Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Avoid Getting Washed Away

There's a lot of concern about floods and mudslides right now in about half dozen of the western states. Governors are filing for "state of emergency" federal funds, officials are ordering evacuations, people are losing their homes, and some are losing their lives. 

Flooding is a huge problem that can lead to both urban and backcountry survival situations. According to national statistics, flooding is the leading cause of weather-related deaths in the U.S., killing, on average, about two hundred people each year. Two hundred per year might not sound like a lot, until you compare that number with the average statistics for hurricane-related deaths (24), or tornadoes (69), or lightning strikes (81).

One of the deadliest flash floods in U.S. history swept down Colorado’s Big Thompson Canyon during the height of the 1976 summer tourist season. People were trying to escape Denver’s city heat by going to a popular camping area, where the temperatures were cooler and the day was perfect. As it turned out, the day was perfect for an unusual combination of atmospheric conditions to join forces, with deadly results. Afternoon heat created powerful updrafts that carried moist air aloft, and when that air reached the cooler upper atmosphere, it didn’t take long for a thunderstorm to form.

Heavy rain began to fall in the mountains above Big Thompson Canyon. Normally, thunderstorms move fairly rapidly across the landscape, being pushed across the countryside by strong winds. But this one didn’t. It just sat there and dumped. Three hours later, more than a foot of rain had fallen, with eight inches falling during one intense hour-long cloudburst.

The stream grew from its normally placid 2-foot-deep trickle to a violent killer that was 19 feet high and raging through the canyon, wickedly propelling 10-foot boulders and broken trees that had been ripped out of the ground. In a heartbeat, everything was gone — vehicles, buildings, and people. The crushing flood swept through the canyon with such speed and violence that it was impossible to out-run. Buildings and vehicles instantly became death traps, and there was no possible avenue of escape, except straight up the canyon walls. Two hours later, the death toll was 145, including 6 people who were never found.

The trouble with flash floods is that they arrive unannounced, and they often come from many miles away. It might not even be raining where you are, but twenty miles away a cloudburst can set things in motion and a few hours later the flood sweeps you and your camp away in a raging torrent.

Flash floods feed on three things — heavy rainfall (or perhaps sudden snowmelt), a system of drainages or lowlands where the water collects and funnels downstream, and time. A ten-minute monsoon isn’t going to create much of a flood but one that lasts an hour and dumps several inches of water will.

Soil that doesn’t absorb moisture easily is a huge contributor. And if the area is denuded of vegetation by fire, timber harvest or other land clearing operations, the problem is made worse. The brushfires that denuded hillsides over the last few years are a major factor in the flooding and mudslides now ripping up southern California. 

There is literally no region that is safe from the possibility of flash flood — deserts, mountains and plains are all vulnerable areas.

Flash floods are sneaky — they seem to come out of nowhere. There could be a violent thunderstorm taking place farther back in the mountains or on a distant desert plateau — a downpour might be hitting the rocky ground and funneling runoff into a drainage that eventually leads to your location. You might have no clue a deadly flash flood is roaring toward you like a liquid freight train until you hear the approaching rumble, feel the ground tremble, and suddenly see a wall of water carrying trees and boulders through your camp. 

So you need to have a survival plan, just in case you find yourself in the wrong place on the wrong day.

Preventive Planning
  • Listen to the weather forecast before heading out. If the forecast talks about unstable air, thunderstorms or other violent weather, don’t go into places where a flash flood might catch you.
  • Periodically monitor the NOAA Weather Radio station in your area to learn if there are weather events taking place that will affect you. You can buy a fairly inexpensive and compact, battery-operated weather radio at places like Radio Shack.
  • If Flood Advisories, Warnings or Watches are issued, heed them.
  • When you arrive in camp, look the situation over and imagine what the place would look like if it were suddenly swept by a 30-foot wall of water (yes, they get that big). Choose a campsite that is above the danger zone. Don’t camp in lowlands or even in a minor drainage. 

Surviving a Flash Flood
  • Get to higher ground immediately. The water level might rise incredibly fast.
  • Don’t stop to gather up your equipment. Saving your life (and the lives of others) is more important than saving your vehicle or other gear.
  • If you are trapped by floodwaters that are surrounding your vehicle, get out immediately and make your way to higher ground. It takes only 2 feet of water to sweep away a vehicle, and it will roll and tumble and smash as it is swept downstream. A vehicle is not a safe place to be. Approximately half of flood-related drownings are vehicle-related.
  • Do not attempt to drive across a flooded road. What you can’t see is that the roadway might have been ripped up by the rushing water, leaving a hole that will swallow your vehicle.

If you recognize the potential danger of a flash flood, take steps to keep yourself, your friends and loved-ones safe during your travels and camping trips.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Search & Rescue

Michelle Yu was a very experienced outdoor enthusiast who was preparing for an ascent of Argentina's Aconcagua, the highest mountain peak in the Americas at 22,841 feet, beating Mt. McKinley by nearly half a mile. As part of her preparation for the climb, she was hiking Mt. Baldy in southern California every week and had recently completed the ascent of several 14,000-foot peaks. To say that she had a good climbing and hiking resume would be an understatement. But even the best can get in trouble sometimes.

On December 4th, she set out for a training and conditioning hike and was seen by other hikers near the summit of the trail she chose that day. But that night, she didn't return. The following afternoon, a friend reported her missing, and the West Valley Search and Rescue unit was called into action.

Even though there was no information available about the route Michelle had taken into the mountains, her car was located and SAR teams were deployed to scour Goode Canyon, San Antonio Canyon, The Sierra Hut Trail, and the Devil's Backbone.

The search was difficult and slowed by very high winds and severe rain. At high elevations, the rain turned to snow and ice. The rock fall hazard was serious because of all the flowing water, with reports of very large boulders crashing down the canyons. But the search continued for the next three days, and spread out into new areas that had not already been searched. Additional SAR teams from all of California were called in to help.

Then a team being extracted from Fish Fork noticed something during their helicopter ride out of their area.   They put people on the ground to investigate and found that it was Ms. Yu. She was discovered in the same general drainage that the team had descended, but the drainage is a complex of three drainages that combine at the bottom and Ms. Yu was in the "sub drainage" that was adjacent to but out of sight of the one the team had been searching.

Apparently Michelle Yu had fallen 2,100 feet from the rugged trail above. How did that happen? Nobody knows for sure. The day of her hike had started out beautiful and sunny, but bad weather swept across the area later in the day, bringing rain, snow and ice. Could she simply have slipped and fallen as she was crossing the drainage, and tumbled more than 2,000 feet to her death? Maybe.

Could she have succumbed to hypothermia due to the cold, wet conditions and suffered a breakdown of judgement that took her into that steep drainage looking for a fast way to get off the mountain and reach warmer temperatures at a lower elevation? Maybe.

Could it be a combination of those two scenarios, or something else entirely? Maybe. Nobody knows for sure.

So what can we learn from this incident?
  • No matter how experienced you are (or maybe it's just that you think you are), accidents can happen. 
  • Going alone into the wilds is rewarding on some personal levels, but increases the risk all the time. 
  • It doesn't take much to kill a person. A misstep or a twisted ankle at the wrong time can send you over a cliff or tumbling down a steep ravine.
  • Always leave specific details about the trail you're going to hike, and then stick to that plan. If you deviate and find yourself the object of a search, it will take additional time before rescuers locate you. 

Monday, December 13, 2010

Stranded Traveler

From coast to coast, the U.S. has been experiencing unseasonably cold weather. Jokes are flying about, "where is global warming when we need it?" First it was the Pacific Northwest, now it's the Midwest and east coast, all the way down the Florida where the winter strawberry crop is at risk of freezing.

But it isn't the strawberries we're most concerned about — it's the people. When we lived in Wisconsin, there was one memorable winter when the wind chill factor drove temperatures down to -100 degrees F. That winter, there was one man in our small town who died in his car because he couldn't get it to start and he stayed there until hypothermia took him. Another man died on his porch because he couldn't get the key in the door lock. It doesn't take long at -100 degrees to lose dexterity, and that is the first domino to fall before the rest collapse.

Right now in the Midewest, several cold-related deaths have already taken place, and the winter is just getting started. National Weather Service meteoroligist Jim Taggart said the weather in the region is what would normally be expected in January, but not December. As I write this, we're still more than a week away from the official start of winter, so if this is any indication of things to come, it's going to be a long, cold one.

Some airports have been shut down. Thousands of flights have been cancelled or delayed. At Chicago's O'Hare Airport alone more than 1375 flights were canceled. Stranded travelers are wondering what to do. O'Hare officials set up more than 200 cots and supplied toothbrushes and toothpaste to help ease the situation for those stranded in the airport.

This is a good time to talk about what you can do insofar as personal preparation is concerned.

