees.  You jump off your machine and run to where you see Jim.  He's lying face down with both his legs in positions you know not to be normal.  You call to him and you hear him moaning.

As you kneel down beside him you see the pool of blood coming from his helmet.  As you sit there speechless Jim tells you "I can't feel anything."

You are overwhelmed by fear. You run quickly and check on the other operator who you locate wedged in a tree.  Deceased.

Armed with your basic First Aid and CPR course you realize how extremely unprepared you are for this medical nightmare.  You know that you shouldn't move Jim because he might have serious back and neck injuries that could be made worse by moving him.  However you also realize that without immediate medical help Jim is in serious trouble.

As you're talking to Jim trying to reassure him, you see him fall into unconsciousness.  Your heart sinks.  You know that as Jim's body and heart slows down due to the shock that has rendered him unconscious his body temperature will drop and hypothermia will surely set in shortly.  With hypothermia the body will stop pumping blood to the extremities and keep it close to the core to save the heart.  Without oxygenated blood flowing to the legs Jim will surely suffer severe frostbite and eventual loss of limbs.

Your body is starting to cool.  You feel a chill rush over you.  You realize that you are sweating.  You quickly search your gear for your cellphone.  You turn it on and you receive the dreaded "NO SERVICE" message. 

It's noon.  You have no cellphone.  You have not seen another soul on the trails.  You're nowhere near the next pit stop.  Your wife is not expecting to hear from you for the next 11 hours.

What do you do now.  Do you leave Jim and ride for help? Do you load Jim up and travel knowing that his safety could be in jeopardy?

You have a moment of regret.  Earlier that month you had the opportunity to attend a winter survival and wilderness first aid course offered through your snowmobile association.  Time stands still and you re-live the conversation that you had with Jim about it.  "Why would I spend money on that crap. I've never seen a trail emergency. That's money I could spend on new gear."

While paralyzed by fear and emotion Jim lies there.  His wife and his beautiful children are at home unaware of the pain and serious life threatening situation that their loving husband and amazing father is in.  How will you explain it to them.  How will you live with yourself.

Graphic and real.  If you have never seen tragedy up close, let me assure you that it is not anything like you see in movies or TV.  Real tragedy is the most horrific, traumatic experience that your body and mind will ever go through.  Do not think that you will miraculously pull amazing medical abilities from your arse in a time of tragedy. 

Without some training and a plan you will freeze, you will panic and you will most likely fail.

Spend the money, invest the time and travel armed with the knowledge, skills and mindset necessary to react and control chaos.

It's around the corner - Are you ready?...

Sunday, February 6, 2011

To Lean-To or Not to Lean-To

During our recent advanced winter survival excursion we had an opportunity to step outside our comfort zone and tackle a new shelter design not normally used by us in a winter survival scenario.

The shelter design was non other than the lean-to.  A shelter design known world wide for its effectiveness and simplicity.  However the lean-to has been long known to be used in spring, summer and fall type weather.

By design the lean-to is hard to visualize as a shelter of choice in a nasty winter survival emergency.  It is open faced and provides very little protection from the elements.

However, the opportunity to try something new in a controlled environment provided a challenge that was to good to turn down.

The lean-to was an "L" shaped two sided lean-to which provided protection from the north and west keeping the prevailing winds to our backs.  The shelter was quick to construct and provided each of us with our own bedding area and equipment storage location.  All and all we were excited about this opportunity and continued to fine tune the shelter.

If you read my last post about the weather you'll understand the discomfort we endured over the next three days. 

Although our fire situation caused us great grief and stalled our ability to dry out equipment, boil water, cook food and just generally feel merry, the shelter allowed the wind to nearly suck the life right out of us.

The two sided, and eventually four sided, shelter design creates an issue the minute the weather changes course.  The wind howls from all directions, often swirling and creating havoc on your ability to find shelter from it.  That same wind enters your area and steals the heat generated from your fire which is much needed for warmth and equipment maintenance.

