Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Will To Live

Your mind is the most powerful survival tool you have. In some circumstances, whether you live or die depends upon the strength of your will to live.

Certainly, there are situations in which your mind has no influence on your survival. Falling off a cliff and smashing on the rocks a few hundred feet below, catching a bullet in the wrong place, a violent accident involving massive blood loss — those are things your mind can't overcome and keep you alive. But there are plenty of situations in which the attitude (mindset) of the survivor makes all the difference.

Consider for a moment the story of Ryan Harris. This 19-year-old Alaska fisherman almost literally "willed" himself to live through what most definitely was a deadly situation. Harris and his friend Stonie "Mac" Huffman were salmon fishing in the open ocean a few miles off Cape Edgecumbe when they were overcome by large waves that capsized their 28-foot aluminum boat. Both men immediately ended up in the water before they could send a mayday to the Coast Guard, or climb into their survival suits (mandatory equipment for each individual on Alaska commercial fishing vessels, but not required to be worn at all times).

The men climbed onto the overturned hull of the boat, but apparently the boat later sank and the two were left treading water. Luck was with them, though, and they found some empty fish totes (4'x4' plastic bins for storing fish on ice until they can be delivered to a processing facility) that had been washed overboard. Huffman helped Harris climb into one of the totes to use as a life raft, but was unable to climb into a tote himself, so he used a lid as a flotation device to stay afloat.

Huffman located a survival suit, floating amid the debris from their boat. For 2 hours, he struggled to get into the survival suit (a near impossible feat when you're in the water), and during that effort he lost hold of the tote lid. Sometime during the 26-hour ordeal, 8-foot waves caused Huffman and Harris to drift apart.

"I never thought I was going to die," Harris later told reporters, "but I was worried about Mac." His fishing buddy drifted through the night until he reached a shoreline about 25 miles northwest of Sitka.

Throughout the night, Harris sang songs including Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer, and Row Row Row your boat, to keep his spirits up. "I gave myself a pep talk," he said. "I kept repeating, I'm Ryan Hunter Harris and I'm not going to die here."

"It's truly a miracle they survived," said Sitka Mountain Rescue Director Don Kluting. Without the ability to call for help, the two men were fortunate enough to have friends who called to report them missing. That's when the Coast Guard launched a search and rescue mission that eventually located the stranded men.

As I studied the report about these two survivors, I was impressed by the power of their will to live. Neither man gave up. They struggled on against the odds. For all they knew, nobody was going to come looking for them. They decided to do whatever it took to keep themselves alive.

Maybe that's the Alaska spirit — it is, after all, a place that doesn't suffer wimps and princesses.

Maybe it's the spirit of true outdoorsmen (and women) who understand the risks of the rugged life and don't expect someone else to wipe their nose.

Whatever it is, these men had it. Above all, they possess the will to keep on trying, never say die, never lie down and quit.

My hat is off to them.

And also to their friends who reported them missing after an appropriate period of time. And to the courageous men and women of the Coast Guard who risk their own lives to go in search of others who may be in trouble.

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