  • Nothing trumps situational awareness — be informed about what's coming before you make plans to travel. Watch the weather forecasts. Look at the long-term situation, not just what's going to happen this afternoon. 
  • Be prepared to cancel or alter travel plans. If the trip absolutely must happen, consider altering your route so you miss the bad weather, even if it means going out of your way to dodge the trouble. 
  • Pack your own emergency supplies so you don't have to depend on someone else to share a toothbrush with you. An emergency blanket will help keep you warm, some high calorie snack foods will keep your energy up, and be aware of where the water source is. 
  • Might be handy if you carry your own emergency supply of toilet paper. I know, it sounds goofy, but you haven't lived until you've been trapped in an airport with a thousand other people and there's no toilet paper in the restrooms. 
  • Wear appropriate clothing that you would be comfortable in if you were forced to sleep on the floor at the airport. Pack gloves, a watch cap, a scarf, and a base layer of merino wool clothing to help stave off hypothermia or just misery. 
  • If you have luggage, spread it out and sleep on it rather than on the cold floor. This is assuming there is no more comfortable place to rest — like a chair or bench — which would be your first choice. Trouble is that those spots disappear quickly when folks are stranded, so you might end up on the floor. 
  • Do not wear fancy clothes or jewelry, and don't flash your money around because that will put a target on your back for thieves who take advantage of the situation when folks find themselves stranded. 
  • Remain calm and cooperate with officials. Trust me, they don't want you sleeping on their floor any longer than necessary and they're doing everything possible to get you out of their hair as quickly as possible, so it's counterproductive to get upset and behave poorly. Try to be a positive, rather than a negative. 

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Ten Quick Tips

To collect water from damp ground, dig a seep hole and allow water to ooze into the depression. To keep your water filter from clogging, let water in a freshly dug seep hole settle for an hour before filtering for drinking.

Before building a fire on cold or damp ground, construct a solid firebase of stone or green logs to keep the fire up off the ground where moisture from below can weaken the blaze.

Study local wind patterns before erecting a shelter, and keep the opening opposite the direction of the night wind.

To help prevent blisters, remove boots and socks frequently during long treks to rest your feet and allow the boots and socks to air out and dry.

Always gather dry tinder material as you encounter it, and store it in a dry place, because you cannot be sure of finding good tinder when you need it most.

Never pass up discarded materials. Examine every piece of litter you find to determine ways to put it to use. For example: A piece of a tin can or broken bottle glass can be used as a cutting edge.

In cold weather, start seeking or building your overnight shelter about three hours before sundown, to give you time to secure against the elements, get a fire going and gather sufficient firewood to see you through the night.

In hot weather, naturally seek the shade as you hike, moving from one shade to the next as much as possible. Move slowly, inhale through your nose to help prevent dehydrating your lungs.

Use a t-shirt to make an expedient covering for your head, neck and the sides of your face. Tie it on using a belt, a strip of cloth, or even a limber tree root. If necessary, just hang it over your head without a tie.

In your pocket, carry a folded sheet of heavy-duty tin foil to be used for fashioning a pot in which to boil water. 

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Water Conundrum

One of the most pressing needs for human survival is adequate drinking water. By adequate I mean sufficiently abundant and sufficiently pure. The definition of "sufficiently abundant" changes depending on environmental conditions of temperature and humidity, individual activity level, conditions of health, age, body size, and other factors. In a survival scenario, where conditions are more demanding, the need for water intake increases. I recommend planning on one gallon per person per day for drinking and food preparation — and that doesn't take into account the need for water to handle sanitation issues.

Insofar as water is concerned, our bodies are like car engines that are never turned off, but are left running all the time. Unless the fuel supply is replaced, eventually the tank runs dry and the engine quits. Extending that analogy to our bodies, even in our sleep the engine is running.  The metablolism that keeps our cells alive involves processing water through every cell 24/7, so there's no such thing as shutting down the need for constant water intake.

The challenge comes when we try to keep enough water on hand to supply our needs in the event that some kind of catastrophe shuts down the "normal" water supply. To prepare a method of suppling our own water needs when the domestic supply is unavailable, there are only so many solutions.

One is to have a well on your property, along with the means of raising the water from the depths of the well to the surface — a pump — and the means to keep that pump running: an electric power generator or some mechanical method. That might work for those who live in an area where drilling a well is possible, but that doesn't apply to the vast majority of folks in this country. And even if you have a well, it might go dry in drought years, or if an earthquake causes a shift in the subterranean supply. So wells are not totally infallible.

A few lucky people live near some kind of surface freshwater supply — a river, lake, pond, etc. If you're one of those, you might be able to capture sufficient water and then purify it for your use. If you live in a big city and expect to collect water from the pond in the city park, you'll find yourself competing with other folks and probably dealing with seriously contaminated water from pesticides and industrial pollutants. So factor all that in.

Another solution is to simply store water by utilizing containers ranging from 1-gallon plastic bottles to 55-gallon barrels. Freshwater weighs in the neighborhood of 8.4 pounds per gallon, so the small containers are easier to deal with than larger ones. And if you live in an apartment or condo, where you don't have any property on which to store such items, you'll have to use the smaller containers, storing them in a closet or under the bed, etc.

For those who have the ability to store larger quantities of water in 55-gallon drums, the issue of keeping that much water "fresh" over the long term comes into play. Some people I know dump their barrels every six months and refill with new water. That's not only a pain in the neck, but it can be a huge waste of water unless you are able to make use of it as it's discarded.

I recently learned about a product that makes it unnecessary to recycle the stored water so often. It's called Water Preserver Concentrate (#2C) and is available from a company called QuakeKare ( For $11.95 you can buy a proprietary formula of stabilized, ph-balanced sodium hypochlorite that is designed especially to treat a 55-barrel drum full of stored water. The company claims that this product has been tested for 10 years and is registered and licensed by fenderal an state EPA. The company guarantees effectiveness against bacteria, virus, mold and fungus for a 5-year period.

I wanted to let you know about it in the event that it will be useful for your water storage system.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Small Emergencies Are Good For Us

Last night, the power went out over a wide region where I live. I was in the bathroom at the time, and suddenly it was very, very black. At first, I thought my wife was playing a joke on me by switching off the breaker — she's like that sometimes. So I chuckled and called out, "nice trick, honey!" But she claimed it wasn't her — all the power was out in the house. I asked her to look across the street and see if the lights were on at the neighbors' house, which would tell us if it was something that was only affecting us. As it turned out, the entire city was black.

In each of the rooms, small emergency lights turned on when the power went down. That gave us immediate ability to navigate around the house. But we noticed that a couple of those lights that remain always plugged into an electrical outlet so they can charge internal batteries, were almost of no use because the light from them was so dim. Who knew? But now we know that we need to buy some replacements, and that we need to test them every once in a while to make sure they'll work when the power dies.

Becky grabbed a flashlight (we have flashlights in every room in the house…except, unfortunately, the bathroom). So there I sat in the dark. "Hey honey, would you point a flashlight under the door?" She did, and that helped me accomplish the task at hand.

A few minutes later, we had our decorative Christmas candles happily lighting up the kitchen and dining room, a couple of small oil lamps illuminating the bedroom and office, and we each had a flashlight in hand. The power outage was no big deal, because we were able to maneuver around the house and prepare to go to bed and wait for the sun to come up.

But, for those who have a serious need to have electricity for more than just turning on the lights, it could be a disaster. Some folks have medical devices that operate on electricity, and when there is a power outage, it can be a life-threatening situation.

Or if the outage lasted for days, or even weeks as it does in some cases where severe weather tears down power lines all over the city, that type of incident could cost lives. Ice storms can rip down virtually all the above-ground power lines, leaving a city without power for weeks on end. In the middle of a bitter winter, people without the ability to operate their furnace can be in trouble pretty quickly. Just last month, there was a massive power outage in western Washington that left tens of thousands of homes without power. During that outage, two elderly men died of hypothermia in their homes. Residents resorted to driving around in cars and trucks for no other reason than to be able to run the heater.

All utilities — water, power, natural gas — are vulnerable to situations that will shut them down. It's good to have little emergencies like the one we passed through last night, to tune us up and remind us that we need to be prepared to do without those amenities. Small emergencies show us where our weak points are, so we can correct them. Some areas we might strengthen are:
  • Water that is stored in easy-to-access form so that we can continue to drink and cook and take care of sanitation while waiting for the supply to return to normal. 
  • Alternative methods of cooking (camp stove), so you can have hot meals and warm drinks to help prevent the onset of hypothermia.
  • A supply of easy-to-fix foods and hot beverage mixes. 
  • Lighting, of course. Keep flashlights in every room (even the bathroom!) where they can be quickly grabbed. Check the flashlights now and then to make sure the batteries are still good. And keep a supply of fresh batteries on hand.
  • A power generator to handle serious needs like medical or just to keep the refrigerator and freezer cold or to run the furnace. 
  • Warm blankets or sleeping bags and clothing so you can bundle up as the house grows colder. 
If the cause of the power outage is such that it's going to be a long time before power is restored, you might have an evacuation plan in place so you can travel to an unaffected area and have someone to stay with there. Of course, that only works if the roads are open and able to be safely traveled upon. If you can't do that, you must shelter in place and be prepared to take care of your own needs until life returns to normal.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Hazmat Emergency

If your area is hit by a hazardous materials (hazmat) emergency, will you be prepared and know what to do to protect yourself?

Hazardous materials include toxic chemicals, flammable substances, radioactive materials, explosives, or poisons. An emergency incident can occur involving hazardous materials when an accident happens during the transportation of these substances by rail, over the highways, by ship, or aircraft. If you live near a major highway, railroad line, ship yard or airport, there is potential risk that you could experience a hazmat incident.

