Tuesday, November 29, 2011

SPOT Question

In the comments to my last post, a question was asked about my experience with the SPOT Satellite Messenger, and whether or not it was hampered by a canopy of trees overhead.

That is a great question. Every type of satellite communication device, whether it be a GPS a Personal Locator Beacon, or the SPOT Satellite Messenger depends to a certain degree on having a clear shot at the open sky. These are not high-powered devices, so the signal can be interrupted by overhead obstructions.

That said, I have successfully used my SPOT in deep forest as well as on open terrain. With a normal PLB, the only way to verify that the unit worked is to listen for the sound of helicopters coming to rescue you. But the SPOT works differently, having a couple modes of operation other than just calling for the rescue team. You can send a "check in" message that allows your team of people back home to follow your progress on a Google Map. Or you can send a "I need help, but don't call the rescue team" message in the event you have a non-life threatening emergency such as a flat tire, or other minor mishap. That message gives your GPS coordinates to your team who can then come and give you a hand. Of course, the final recourse, when you life is at stake, is to press the button that calls in the helicopter rescue teams.

So far (knock on wood), I haven't needed to call for rescue. But I have used the other functions.

Keep in mind that my unit is a first edition — an old model that has since been updated by the company. The newer units are more powerful, smaller and lighter. I paid $149 for mine and maintain a $99 per year subscription to the service. The alternative is to buy a PLB that costs several times that much but requires no subscription fee ever after.

One other difference between my SPOT and a PLB is that I can change batteries myself, while PLB owners need to send their units in for service.

I hope that helps answer the question. I encourage you to do more research. The websites to check out are: www.findmespot.com for the SPOT Satellite Messenger, www.acrelectronics.com and www.mcmurdo.co.uk for PLB information.

No matter which unit you buy, it is money well spent. Hope you never need to use it, but the peace of mind alone for you and your loved ones will be a huge benefit.

Monday, November 28, 2011

A Response

To my previous post about Quicksand and the use of a PLB or SPOT Satellite Messenger, I received a response from "Anonymous" that reads:

This would be a great gadget to have, but many people simply do not have the money to go out and buy all the great equipment, especially in this economy. Its really hard to justify spending money on items you may only use occasionally. There is a tipping point there somewhere. You make a valid point about being prepared, and that is well taken. The average Joe who just wants to get out in nature to find some peace and solitude from the cacophony of modern life generally isn't going to have the money to buy all the latest and greatest. I think it would be helpful if you could do some posts that would help those less fortunate, financially.

The writer makes a good point. Equipment such as a PLB is not inexpensive, and most people do without for that very reason. It's just human nature to believe that "it" will never happen to us.

If I were in the business of reporting every case of people getting lost or stranded, with no way to make contact with the outside world to spark a rescue effort, there would be no end to it. Every day, somewhere in America, people fall into those situations. And if you expand to the world, there are literally hundreds each day who fall into the depths of trouble that require outside help.

Sometimes, they're lucky enough to be able to work out their problem and save themselves. Sometimes they're not. But in every case, if you were to ask the survivors, they would say that spending a couple hundred dollars to save their lives would be cheap.

It only looks expensive when we don't need it. As soon as you do, you will wish you had made the investment.

And that brings me to my next story. Just a few days ago, a teenage boy named Jacob was hiking with his father and two brothers in the Olympic National Park. All of them were experienced hikers, and this trail was almost in their backyard, so it wasn't like they were neophytes on their first trek to some exotic location like Nepal. Actually, local day hikes are more dangerous than exotic expeditions. The reason is that, for expeditions people train and equipment themselves for the worst that can happen, but for the day hike in their backyard people don't expect anything bad to happen, so they don't prepare for the worst.

But on with the story — Disaster was only a small misstep away. As Jacob stepped onto a narrow section of the trail, the ground gave way and gravity took over. He slid for a ways, then went head over heels, tumbling down a rocky 150-foot slope.  When he stopped, his body was covered with cuts and scrapes from the jagged rocks. His right leg wasn't working well, and his left leg wasn't working at all. His left ankle was broken.

Jacob heard his brothers yelling to him from above, but when he tried to crawl up the slope his legs went into spasms and he couldn't move.

Soon, Jacob's dad and brothers descended the slope to check on his condition. By then, it was late in the afternoon, and the sun was about to set. They wouldn't have enough daylight to get themselves out of this situation. They needed help.

From where they were, cell phone reception was too poor to make a phone call, so they tried texting everyone they knew, asking them to call 911 and send help. The dad sent one of the sons down the trail to the car to retrieve their emergency backpack. (Just a note here — wouldn't it be better to have that emergency equipment with them, rather than leaving it in the car? I'm just saying…). It turns out this was the first time they had ever needed the emergency equipment, but the dad later reported that it probably made a big difference in the way things turned out during Jacob's incident.

By 7:00 p.m., park rangers and search & rescue arrived on the scene and determined that Jacob couldn't be moved until morning. The brothers hiked out with the rescue team, and the dad stayed with Jacob and six rangers through the night. At about 2:00 a.m., it started raining.