It was a great learning experience and survival lesson.  Winter is like no other beast.  The conditions that mother nature forces you to endure and survive in a winter survival emergency will push you to the limits.  It will test your knowledge, your skills and your survival mindset.

I am grateful for the opportunity to try something knew, however I will keep the lean-to as a fair weather shelter which provides the panoramic view every camper is looking for.  When it comes to the winter in this great white north, I will continue to construct the enclosed "A-Frame" or better known as the debris shelter design which affords protection from all sides.  It has a peak ridge pole and your green bows act as shingles wicking away the weather.  Your body heat will not be sucked away by the wind and your fire almost feels too close for comfort.  Which, in -38 degrees, is not a bad thing !

To Lean-To or Not to Lean-To...It's no longer a question for me !

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

-38...It's Colder than it Sounds !

Well, our 2011 winter adventure is behind us now and so is the resulting flu ! We spent weeks preparing and planning for our week away and now we have spent weeks recovering from winter temperatures rarely experienced by the average outdoor winter enthusiast.

We had a very rare and amazing opportunity to attend and be mentored by CF SARTech Paddy Mercer while he ran a small group of helicopter pilots through a winter survival experience.

Although armed with advanced knowledge of survival, it's enemies, and it's priorities there is something that no one can ever be truly prepared for - mother nature's violent weather wrath.  She is the great equalizer.

On day one we saw unseasonal temperatures of -2 and -4 degrees through the daytime hours.  This would normally seem like a gift as you work through identifying a survival location, dividing survival responsibilities and getting to work constructing your survival shelter.  However, shortly after we started the site construction the clouds opened up and we received a record dumping of 17 cm of wet snow in less than 5 hours.

The mild temperatures and wet snow made layering of clothing extremely important and vital for survival.  As Les Stroud says - "If you sweat, you die!"

Unfortunately, if you weren't soaked from sweat, you were soaked from the wet snow.  This may not normally seem like a do or die situation however it quickly became just that.

At around 1700 hrs as we slowly began to shut down operations for the dark hours we were hit with a vicious and brutal cold snap.  The likes of which I have never experienced.

The mild temperatures ended and the mercury dipped to a very frigid -38 degrees plus a 15-20 km/h wind chill.

So with clothes and equipment damp if not soaked straight through we prepped ourselves to be warmed and dried out by way of a large mesmerizing fire.  Cue mother nature and all of her wrath.  Each and every beautiful piece of firewood laboured on throughout the day and stacked to perfection was not only soaked right through from the wet snow but was then frozen solid by the temperature.

Never had I experienced such devastation as I had right there in that moment.  After 4 hours of nurturing a smoking fire that produced minimal heat, minimal cooking assistance and no clothes drying ability, we made a team decision and shut it down.  The smoke had become so unbearable that we choked, gagged and begged the good Lord for fresh air.

So, when Plan A fails - Plan B gets rolled out.  We quickly identified the danger we were facing with the temperature falling and our inability to maintain fire due to those violent conditions.  So, with headlamps affixed we moved swiftly and enclosed our shelter completely.  We quickly removed all of our clothing from the daytime and replaced it with fresh, dry and warm clothing from our rucks.

The next 48 hours saw many attempts to maintain a fire with negative results.  Our ability to remove gloves and perform simple camp and survival tasks were diminished due to the constant -30 degree temperatures and wind chill.

In the end we survived.  It was a struggle and provided us with a valuable survival lesson that can only be learned through experience.  You can read all you want about the survival mindset but until you are truly tested whether in a simulated emergency or a real one you can never truly understand its effect.  It will determine whether you live or die.

You can never truly be prepared for everything however you can understand that your limitations whether man made or created by mother nature can be overcome by your heart, your courage, your knowledge and above all your survival mindset - your will to live regardless of how bad it gets.

-38 degrees... It's colder than it sounds !