A hazmat emergency can also happen during production accidents. But chemical plants and explosives factories are not the only sources of hazardous materials. Perhaps surprisingly, gas stations, hospitals, and waste disposal sites are also potential hazmat sites. So, if you live near any of those facilities, there is risk of a hazmat episode.

What can you do to protect yourself in the event of a hazmat emergency?
  • Be aware of the potential for such an emergency. Take inventory of the hazardous materials sites in your town, and their location relative to your home. Note also the direction of prevailing winds in your area and determine whether or not your home is generally downwind or upwind of these sites. 
  • Even if your home is upwind, and therefore safer than places downwind of potential hazmat sites, realize that the wind can change and you should still be prepared to take appropriate action if hazardous materials are accidentally released into the atmosphere. 
  • Prepare an emergency supplies kit that includes plastic sheeting, duct tape and scissors. In a hazmat emergency, use the sheeting and duct tape to seal windows, doors, roof vents, furnace ducts and air conditioners to prevent contaminants from entering your home. 
  • If you become aware of an incident, monitor local radio and TV stations for details and instructions. Do not be tempted to be a "lookee-lou" near the site of the incident — that would put you at risk of contamination and you might impede containment or rescue operations. Stay away from the area. 
  • If you are outdoors, use the word UP to remind you what to do — remain upstream, uphill and upwind. Move at least a half-mile from ground-zero. 
  • Do not step on or touch any spilled liquids or solid chemical deposits. Stay away from any airborne mist, smoke or fog. 
  • If you are in a vehicle, remain inside, keep the doors, windows and vents shut, and do not use the air conditioner or heater (they draw in outside air). 
  • If you are at home, use the plastic sheeting and duct tape to seal the doors, windows, heating ducts, air conditioner, and any other openings (cracks, etc,) that might allow outside air to penetrate. 
  • Continue to monitor radio and TV for instructions about when it is safe to come out, or for other decontamination information. 
  • If possible, consider evacuating the area. However, before deciding to evacuate, consider that the contamination might be spreading over the escape route, or that the route might be closed off by authorities to keep people out of the area and allow decontamination and rescue units in. Before leaving the relative safety of your shelter, monitor reports on radio and TV to learn if evacuation is a viable option. 
  • If you are away from home when the incident occurs, contact authorities to find out if it is safe to return. Do not enter the contamination area until you are told it is safe. 
  • When you are permitted to return home and the area is declared to be safe, open windows and doors and turn on fans to provide ventilation. 
  • If you become contaminated, follow instructions issued by authorities. In some cases, you might be told to take a shower, but in other cases you might be instructed to stay away from water. Not every incident is handled in the same manner, so make sure you get specific instructions before attempting to decontaminate. 
  • Remove exposed clothing and shoes and seal them tightly in plastic bags for later disposal, as instructed by authorities. 
  • Until you are sure that the situation is safe, avoid contact with other people. You could inadvertently contaminate them, or they could do the same to you. 
  • If you become ill, seek medical treatment as soon as possible. 

Monday, November 22, 2010

Foul Weather Travel

As I write this, much of the United States is experiencing some form of nasty weather. In some places it's snow or freezing rain, in others it heavy rain, and some locations are being whipped by strong winds. To my friends in Florida and Hawaii, all I can say is that this post won't apply to you — you lucky dogs.

But for the rest of us, we're entering an early cold season, thanks to La Nina. Areas of the country that normally have mild winters are already seeing abnormal cold temperatures and snow. Central Montana today is 45 degrees below normal!

On top of that, we are sneaking up on the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, when many of us will be traveling to join with family and friends to enjoy some time together. Bad weather and travel can spell trouble, so this is a time for us to prepare our vehicles and ourselves for the possibility of difficult travel conditions. Here are some suggestions:
  • Be willing to cancel the trip. I know this sounds extreme, and goes against the grain — especially for most men (I don't mean to sound sexist, but this is simply the truth). We guys tend to think we can plow ahead and overcome everything, and the hormonal inability to pull the plug on a trip can lead to disaster. It's best to deal with reality, have compassion on your passengers, and exercise wisdom — even if it means canceling the trip. 
  • If you decide to travel, wear appropriate clothing. That means footwear that you can comfortably walk a few miles in, through snow or slush. It means weather-appropriate layers made of fabrics that will turn the wind and rain, won't absorb moisture from outside, will breathe, and will wick away from your skin the moisture you create by exertion. Headgear and gloves (or mittens) should be an integral part of your wardrobe considerations. This doesn't mean you have to dress in all that clothing while driving, but at least have it in the vehicle with you so you can use it if necessary. 
  • Make sure the vehicle is up to the trip. If traction is likely to be an issue, four-wheel-drive is best, front-wheel-drive is second best, and rear-wheel-drive is least favorable. A 2x4 truck with an empty cargo bed is worst of all, insofar as losing traction is concerned. Good tires help a lot. In snow and ice country, studded snow tires or chains will work wonders. If you're carrying chains, make sure you know how to install them. When I say know how, I mean actually do it a few times, not just read the instructions. 
  • Carry specialized items of equipment such as a shovel, ice scraper, snow brush, bags of sand for traction aid, and winter windshield washer fluid. Carry a cell phone and charger. I carry a SPOT Satellite Messenger, in case we get into real trouble and need to call for rescue. 
  • Keep the gas tank topped up. 
  • Do not be tempted to take shortcuts. Stick to main routes of travel, because that's where help will be when you need it. 
  • Take a supply of food and water, and a sleeping bag or blanket for each person. Have several methods of starting a fire — Bic lighter, storm-proof matches, flint 'n steel striker,  and some prepared tinder material. There have been cases where folks have had to survive for many days off the beaten path before rescue arrived. The ability to stay alive might depend on what you are carrying in the vehicle and your ability to start a fire, both for the warmth and for signaling. 

Saturday, November 20, 2010

What Would I Do?

Last night, I was at a social gathering and was approached by a young man who asked a pointed question. The night was rainy and cold, snow was in the forecast for the mountains, and this friend of mine wanted to know what I would do if I were out there in the mountains lost and alone without any camping gear that night.

What would I do? It's a great question. In fact, it's the perfect question that we should all be asking ourselves all the time, not just on a dark and stormy night. What would I do if…and then plug in the scenario. What would I do if I accidentally fell overboard from our sailboat? What would I do if a vehicle suddenly came at me in the wrong lane? What would I do if a submarine earthquake triggered a tsunami in our region? What would I do if a wildfire broke out in the forest and threatened our home? What would I do if I was diagnosed with cancer? What would I do if home invaders broke in and took my wife hostage? What would I do if a deadly pandemic was spreading through our area? What would I do if…?

You get the picture.

If you don't don't play the "what would I do if…" game in your own mind, you have no basis for preparation, and you leave yourself vulnerable to be surprised by events that can thrust you unexpectedly into a survival situation. On the other hand, if you do play that game mentally, you find yourself thinking about strategies, techniques, equipment, supplies, escape routes, and attitudes that can help you survive when the event presents itself. I'm convinced that 90% of survival is mental. It's psychological, it's emotional, it involves mental preparation ahead of time and mental toughness during the challenge. If you never think of these things, you have no chance of being prepared.

As a paratrooper, I went through a lengthy training session called "Malfunctions." It covered just about everything that can go wrong with a parachute, with the airplane, and with the jumper himself. We talked extensively in terms of "what would you do if…" And, wouldn't you know it, during my jump career I experienced 3 malfunctions. The training saved my life 3 times. Without that training, I would have been caught unawares and wouldn't have known what to do.

When my friend confronted me with the question about what I would do if I were caught out there in the mountains on that cold and stormy night, my brain snapped into visualization mode and I saw myself in the forest with frigid rain pouring down. I imagined an immediate search for natural shelter opportunities, and steps I would take to improve the shelter as quickly as possible to protect me from getting wet. In my mind, I saw myself hunkering down in a small, tight place — staying dry while the world around me was getting soaked.

"What about fire," he asked.

"Definitely a priority," I answered. "But it would be tough to get a fire going in these conditions. Not impossible, but extremely difficult unless you were carrying the right materials with you. Assuming you had to depend entirely on what the forest provides, it would be unwise to be out in the rain getting your clothing soaked while scrambling around trying to find materials for a fire. Even if you were able to succeed with the fire, you would still be wet. And although the fire would help dry you out, the bigger question is this; what if you were unable to start a fire tonight, and you were now soaked because you went out in the rain to search for fire materials? The risk/benefit balance is weighted too heavily on the side of risk," I told him. "On a night like this, you must stay dry at all cost. Even if you have to suffer through a miserable night without fire. Get wet, you're dead. Stay dry, you have a chance."

We talked for the next hour about various scenarios. He's a young man with great enthusiasm for the outdoors, but doesn't have my Wilderness Survival book yet, so I suggested he get a copy and study it. Preparation begins with study, and is enhanced by field experience.

With a foundation of knowledge and experience, you can play the "what would I do if…" game in your own mind. The process will sharpen your situational awareness and allow you to think through a variety of possible scenarios and have strategies figured out to help keep you from being blindsided.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Personal Locator Beacon Saves Lives

On a balmy summer afternoon, Andy Stanton, 48, and his friend, Karl Hansen, were hunting 100 miles northwest of Anchorage, Alaska. They were about to top out on a mountain ridge to scout for game when Stanton’s ATV bogged down. He revved the throttle but it wouldn’t budge. When he let off the throttle, the bike jerked backwards, causing Stanton to fall back in the seat. It then rolled down the incline catching the back wheels. The front end came up and Stanton slid off the rear landing on his back with his head pointing downhill.