Before daylight, the rescue team was making plans involving ropes and a litter to carry Jacob down the narrow mountain trail. A secondary plan was to call in a Coast Guard helicopter to make the rescue. But the weather was bad enough that the chopper couldn't fly until 11:00 a.m.

It was afternoon of the day following his "slight misstep" that Jacob was delivered to the hospital for treatment.

As painful as this experience was, Jacob was incredibly lucky. It could have been so much worse.

  • Imagine if he had been hiking alone
  • Imagine if he had been fifty miles back in the mountains, far from the emergency kit
  • Imagine if the overnight temperature fell below freezing
  • Imagine if there had been no cell phone or zero cell coverage
All those "imagines" do happen. Consider the story of Aron Ralston, the young man who was forced to cut off his own hand to save his life. It's interesting to note that now Aron Ralston is a spokesman for a company that makes PLBs. It is probable that if he had invested a couple hundred dollars to buy a PLB, he would not have had to self amputate his hand. Rescue could have arrived within hours, rather than the days it took him to save himself — and only then at such great anguish and pain. 

Back to the story about Jacob. After it was all said and done, Jacob's father made a statement that everyone would do well to pay attention to. "You can't eliminate all risks, but you can take steps to mitigate the danger," he said. 

In the end, only you can put a price on your life. How much are you willing to pay to make sure you're safe when you're "out there?"  And let's take it a step farther. How much are you willing to pay to make sure your loved ones will be safe?  Is a couple hundred dollars too much? 

Not for me. Actually, I'm priceless! 

Sunday, November 27, 2011


We had an up-close-and-personal incident involving quicksand on the first day of our year-long wilderness living experience in southern Utah back in 1976. That was a long time ago, but I've never forgotten how tricky it can be to deal with this stuff.

And this past week, another fellow learned a similar lesson. It happened to a 25-year-old man who was involved with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), famous for their excellent outdoor education programs.

After 23 days trekking around southern Utah, he apparently stepped in the wrong place along the Dirty Devil River and became trapped by a pool of quicksand. He was there for 8 hours before a search and rescue squad was able to get him out. The first attempts at rescue failed, and it was 2:00 a.m. before they finally fished him out of the quicksand.

The guy was lucky, to say the least. But he was also prepared, and that takes some of the luck out of it. The way the authorities found out about his dire situation was because he used a PLB (personal locator beacon) to trigger the rescue effort. The PLB sent a signal to a satellite system that relayed the distress signal to the rescue agency.

After our own encounter with quicksand on our approach to the first cave we lived in, I talked with a local rancher about what happened. "Yeah," he said without a hint of surprise on his face, "we lose cattle to the quicksand all the time down that canyon."

Back in that day, there was no such thing as a PLB. Today, there's no excuse for wandering in the wilderness without the ability to alert rescue teams if you get in trouble. I understand perfectly how that concept offends "purist" wilderness explorers who think it somehow diminishes the experience if you are still tied to civilization via a satellite link. Be that as it may, the older (and wiser) I get, the longer I want to live so I can keep exploring the world. A PLB is cheap insurance. I carry a SPOT (www.findmespot.com), but there are other products available.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

What's The Weather Going to Do?

Being surprised by an unexpected storm leaves you vulnerable. Every seafaring person (of which I am one) knows that weather is a key element to safe travel. That's why we spend some time each day looking at the sky, monitoring wind shifts, reading the barometer, thermometer, and calculating relative humidity. The same goes for outdoor enthusiasts of every stripe. Keeping an eye on the sky and watching a few basic instruments to discern what's coming is a most important skill. 

Reading the weather clues in the sky is a good start for doing your own weather forecasting (and it may be all you have to work with after a disaster or if you're lost in the wilderness), but with the addition of a few pieces of equipment, you can have a head start on figuring out what the weather is going to do.

It's always a good idea to read or listen to what the pros have to say. NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) is the big dog in the world of weather forecasting through their National Weather Service. You can access local and regional forecasts via the Internet, smart phones, or a portable weather radio.

A couple of great examples of portable weather radios are the $34.95 Oregon Scientific WE601N (www.oregonscientificstore.com), and the $49.99 Midland HH54VP2 (www.midlandradio.com). In addition to regular weather reports, these “all hazards” radios broadcast warnings and post-event information for all types of hazards: weather (tornadoes, floods, etc.), natural disasters (earthquakes, forest fires, volcanic activity, etc.), technological (chemical releases, oil spills, nuclear power plant emergencies, etc.), and national emergencies such as terrorist attacks.

If you want to combine the ability to receive weather information along with your GPS coordinates, the Garmin GPSMAP 496 (www.garmin.com) allows you to subscribe to XM WX Satellite Weather that transmits real-time high-resolution animated weather data and NEXRAD weather radar. Depending on your choice of service plan (starting at $9.95 per month), you can view as many as 20 different types of weather information. 

Wow! A far cry from holding a wet finger up in the wind. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Gratitude and Giving Back

True Story:

Eddie Rickenbacker was a famous hero back in World War II. On one of his flying missions across the Pacific, he and his seven-member crew went down. Miraculously, all of the men survived, crawled out of their plane, and climbed into a life raft.