To his horror, Stanton saw the four-wheeler coming right over on top of him. He instinctively put up his arms and legs to deflect it but the vehicle weighed 750 pounds. His legs came up over his head and the machine fell on Stanton, completely compressing him. He heard and felt his back break. 

The four-wheeler continued down the mountain a short distance before it stopped. 

The good news is that Stanton had wisely decided to carry a personal locator beacon (PLB) with him. Using that device, a person in trouble can summon help via a system that employs satellites dedicated to the very purpose of aiding search and rescue. One press of the button sends a signal to the satellites, and that signal is forwarded on to a rescue center that then contacts the search and rescue units nearest to your location. The exact location is known because the PLB sends your GPS coordinates as part of the message calling for help. A fantastic system. 

The bad news is that Stanton's PLB was strapped to his backpack on the ATV that was now a long way down the mountain from him. Lying there on the mountainside with a broken back, Stanton had no way to retrieve and activate the PLB. 

Fortunately, Stanton was not alone. His hunting buddy scrambled down the mountain and retrieved the  PLB and activated it at 1:37 p.m. Stanton said he was in such excruciating pain he didn’t want to take any chances regardless of having a cell phone. Cell phones are nice, but coverage is sketchy to nonexistent when you're far from civilization. That's when a PLB might be your only chance. 

As it turns out, there was no cell phone signal where Stanton lay injured, so Hansen climbed the ridge in an attempt to get coverage. At 2:10 p.m., he was amazed when his 911call went through and state troopers informed him that the beacon’s satellite-detectable distress signal had already been identified and Search and Rescue (SAR) personnel were enroute. At 3:30 p.m., a hospital Life Flight helicopter arrived and airlifted Stanton to Providence Hospital in Anchorage. He was hospitalized for a week with a broken back but, luckily, he was not paralyzed. Several weeks later, he was able to return to his civilian Army job wearing a rigid body support.

Stanton and his wife, Jan, also a hunter, have decided to purchase a second ACR MicroFix™ PLB. Then, if one beacon gets crushed or disabled, they’ll have a back-up unit. “I can’t tell you what peace of mind having that beacon gives you. No one thinks it’ll happen to them. In Alaska, things can turn bad in a blink of an eye. We’re not at the top of the food chain out here,” Stanton said, referring to brown bears that feast on nearby spawning salmon this time of year.

The big lesson Stanton said he learned that day was the necessity of keeping the beacon on your body at all times, not attached to something that you can be separated from. “If I had been alone, it would have been bad. I would’ve had to drag myself down the mountain to my ATV to activate the beacon,” he said.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Fun Reading

If you're tired of reading about all the bad news going on in the world, maybe it's time to take a break and immerse yourself in some reading just for fun. Fiction is an entertaining way putting your mind to the task of trying to figure out what's going to happen in a world that won't actually affect you — except perhaps emotionally as you connect with the good guys and hope the bad guys get what's coming to them.

So, along those lines, I can highly recommend two Thrillers — fictional stories in which you know exactly who the bad guy is, but you're not entirely sure how things are going to work out. Both of these books are available as Kindle versions through Amazon. But you don't have to own a Kindle reading device to have access to Kindle books. There's a free application that you can download to your computer, Blackberry, iPhone or iPad that will allow you to read Kindle books.

Okay, back to these two Thrillers. One is titled Code Name: Viper. It's about a black-ops intelligence agency called the NIA (National Intelligence Agency). The deputy director of the agency has skeletons in his closet that he would kill to keep secret. Problem is, the secret leaks into the hands of one of the agents, putting his life and that of his pregnant wife at severe risk. The chase is on, from Washington DC to the Yucatan Peninsula as they are forced to run for their lives while being pursued by the deputy director.

The second book is named The Container — another NIA Thriller, this story is about an al Qaeda terrorist attempting to smuggle a biological weapon into the US inside a shipping container. We follow the action around the world from Pakistan, through Indonesia, the Panama Canal, and into the Gulf of Mexico. Innocent civilians become entangled in the deadly web, as the weapon draws closer to America in the hands of its suicide jihadist.

Both of these books involve a lot of survival technique — the art of staying alive under threatening conditions. All you have to do is click on the photo of the cover to go directly to Amazon where these books are available.

Yup, sometimes we need a break from the real world, and a book is better than TV anytime. Of course, I might be prejudiced, because I wrote both of these novels.


Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Cholera Update

The situation in Haiti continues to worsen. News out of Port-au-Prince, the nation's capitol, is that the cholera epidemic has spread into that metropolis, putting nearly 3 million people at risk. Half that many are living in unsanitary tent camps for the homeless, after the earthquake that tore the city down last January.

Cholera has already been blamed for about 550 deaths in less than a month, and tens of thousands have been identified as being infected. The disease is spread through contaminated water, and recent flooding in the wake of Hurricane Tomas is swiftly spreading the bacteria.

One of the strange things about this outbreak is that cholera has never been documented in Haiti before its appearance last month. So where did it come from? One theory is that the disease was introduced to the island by U.N. peacekeepers from Nepal, a country in south Asia where the disease runs rampant. Those U.N. peacekeepers are located at a base on a tributary of the Artibonite River. That river is now contaminated with cholera.

What's are some of the lessons for us?
  • A disease that is entirely unknown to one area can be introduced by people who have traveled to an area of the world where the disease is found. 
  • This kind of problem can happen anywhere (even where you live), brought in by people who have traveled to other countries.
  • In the process of rendering aid to disaster victims, it's possible to increase the scope of the disaster when relief workers bring new problems to the region.
  • After the primary disaster (in this case an earthquake) is long gone, the spread of disease might turn out to be an even more significant catastrophe.
  • Refugee camps can pose risks to large populations who are living in close and unsanitary conditions.
  • It's extremely difficult to manage the human waste problem in a refugee camp setting, which is why it might be preferable to live on your own away from that kind of setting. 
  • If you're on the move, prepare a suitable arrangement for disposing of your own human waste, burying it at least 8 inches deep and 200 feet from any water source, trail or your camp. If you're going to be in the same area for a protracted period of time, dig a pit 4 or 5 feet deep for waste disposal, preferably in a sunny location (to speed decomposition) downwind of your camp and a couple hundred feet from any water . If possible separate urine from solid waste and place them in separate pits, because that will speed composting of the solid waste. Sprinkle a handfull of soil or ashes from your fire over the solid waste to help reduce the smell. 
  • Purify all water used for washing your hands and implements used for cooking or eating, as well as all water used for drinking or food preparation. 

Monday, November 8, 2010


Escape and Evasion (E&E) is generally thought of as a military survival technique to be used when you're in a combat theater and there are people out there trying to kill you.

Normally, in a civilian survival setting, we aren't concerned about having to escape and evade to keep from being hunted down and destroyed by the enemy. Actually, under normal circumstances, just the opposite is true — we want to make ourselves so visible and so audible to the outside world that rescuers will have an easy time finding us. That's why the fundamental principles of signaling are such an important aspect of survival education.

However, there are situations in which it is desirable to make ourselves invisible. This can happen in both wilderness and urban settings. Let me paint a couple of scenarios for you.
  • You are hiking the deep woods of the Oregon coast and stumble into a marijuana plantation being tended by a couple of gorillas carrying weapons. They see you just about the time you decide it would be prudent to evaporate into the forest, and they come a hunting. 
That would be a nice time to know how to vanish into thin air.
  • In an urban setting, imagine that you are in New York City the night the power grid fails and the city goes dark and spooky. Traffic lights die, and instant gridlock occurs. Everybody is on foot — good guys and bad guys. But the bad guys are looking for ways to take advantage of this windfall, filling their pockets and maybe notching their guns at your expense. 
Becoming good at E&E takes practice, but there are a couple of foundational concepts that might help you live through experiences like those I've described. I'll just hit the high points, and then I will urge you to go out and practice these techniques by playing a game of "stealth" and seeing how imperceptible you can become.
  • Movement is the enemy. When you're trying to hide, you must become an absolute stone statue. Any movement at all will give away your position. Motion will get you caught because it is often accompanied by noise, and the enemy doesn't even need to be looking directly at you to see you — he can detect you in his peripheral vision. If you can get to a hiding place, don't be tempted to leave it and scurry to another one. Take up your position and be completely still until you are totally certain that the threat has passed. Then wait another half hour before moving. 
  • Noise is louder and carries farther than you think. If you are on the move, you must be so methodical that you create no sound. This takes a lot of practice. Go out in the woods on a dry autumn day when crisp leaves and twigs cover the ground. Practice walking through them without making any sound at all. Learn to pick up your feet and put them back down without disturbing anything. If you feel a twig underfoot, pick that foot up and put it down someplace else. This requires superior balance, and I recommend Tai Chi training to achieve this quality of balance. 
  • Silence your clothing and "stuff." Anything that jingles in your pocket will give away your position. It's better to empty your pockets and leave those things behind (hidden, so as not to leave a trail) than to keep them with you if they are going to give you away. Don't drag your feet or swish your pants cuffs against each other. Quiet your arm movements so the fabric of your shirt or jacket doesn't make noise. 
  • Quiet your breathing. This is difficult when you're frightened. Inhale and exhale deep, slow breaths through your nostrils. If it's cold enough to cause your breath to be visible, exhale into your shirt or jacket collar so you aren't sending up "smoke" signals. 
  • Do not look around. The movement of your head, or even the movement of your eyes, can give you away. Your face, regardless of color, is a solid block that, when it moves will catch the enemy's eye. If you wear glasses, remove them and put them in your pocket, if you can get along without them at all. A sun glint off the glass or frame will light up your location like a beacon. Same goes for all jewelry - watches, rings, etc. 
  • Take the difficult route. The enemy will likely stick with the easier path, so if you escape and evade along a highly undesirable route, you might not be followed. But move slowly and silently. Avoid the temptation to get up and run or make time too quickly. 
  • Hide where no one will look for you. I heard about one evader who hid in the pit of an outhouse, because he knew nobody would look there for him. 
There is much more to E&E, but begin your practice with these techniques (okay, you don't have to crawl under an outhouse) and build your skill.

In my military years, I have been literally close enough to reach out and untie the enemy's boot laces, but he never knew I was there. Remaining hidden takes discipline, but it's a technique that can save your life if the situation requires that you escape and evade.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Dog Attack!

When I was about 7 years old, I was walking my dog one day when we encountered a dog fight in progress. There must have been 4 or 5 other dogs already fighting, and for some crazy reason my dog wanted to join the fun. Afraid that my dog was going to get hurt, I dove into the fray to rescue my pooch (ah, the misguided courage of a 7-year-old). The next thing I remember was waking up under an oxygen tent, being cared for by a doctor. My body was torn to shreds, and it would take some time to heal.

It would be understandable for me to hate dogs after that incident, but on the contrary, I have always loved dogs. However, that was the day I decided that I would never again be some dog's lunch. On a few occasions since my first adventure in the middle of that dog fight, I have been attacked by dogs. Twice while jogging alone I've had large shepherd-type dogs rush me with foul intent. I've been chased on my bicycle a couple times. And once while my wife and I were walking our young pooch, we were attacked by two dogs at the same time. On each occasion, I took action to prevent damage to myself, or to my wife and our dog in that last incident.

So it happens. Even though there are laws governing the restraint of domestic dogs (leash laws, or yard enclosure laws), dogs sometimes get out on the loose, and they aren't always warm and fuzzy and friendly. Someday you might find yourself facing the gnashing teeth of a threatening canine, so it's good to know what to do.

The first strategy is to avoid aggressive dogs, if possible. If you know there are aggressive dogs in a particular neighborhood, don't go there.

Another strategy, if you can't avoid dogs, is to feed them. Carry some dog treats in a pocket, and toss one or two toward the dog if it approaches you.

But when the situation gets nasty you have to take other steps:
  • Never turn your back on a threatening dog. If the animal tries to circle around behind you, keep turning to face him. If you are threatened by more than one dog and they attempt a coordinated surround-and-attack strategy, you're going to have to choose one dog to make an example of. I recommend taking out the most aggressive one first. Be quick about it, because as soon as you focus your attention on one of the dogs, the others might rush you. So work with exceptional violence to take one dog out of action and then immediately be ready to take out the next one. 
When we were rushed by two dogs, I immediately kicked the lead animal in the throat, dropping him like a hay bale, and then I prepared to take out the second dog. That dog saw what happened to his buddy, thought better of it, and whimpered back inside the open gate to the safety of his yard. 
  • Don't run. Running from a dog will encourage and trigger an aggressive attack. It's impossible to out-run a dog for any distance, but if you can scramble into an open vehicle or climb a tree before the dog can reach you, go for it. But if you can't reach safety within a few steps, don't run. 
I once spent an hour on top of a car while waiting for the dog's owner (the uncle of a friend of mine whom I'd gone to visit) to come home and put the aggressive doberman in the house.
  • Stop right where you are, face the animal and slowly back away. Sometimes a dog will rush out and snarl, bark and growl without completing the attack. It might be that the dog thinks you have violated his space, and if you are willing to leave slowly by backing away, he might let you. 
It's worth a try to talk to the dog, giving orders to "go home" or "sit" in a commanding voice. If the dog has been trained at all, it might obey you. Some dogs, however, might have been trained to obey commands in a foreign language. But the very sound of your voice giving a strict order might make the animal stop and reconsider. You might luck out and it will obey you. Like I said, it's worth a try.
  • Avoid making direct eye contact and showing your teeth because that might be perceived by the dog as a challenge, and might provoke an attack. Even though you are facing the dog and watching his every move, focus your eyes a bit to one side of his eyes.
  • Never lose your feet. That means don't fall down. Once you're on the ground, you are lunch. If you stumble, get back on your feet as fast as possible. 
  • Start yelling to arouse the attention of the dog's owner. 
  • Carry defensive weapons (and be prepared to use them) such as pepper spray, a walking stick that can be used to fend off an attack, a short stick or umbrella that can be used as a club or to jam down the dog's throat.
I've used my bicycle pump as a club, when being chased during a bike ride. You can't always speed away, especially if you're riding uphill. Get off the bike before the dog drags you off it, keep the bike between you and the animal, and keep facing the threat. Eventually, the dog might tire of this game and head back home, but don't turn your back on him. Keep him in sight as you climb back on the bike and resume the ride.
  • Take action. 
If the dog is going to take a bite, it's better to offer it something other than your flesh. A coat, a hat, an umbrella, a stick, a bike tire pump, whatever you can shove in the dog's mouth will be better than letting him bite you. If he grabs your arm, rather than try to rip it out of his mouth (thereby getting your arm torn up), shove it farther down the dog's throat. This will cause him to choke and release you.

If you have a coat, remove it and wrap it around your arm. Then present your arm as the target for the dog to focus on. Once he has your protected arm in his jaws, shove it as deep into his mouth as you can and use your other hand and your feet to attack the dog. Punch him in the nose (or whack him hard on the nose with your club), claw out his eyes, punch and kick him in the ribs.

If you can grab the dog by his nose and lower jaw, you can use a quick sideways jerking motion in opposite directions to dislocate the dog's jaw.

If the dog in question is a pit bull, there may be nothing short of death (preferably the dog's death, not yours) that will cause it to release you from its jaws. Nasty as that might sound, it might be your only solution, so be prepared with some means of causing the death of an attacking dog. A knife will do nicely. If the dog has part of you in his jaws, and it's your life or his death, focus all your attention on getting the job done as quickly as possible.

If you are totally without weapons, use your fingers to claw into the animal's eyes or gonads. Rip them out, if necessary. This is an ugly scene to even contemplate, so get it over with as quickly as possible.

After the incident you might need medical attention, including rabies treatment. If possible get information about who owns the dog, because you're going to need this to take steps to receive compensation for your suffering. Call 9-1-1 and have the animal control people take action to prevent this dog from attacking others. This is assuming the dog has survived his encounter with you.

Remember, I am a dog lover. But I love myself even more.

Monday, November 1, 2010

A Commercial Break

In an act of shameless self-promotion, I'm going to tell you about my latest book. It's called A Lump of Clay. It is written as a parable with a powerful message for anyone who thinks life hasn't turned out the way it was hoped or expected. If you have experienced disappointment in life because you've worked so hard, done all the right things, and expected life to turn out better, this is a book you should read.

Everyone is asking if this is a children's story or a book for adults. I have to admit that at first I thought of A Lump of Clay as a parable I could read to my grandchildren. I began writing it after the fashion of a children's story, but when I came to the end of this book I wasn’t expecting what happened. It was a surprise — even for me. Discovering the end of the story was an emotional experience for me because of the powerful message that emerged.

This is a simple and engaging story. Children and grandchildren will enjoy it as it is read to them — and later in life, as they read this book themselves, they will understand the greater significance.

It is my hope that this book will cause readers to reflect on the deeper meaning, value, and purpose of life. You will discover it, if you ask the right question. And you’ll find that question in this book.

Once you read A Lump of Clay for yourself, you might decide it will make a perfect Christmas gift for friends and family. It's available at 

Thursday, October 28, 2010

When Aid Doesn't Come

Every day, somewhere in the world, there is a disaster that displaces people from their homes and normal lives. When that happens, the victims inevitably hope for outside help to come and rescue them.

Indonesia recently suffered a double whammy as a powerful 7.7 earthquake generated a tsunami that, as of this writing, killed more than 430 and made 20,000 more homeless, and that was followed by a volcanic eruption of Mount Merapi, killing and injuring more folks.

The two events happened hundreds of miles apart, and that had the effect of dividing the relief effort, with part of the aid going to help victims of the volcano and another part heading for ground zero of the tsunami.

Having two disasters going on at the same time makes it difficult to carry out relief efforts, but then when you throw in bad weather, it can become almost impossible to deliver the necessary aid. Near the region of the tsunami, stormy seas and bad weather hampered relief agencies for several days, making it impossible for them to even examine the impact of the tsunami on the populace. That meant that the victims were on their own. And when the weather finally allowed rescuers to arrived, the first thing they had to do was assess the situation so they could determine what needed to be done to save the survivors. That also took time.