Captain Rickenbacker and his crew floated for days on the rough waters of the Pacific. They fought the sun. They fought sharks. Most of all, they fought hunger. By the eighth day their rations ran out. No food. No water. They were hundreds of miles from land and no one knew where they were.

They needed a miracle. That afternoon they had a simple devotional service and prayed for a miracle. They tried to nap. Eddie leaned back and pulled his military cap over his nose. Time dragged. All he could hear was the slap of the waves against the raft..

Suddenly, Eddie felt something land on the top of his cap. It was a seagull!

He would later describe how he sat perfectly still, planning his next move. With a flash of his hand and a squawk from the gull, he managed to grab it and wring its neck. He tore the feathers off, and he and his starving crew made a meal of it — a very slight meal for eight men. Then they used the intestines for bait. With it, they caught fish, which gave them food and more bait…and the cycle continued. With that simple survival technique, they were able to endure the rigors of the sea until they were rescued after 24 days at sea.

Eddie Rickenbacker lived many years beyond that ordeal, but he never forgot the sacrifice of that first life-saving seagull. And he never stopped saying, "Thank you."

That's why almost every Friday night, later in life, he would walk to the end of the pier with a bucket full of shrimp to feed the gulls. Just a bucket of shrimp and a heart full of gratitude.

To survive is great. To remember to be grateful is even better. The one without the other is worthless.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Night Vision

The ability to see in the dark is a matter of survival. Not only for nocturnal animals hunting for their next meal, or perhaps trying to avoid becoming somebody else's next meal, but also for humans. Evidence of that can be seen on every battlefield and in every military cockpit, both airborne and marine. If you can't see what's out there in the dark, you're vulnerable.

For the human eye, it takes about 30 to 45 minutes to fully adapt to darkness to the point that we have our maximum natural night vision. After that adaptation happens, all it takes is a brief burst of light from the white, yellow, green or blue spectrum to "bleach out" the rod cell photoreceptors in our eyes. The result is instant night blindness. 

Illumination sources that don't emit white, yellow, blue or green light don't cause night blindness. That's why a red spectrum of light is used onboard ships and aircraft at night when a light source is needed. Red light has a longer wavelength that doesn't attack the rod photoreceptors in or eyes and disrupt our night vision.

Once night blindness occurs, you have to start over with the adaptation process. But one trick to help retain at least some night vision is to close or cover one eye when an offending light source is approaching.  For example, if you are aware that car headlights are coming your way, close or cover one eye to preserve the night vision in that eye. The eye that remains open will be affected, but you'll still have some night vision left after the car passes. Of course, it's better to tightly shut both eyes in the presence of light if you are able,  but there are times when you must keep at least one eye open — while you're driving, for example. Be aware, however, that closing one eye will diminish your depth perception and can be dangerous while driving. 

But if you're hunting, or being hunted, and white lights (flashlights, helicopters, flares, etc.) are being used in the area, keep that trick in mind. It might save your night vision…or even your life. 

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Earth Shaker

A rash of earthquakes in Oklahoma (you gotta be kidding… Oklahoma?) this past week has everyone focused on what to do to prepare for an Earth Shaker.

Begin by making an assessment of your home, looking for all the things that might be thrown down when the house rocks and rolls during an earthquake. Bookcases, knick-knack shelves, entertainment centers, hutches, pictures hung on the wall, mirrors — and more. All that stuff is vulnerable to becoming shrapnel when it flies off its perch and lands on the floor.

The major problem with that is, if the quake happens at night while you're in bed, and you wake up and realize what's happening, and jump out of bed with bare feet — ouch!

But it's more than mere ouch. It's injury and infection and blood loss and muscle/tendon damage that can last a lifetime.

So the smart thing is to assess your home ahead of time, find the vulnerabilities, and take care of them now.

In our home, we have anchored things that I mentioned above, using butterfly bolts through the sheetrock, and L-brackets bolted to whatever unit we're securing. The next challenge is securing all the small items that belong on those shelves and hutches and whatnot.

For knick-knacks, we use a thin layer of museum putty (looks like a cross between Silly Putty and modeling clay) under each item to stick them in place on shelves. Larger items such as the TV or stereo system need to be bolted down with brackets to make sure they remain in place.

Mirrors that were once held to walls by small plastic brackets have now been upgraded to a full framework of decorative moulding. It not only looks better, but is now much more secure. And we've upgraded the picture frame hangers for the oil paintings my wife's mom created.

For the water heater, we used a length of metal strap wrapped around the unit like a belt and then bolted the strap to the wall. 

Even with all that effort, a serious earthquake can still make a dangerous mess of your floor. For that reason, keep a pair of hard-soled shoes by your bed so you can slip your feet into their protection before evacuating the house in the middle of the night.

And since we're talking about the middle of the night…it's also a good idea to keep a flashlight within easy reach. And unless you want to flee the house naked except for your nice shoes, keep some appropriate clothing within reach as well.

Earthquakes give precious little warning, so it's best to live prepared all the time.