I bring this up to illustrate how important it is to NOT rely on outside assistance in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. Those who survive the incident (whatever manner of disaster it may be) must be able to fend for themselves for a while, because it is very likely that local emergency relief agencies (hospitals, EMS, etc.) will be disabled or overwhelmed, and outside relief agencies might take a while to arrive.

Here are some things to consider:
  • Become aware of the conditions in your locale that can cause a disaster. If you live near a forest, it might be a forest fire. If you live in an earthquake zone, that might be what causes the disruption. Do an assessment of your area and identify all of the possibilities. 
  • Make an emergency response plan for yourself and your family, including a 72-hour kit, possible escape routes, rendezvous points, hunker-down sites if you are forced to evacuate. 
  • Get as much emergency training as possible, especially emergency medical training. 
  • Conduct practice evacuations during which you give yourself just a few minutes to get your stuff together and head for your alternate hunker-down site. This can take the form of a "hurry up" camping trip that you suddenly throw together with 5-minutes notice. Make it fun, but have a larger purpose in mind. 

Sunday, October 24, 2010


Disasters often travel in company. Outbreak of disease is a common companion to some event such as a tsunami, volcanic eruption, flood, earthquake, etc. We can see how it all works right now, if we look again toward Haiti.

The earthquake happened way back in January — ten months ago – killing an estimated quarter-million people, injuring another 300,000, and leaving more than a million homeless. Here we are, nearly a year later, and more than a million are still homeless. It will take years, maybe decades, for that society to recover to a condition of normalcy.

In the meantime, many of those homeless are living in refugee camps that become hotbeds of disease. Medical care is simply overwhelmed by the enormity of the problem, and in spite of  the best efforts of relief agencies that are there to help.

Imagine how difficult it is to feed and supply clean drinking water to more than a million refugees. The water is an especially hard problem to solve, with high ambient temperature quickly pushing victims into dehydration. Then add cholera, a waterborne bacterial disease that causes severe watery diarrhea and vomiting that plunge victims rapidly into lethal dehydration.

In one case reported by the Associated Press, a 55-year-old man named Jillie Sanatus was brought by his son to a clinic. Suffering from cholera, he was so badly dehydrated that the doctor had a hard time finding a vein to initiate an IV to restore the man's body fluids. Even after the IV was successfully started, Sanatus died within 10 hours. His son reported that the family had been drinking water from a river running down from the central plateau. That river tested positive for cholera.

But what's a disaster victim to do? The choice is to die of dehydration due to the heat and scarcity of pure water, or get creative and find another water source. The trouble with wild water is that it cannot be trusted, and unless you have a method of purification, you run the risk of ingesting contamination.

Cholera is a major cause of death in the world. An untreated victim can produce 10 liters of diarrheal fluid per day. Called "rice water stool" this watery discharge is loaded with bacteria that, especially in a refugee camp setting, can end up getting into the groundwater or drinking water supply and thereby contaminating other people. Any infected water or any food washed in contaminated water can transmit the disease. Cholera can kill you in a matter of a few days, especially if you are already in a weakened condition due to dehydration, malnutrition, injury, or other disease.

Today, a cholera outbreak is running wild through Haiti. Already, just days after the outbreak began, there have been more than 200 deaths, and more than 2,700 more are sick with the disease. The disease has spread from remote refugee camps to the major city of Port-au-Prince, and health workers are becoming pessimistic about the ability to contain the outbreak. The potential is for the death toll from cholera to dwarf the deadly impact of the earthquake. In the years from 1899 - 1923, a cholera pandemic killed more than 800,000 in India before it migrated to the Middle East, northern Africa, Russia and Europe.

Could it happen in America? It already did, with at least three major outbreaks in the U.S. during the 1800s. From 1866 - 1873, more than 50,000 Americans succumbed. And again during the "fifth pandemic" from 1881 - 1896, while a quarter-million perished in Europe, 50,000 died from the disease in North America. A study of the history of cholera outbreaks is sobering.

While it cannot be said that the earthquake directly caused the cholera outbreak in Haiti, it is obvious that the two are linked. The first disaster set the scene for the second to appear. It is a pattern that can be depended on to repeat again in the future.

So what can we do to protect ourselves from this dread disease?
  • Sanitation is the key to prevention. As long as there is a sanitary system of potable water distribution and sewage disposal, there is little risk. But when a natural or manmade disaster occurs that disrupts these systems or intermingles sewage with the domestic water supply, it is possible for cholera to happen anywhere. 
  • Be prepared to purify all of your drinking, cooking and food/hand-washing water. A quality sub-micron backpacking filter will screen out bacteria. Chlorination, ozone water treatment, UV treatment of the water, or boiling for one minute at a rolling boil will eliminate the risk of cholera. 
  • Be prepared to safely dispose of your own body waste in a sanitary manner. 
  • Do not trust wild water sources, no matter how high up the mountain, nor how pristine the tumbling brook appears. 

Saturday, October 23, 2010

What Does It All Mean?

Over the past week or so, I posted three little fables that I claim have a lot to do with survival. And I asked you readers to think about the underlying meaning of these tales. Now I'm going to weave these three stories together into a concept that I believe is critical in a survival situation.

First — Two Wolves: One is evil, the other is good. They are in a constant battle with each other. The question is, "Which one lives?" The answer is, "The one you feed."

The wolves represent what's inside of you — your habits, your patience, your hatred, your forgiveness, your ability to be calm in a crisis, your tendency to fly off the handle, your judgment of other people, your ability to keep your thoughts to yourself, your desire for the limelight, your teamwork, your selfishness, your generosity, your compassion … everything about your personality and character traits. The ones you feed are the ones that will live. And in a survival situation, they are the ones that will rise to the surface in the moment of crisis to either pull you through or condemn you. If you're alone in the wilderness, this can be crucial to your survival; but in a public setting like an urban survival situation, it is even more so. When other survivors are involved, your character traits can either help you or get you killed. Which ones will you feed?

Second — The Man and The Snake: In this tale, the man believes the snake when it promises not to bite him if the man will just save the serpent by picking him up and carrying him to a safer location. In the end, the snake bites the man anyway, much to the surprise of the human rescuer.

The snake represents reality. Rattlesnakes bite; it's what they do. Play with fire, you'll get burned — pick up snakes, you'll get bit. Don't expect a fundamental change of nature when dealing with snakes or people. If you're dealing with a person who has fed the evil wolf (in the first tale), then you must absolutely expect that the characteristics of the evil wolf will rise up in a moment of crisis and bare its fangs. To expect otherwise is foolishness. Oh yes, every once in a while, someone will surprise you by becoming a better person. But most of the time, the nature of the individual takes over. And if you happen to be in the company of the evil wolf, expect to be devoured. Don't pick up a snake, no matter what it promises you. And as we approach mid-term elections, I might add, don't vote for a nice smile and a pack of promises … the snake might be charismatic and promise you the world, but the pack of promises is really a pack of lies. Examine the history and nature of the beast.

Third — The Carpenter: Overcome by self-interest, he takes shortcuts and installs cheap materials to cheat his employer. In reality, he only cheats himself, because the house he builds is the house he will have to live in. There's an old saying, "No matter where you go, there you are." Might sound silly at first, but the reality is that you cannot outrun yourself. No matter what situation you find yourself in, you have to deal with yourself. If you are a poor choice of companion, well, that's tough luck because you cannot get away from yourself. Your character is the house you will live in forever. If you take shortcuts and use cheap components in the building of your character, you will have to live with the consequences. In a survival situation, everything gets ramped up — your best and worst qualities will show up loud and clear. Alone in the woods, you have only yourself to deal with. But in an urban survival setting, other survivors might take steps to rid themselves of those who don't play the game well.

My advice:
  • Engage in deep self-examination to discover which wolf you're feeding. Stop feeding every aspect of the evil one. Don't even throw small scraps to that one. Every time you feed it, it becomes more powerful. Feed only the good one. 
  • Learn to be wise and to use discernment about the type of people you are around. Snakes are snakes. Don't fool yourself into believing otherwise. Don't be a snake yourself, or others will be reluctant to help save you. 
  • Your character is the "house" you will live in. Build the best personal character you can. Don't shortchange yourself, because you're going to have to live inside yourself forever. If you have drafty windows, so to speak, change them. Do it now before the storm comes. 

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Final Thread

The third and final thread to my trio of concepts about survival. Look 'em all over and see what you can learn from these simple little stories that can be critical principles when dealing with survival.

Once upon a time, there was a wealthy man who hired a carpenter to build a house. "Do your best work," the wealthy man said as he handed the carpenter a satchel full of money. "Here is all the money you will need to finish the house."

The carpenter took the satchel and went shopping for cement for the foundation and wood for the walls. As he purchased the materials, the carpenter thought about all that money in the satchel and decided that he would buy cheaper materials and keep the extra money for himself. "That rich old fool will never know the difference," he reasoned to himself. "These building materials will be hidden under the floor and inside the walls, so he'll never see them."

So that's what he did. After work each night, the carpenter took some of the money from the satchel and went out on the town. He played the role of the "big man" and bought drinks for everybody. At the end of the night, he dragged himself home to his rundown apartment and fell into bed, having squandered the extra money he had hoped to keep for himself.

Soon, the house was finished. It looked great from the outside, covered with bright paint. Anyone walking by would think the carpenter was a genius with construction. Nobody would be the wiser about the third-rate wood used to hold up the walls, or the inferior cement poured in the foundation. The carpenter silently patted himself on the back for his cleverness at deceiving the rich old man who hired him. "The old man isn't going to live very long anyway," he thought to himself, "so he'll never even realize that this house isn't going to last. That cheap furnace will fail and the roof will begin to leak in a few years. The floors will start to sag and creak, and wind will come in around the windows where I saved money by not caulking. The paint will peel and fall off because I didn't apply a primer coat. But that old geezer isn't going to live long enough for this to matter."

The day finally came for the carpenter to present the house to his employer. The wealthy man drove up the driveway, looked at the house admiringly, and said to the carpenter, "I have a surprise for you." Then he handed the hired man the keys to the house. "You built this house, so now it is yours to live in."

I'll braid these threads next time, and will explain my reason for including these stories.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Second Thread

Yesterday, I posted a message about Two Wolves. That was the first thread of three that I am going to post, as I braid together a series of concepts that will, in the end, create a unified survival principle.

The fun part is that you get to read these three little stories and think about them for a while. Try to conjure what they have to do with survival.

And so, here is the second thread. This one I take from Aesop.

It was bitterly cold as the farmer climbed the path to the high hills to check on his livestock. A rattlesnake lay across the path, nearly frozen.

“Please,” begged the snake, “take me down where it is warmer. Or I shall surely freeze to death.”

“I don’t think so,” said the Farmer. “I would be a fool to trust you.”

But the snake pleaded. “If you will do this thing, I promise that I will not hurt you.”

Having compassion upon the snake, the farmer picked him up and carried him down into the valley and laid him down upon the ground. As the snake warmed up, he wiggled and stretched. He coiled himself up and struck the farmer.

“Why did you bite me?” cried the farmer. “You gave me your word not to harm me.”

“Ah,” said the snake, “but you knew what I was when you picked me up.”

Now it's your turn. Consider the story of the Two Wolves and this story of the Farmer and the Snake, and see if you can discover the survival principle I'm leading toward. The only clue I'll give right now is that this has absolutely nothing to do with children's stories. It's a very serious concept that can mean the difference between life and death in a survival situation — probably more so in an urban crisis, but under some circumstances also in a wilderness setting. 

The third thread will come soon.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Two Wolves

One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people.

He said, "My son, the battle is between two wolves inside us all.

"One is Evil - It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.

"The other is Good - It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith."

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: "Which wolf wins?"

The old Cherokee simply replied, "The one you feed."
And what, you may ask, does that have to do with survival?  I'm going to give you a couple days to ponder this question and see if you can answer it for yourself. I've bumped into a few folks lately for whom, I'm afraid, the answer is a total mystery. And others for whom this little story is like a beam of sunshine finally illuminating a grand truth. 

We'll talk about this again. In the meantime, beware of what you feed. 

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Getting Out Alive

I call this blog Getting Out Alive because it deals with survival situations of all kinds — both urban and wilderness. The focus is staying alive and well, working out problems that threaten survival, and ultimately getting out alive.

Nothing expresses the concept of getting out alive as well as the situation in the collapsed gold/silver mine in Chile, and the incredible rescue of trapped miners after 69 days below ground. For the first 17 days, nobody on the surface even knew if anyone survived in the lower chamber of the mine after 700,000 pounds of rock collapsed, sealing the only way out.

But on the surface, there was a refusal to give up hope until they knew for certain the fate of the trapped miners. So a fresh bore hole was drilled through the half-mile of ground that lay between the surface and the chamber. It took 17 days before the men on the surface knew that the men below were still alive. During that 2-1/2 weeks, the 33 trapped miners subsisted on what was intended to be a 48-hour emergency supply of food. I have no information about a freshwater supply, but it is not unusual for water to seep into mine shafts, so I assume that was the source of water that kept them alive. The temperature in the mine is reported to be 90 degrees, so heat exhaustion and dehydration would certainly be a concern.

When the small bore hole was finished, 17 days after the collapse, the men trapped below were able to send a message of hope to the surface. They were all still alive. What are the chances!? But they all survived and were in good condition. Some of the men had preexisting medical conditions that required medication that was unavailable. One man was diabetic, another suffered from silicosis of the lungs, requiring antibiotics and other meds that were simply not available to him during his entrapment. But they were all in good condition in spite of these challenges.

A huge rescue effort was put into motion, calling on the talents and skills of miners and engineers and mechanics and medical personnel from all around the world. Three attempts were made to drill a rescue tunnel to the chamber, but the first two failed. Finally, the third option succeeded, and last night the first miner was rescued. As I write this, the rescue operation is still on-going, with more than half of the men now back on the surface. Those who have come up are in remarkably good condition, not really needing any comprehensive medical attention, although they are all taken to a nearby medical facility to be checked out.

Psychologists are concerned that the long period of confinement, much of the time with no cause for hope, might have a lasting effect. Steps were taken to help mitigate panic attacks and claustrophobia during the hour-long ride to the surface in the tight confines of the rescue capsule. Everything possible is being done to help these men regain normalcy, although there is consensus that life will never really be normal for these survivors. Right now, everyone is just thankful to have them coming out of this extreme situation alive. It's the very essence of the name of this blog.

There are lessons for us in this episode.

  • If you believe in God, invite Him to share the experience with you and to carry your load. 
  • Never give up hope. It does no good to wallow in hopelessness, because that will lead you to quit trying. 
  • Try to remain calm. If panic starts to take over your mind, close your eyes and imagine a pleasant scene. I use a beach in Hawaii as my imagined location, with gentle surf rolling ashore and a breeze teasing the palm trees under a perfect blue sky. Your mileage may vary. 
  • Stretch your rations, because you never know how long it's going to take to be rescued.
  • Reduce your energy consumption by resting as much as possible and working only on those projects that have a definite positive impact on your survival. 
  • Positive self-talk, and positive conversations with those around you will help keep yourself and others from descending into a psychological quagmire. Remember, 90% of survival is between your ears, so pay a lot of attention to psychological stability. 

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Plan

Any combat soldier will tell you that when the fighting breaks out, he automatically falls back on his training to get him through. It's the training that becomes instinctive through countless hours of drills that keeps you alive when the going gets rough. If you have no training, you have nothing to fall back on.

The same goes for a Plan. If you have a survival plan that you have rehearsed and practiced over and over again, chances are your brain will revert to that plan when you need it to save your bacon. If you have no plan, you have nothing to fall back on.

There should be a Primary Plan and at least one Contingency Plan. The primary plan is the one to use when everything goes just right. Contingency plans are the fallback strategies to use when the primary plan fails due to unforeseen circumstances (which are the very essence of a disaster).

In a military sense, when the enemy shows up on your landing zone where friendly choppers are scheduled to pick you up, the primary plan is scrapped and the first contingency clan put into operation. You make radio contact with the chopper and tell them to head for the first alternate landing zone. Notice I mention "first" when I talk about contingency plans such as alternate landing zones. You always need more than one contingency plan, because your first option might also run amok. Then you head for your second option.

In survival planning, you need to outline what you will do, where you will go, and how you will get there (and all that kind of stuff) in a primary plan. Hopefully, when you put that plan into action, it will go well. But as often as not, you need to change something(s) on the run, and that's where contingency planning comes into play. For example, if your primary destination is still viable but your means of getting there is not, then pick a new method or transportation from your contingency plan. The same concept applies to all aspects of the survival plan.

It isn't a plan until you write it down. Until it's on paper, it's only a concept. Once you put it down in writing it becomes a tangible plan that you can run through in your mind and use the eraser to adjust whatever need to be changed. Keep doing that until you think you've got it right. Then build first, second, and third contingency plans that will give you options in case Plan A doesn't work out.

Practice all the plans mentally, and then do simulated run-throughs to make sure you can get from Point A to Point B in the amount of time you have planned. If you never go out and actually follow through on the plan, you won't know if there is some new obstacle in the way that would prevent that plan from working. Maybe a road that you were thinking would be a viable route has been torn out, etc. From time to time, trace your routes in real time so you can be aware of changes.

Share your plan with all family members, so everybody will know where the primary and alternate rendezvous points are when a crisis hits.

With a plan, you have a chance. Without a plan, you're probably not a survivor.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Power Outage

We're heading in the season that brings more storms and colder weather to the country — just the kind of conditions that result in trees losing limbs (or toppling) during high wind or heavy snow load.  When that happens, power lines can be brought down, so it's time to consider what you would do during a power outage.

We'll explore this subject in greater detail as the season progresses, but for now I just want to pass along to you one tip that I received from our local utility company. During a power outage, the crews are out night and day trying to restore power as fast as they can. While you're snuggling in your home, trying to stay warm and safe, those folks are out in the screaming storm, cold, wet, exhausted, and working in dangerous conditions. So we owe it to them to do as much as possible to make their job easier.

One of the things we can do is alert them that power has been restored to our home. We don't have to make a phone call to do this — just leave an exterior light switched on so that when the power is restored the light will come on and let the power crew know that electricity is coming to your house.

For yourself, leave one light switched on inside so you'll know when the power is on again. Of course, if your digital clock on the stove (or elsewhere in the house) starts blinking, you'll know the power is back on.

During a power outage, the utility company recommends that you turn off all appliances and heaters. When power is restored, it takes a little while for everything to stabilize, so the recommendation is to wait 15 minutes after power restoration before turning on electric furnaces or heaters, and major appliances.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Easy To Get Lost — Lucky To Live

Sixty-four-year-old real estate broker Edward Rosenthal set out on what he thought would be an easy day hike in an area of Southern California desert known as Joshua Tree National Park.  He hiked this area on a regular basis, but even though he was familiar with the area he somehow got off the intended trail he thought he knew well. Six days later, a search and rescue team found him — severely dehydrated, but alive.

According to Joshua Tree National Park spokesman Joe Zarki, "He was conscious when the rescuers found him and was talking with them, but he does have some injuries and some exposure issues."  

A San Bernardino County sheriff's helicopter was summoned to evacuate Rosenthal to the High Desert Medical Center, where he was placed in intensive care to recover from severe dehydration. 

Rosenthal's wife, Nicole Kaplan, said her husband didn't have any paper with him so he wrote on his hat, expressing his love to her and their daughter, issuing some advice to business partners, and instructions on what kind of funeral he wanted. "He realized he was lost and could not go any further, so he lied low and wrote on his hat," Kaplan explained. His last journal entry simply said, "Still here."

Rosenthal was luckier than 65-year-old William Ewasko who went missing in the same area last June and was never found. Park spokesman Zarki said that the difference between the two cases was that Rosenthal's footprints showed up, but Ewasko left no track to follow. "We had a good trail to follow coming off the loop trail where (Rosenthal) made a wrong turn. The one in June, we never had a clear idea where that gentleman was."

A couple of lessons can be drawn from this episode. 
  • Never assume just because you have hike an area before without incident that you will always be so fortunate. 
  • Always assume that something might prevent you from finishing your hike in the expected time frame. 
  • Even for a day-hike, go prepared to spend a few days and nights. 
  • If you discover that you are lost, stop and prepare a shelter (in this case to get out of the sun), conserve your energy, and start working on methods of signaling for help. 
  • Rosenthal did the right thing by laying low and conserving his energy and body fluid. To live six days in the heat of that desert in late Summer is no easy feat, and he deserves credit for keeping himself alive until rescuers could find him. 

Thursday, September 30, 2010

How It All Started

I thought it might be time for an explanation — a personal glimpse, as it were. 

Something happened to me when I was going through Special Forces training, and it changed the rest of my life. Not only my life, but the life of my wife Becky and our entire family. What happened was that I became a cave dweller at heart.

They didn’t teach cave dwelling in Special Forces, but they did teach survival techniques that sort of morphed in my brain and became an intense interest in living off the land. It may have been the concept of parachuting into hostile territory and knowing how to survive without outside assistance that spawned this interest of mine. Whatever it was, it moved into my head and stuck.

After returning to civilian life, I took to the libraries, reading everything I could get my hands on about non-military survival subjects such as how to identify and use wild edible and medicinal plants, the ethnobotany (the study of how botanical resources are used by indigenous people) of various regions of the world. I went into the field with a botanist friend who showed me how to read the plants’ identifying marks. Weeds started showing up in the refrigerator, and guests were sometimes surprised at what they saw being served for dinner. Added to all this was an in-depth study of primitive techniques involving shelter, tools, clothing, fire making, trapping, and food preparation methods. Such is the life of a budding cave dweller.

The trouble was that I was still working for a living, and being a weekend cave dweller just wasn’t totally satisfying. I needed (or at least wanted) more time, lots of time, uninterrupted time to practice my primitive arts and develop into a full-blown cave dweller. And I came up with a plan. I sat down with Becky one day and proposed an idea. “Honey, I think we should sell the house, get rid of everything we own, take the kids and move into a cave.”

I’m not kidding. Those were my exact words. Her exact words (once she regained her ability to speak) were lost in the distance as she ran down the hall to the bedroom and slammed the door. I’m not entirely sure what she said, but I thought I detected a hint of resistance to my great plan. My next thought was, “Hmmm, that didn’t go too well.” So I decided to drop the whole subject.

A few weeks later, a miracle happened. Married men everywhere fall down with envy when I tell them that Becky walked up to me, planted a kiss and told me that she would support me in whatever decision I made about moving into a cave. “You’re the breadwinner in this family,” she said, “and any way you want to earn the bread is okay with me.” In my opinion, those were the most heroic words I've ever heard. She has always been the brightest star in my universe, and at that moment she went supernova.

After I hugged and kissed her and thanked her from the bottom of my heart, I went outside and planted a For Sale sign on the front lawn. Must have been the right thing to do, because the house was sold in less than a month. We sold almost everything we owned, and put the few things we wanted to hand onto in storage. We moved into a 4-plex while we made final preparations, among which was finding a suitable cave.

Lest anyone misunderstand, the purpose of the whole project was to give me time and opportunity to hone my skills to the point that I could be a good teacher of outdoor survival and primitive living techniques. That was the plan. We never intended to shuck society and live for the rest of our lives in a hole in a rock. The strategy was to spend an entire year living in the wilderness, during which time I would be practicing survival skills until I became proficient enough to be a confident instructor. Kind of like O.J.T.

But I already had years of Special Forces survival training, and a wealth of non-military survival education under my belt. So it wasn’t like we were going out there to see IF we could survive. We had a very high level of confidence that we would survive. I would never intentionally place my wife and children in a risky situation if I thought it might turn out badly. Of course, things happen. We could have all perished. But we might all perish in a freeway accident, too. In fact, there’s a much higher probability of dying on the freeway than in the wilderness, if you know something about outdoor survival.

In our search for a suitable cave in an appropriate location (ie: not in the city park), I consulted an old friend, Larry Dean Olsen, who taught the outdoor survival course at BYU and authored the best selling book Outdoor Survival Skills. He pulled out a couple of maps and laid his finger on two spots in southern Utah. Both of those locations had been hot spots for Anasazi dwellings a thousand years ago. After much discussion, I decided on our new home.

In the middle of winter, Becky and I drove into the exotic slickrock country that flanks Capitol Reef National Park. Before actually moving into the cave, we wanted to recon the area. Caves are generally not indicated on topographic maps, unless they are important caves like Carlsbad Caverns. Our cave was not one of those, so we needed to put our boots on the ground and go search for what Larry had described.

On a frosty morning, we parked our ’64 T-bird among a stand of cottonwood trees where the Burr Trail road through Rattlesnake Canyon intersected The Gulch. Figuring that we would be back at the car by mid-afternoon, we left all of our camping gear in the trunk and headed south into The Gulch wearing only our regular outdoor clothes — mid-weight jackets, blue jeans, and lightweight hiking boots.

I’ll pause here just long enough to say that this is exactly how many real survival incidents begin. People think they’re just going for a short day hike, so they take no survival equipment with them, intending to be back in camp before nightfall. Then something happens and they don’t make it back. That’s what happened to us.

We knew that the cave we wanted to recon was about five miles down the canyon. Unfortunately, Becky was wearing new boots, and by about mile 4.5 her feet were starting to blister. By the time we reached the cave, she felt like she was walking on hot coals. Our hike had been slow and methodical, giving us a chance to explore side canyons and take in the atmosphere of the place, and that pretty well ate up the day. Winter at that latitude means short days and long nights, and as Becky took her last painful steps toward the cave, we had about an hour of sunlight left. We pulled off her boots and talked about the condition of her feet. It was clear that she was not going to be able to hike back to the car that day.

The good news was that the cave was high enough up the slope from the stream bed that it was out of the cold zone at the bottom of the canyon. The bad news was that no matter how far up the slope the cave was, the night was going to be sub-freezing and we had nothing but our clothes to keep us warm. No tent, no sleeping bag, nothing. As the last daylight left the canyon floor, ice was already starting to form along the edges of the stream. Before morning, the entire stream would be frozen over.

I could almost imagine the headlines; “Would-be survival instructor and his wife found dead of hypothermia.” This was not the way I wanted to start my career. There was only one thing to do — I had to use the last minutes of sunlight to get a fire going and turn the cave into a suitable survival shelter. 

Well back from the mouth of the cavern, we picked a spot for a hot rock bed. While Becky scooped sand out of an area of the floor measuring about 6 feet long by 4 feet wide, I collected firewood. Then I gathered up a bunch of stones and placed them in the hollowed out depression that Becky had finished. The firewood went in next, and soon we had a blaze going. 

We let it burn for about an hour, then made sure all the coals were dead before scraping the sand back over the bed of hot rocks. We slept on that warm spot of ground, and it kept us comfortable all night. Well, maybe comfortable is too nice a word, but even though we had to roll over constantly all night long, at least we were warm, which beats the heck out of making the headlines.

That was our introduction to the cave in The Gulch. We’ve come to think of it as our cave, although I’m sure many other people have taken shelter there over the centuries. We found no evidence of Anasazi presence there, but who knows.

After that trip, we returned home to make final preparations for our year in the wilderness. It was a year of immense adventure for us. Not an adventure the size of Mt. Everest, or the depth of the Amazon jungle. But for our small family, living totally alone in the wilderness with a one-year-old son and a three-year-old daughter, chasing lizards for lunch, it was the greatest adventure possible. It changed our lives forever. 

If you really want to know what the wilderness can do to your heart and your spirit and your mind, you must go yourself.