Friday, December 17, 2010

Trapped In the Wild

Have you ever given any though to what it would be like to be alone in a remote place, trapped by a fallen tree or shifting boulder, unable to free yourself and too far into the backcountry to call for help?  Though most of us don't give this much thought when hiking, camping or paddling through wild areas, such unfortunate circumstances have befallen quite a few individuals in recent times - some who made it out alive and others who did not.  And one can only imagine how many such victims there have been in the course of human history when even more people traveled alone and in truly wild country.

This possibility was on my mind again the past two days as I received the finalized page lay-outs of my new book,  Could You Survive?: 13 Deadly Scenarios and How Others Got Out Alive from my publisher and had to do a final read-through to make any last minute changes before it is sent off to be printed.  As it happens, this "trapped in the wild" scenario is the subject of the first chapter, the title of which is "Cutting Your Losses."    In this chapter I describe a situation in which you are pinned down by an immovable object, while hiking alone well off of a designated trail in a mountain wilderness area.  The only food you have are the items you carried in a day pack for a hike of a few hours.  You're too far from any road to get a cell phone signal.  You didn't tell anyone exactly where you were headed or when you expected to be back, and now your ankle is crushed under a massive boulder, leaving you exposed to the frigid night air with inadequate protection and barely enough water to last until the next day.  No one is coming for you, and no one is likely to find you by accident.  What would you do?  You have a multitool with several sharp blades in your daypack.  The only way to freedom is to cut off your leg at the knee.  Could you do it?  If not, death is certain, it's just a matter of time, and the vultures are already circling, awaiting their opportunity.

You've probably read of some of the individuals who had to make just such a choice - like Aron Ralston,who was rock climbing in a remote slot canyon when a boulder shifted and pinned his hand to the cliff wall.  Ralston ended up cutting off his own arm at the elbow to escape, and later wrote a book about the ordeal:  Between a Rock and a Hard Place.  Now several years later, his story is about to get much more widespread attention with the release of a new movie: 127 Hours  (see trailer below).

You might think that such nightmarish circumstances only befall dare-devil  adrenaline junkies like Ralston, who was obviously engaged in a high-risk activity to begin with and who foolishly told no one where he was going.

But consider what happened to Mike Turner, a 48-year-old, experienced backpacker who was hiking in a Wyoming wilderness area when a he was trapped by shifting rocks while crossing a boulder field.  After more than a week, in which he could not free himself, he died of exposure and dehydration and was not found until more than 2 weeks later.  Others have been trapped by fallen trees while cutting timber or firewood.  One whose story was on all the prime time new channels a few years ago was Donald Wyman, who had to cut his leg off at the knee and make a tourniquet from the starter cord of his chainsaw.  He then crawled to his bulldozer, drove it to his pickup, and then drove the truck to the nearest farm using a metal file to depress the clutch when he needed to shift gears. He knew it was either give up his lower leg and foot or die, and he made the choice with little hesitation.

Such a choice is not something anyone wants to contemplate for long.  The key to avoiding it is to turn up your awareness level to the max anytime you stray off the beaten path, and especially if you do so alone.  As I mentioned in a previous post, Watch Your Step

Another key element to safety when traveling alone in a wild, unfamiliar place is to know your environment.  Even if you don't know the area from first-hand experience, research at home before you go can turn up lots of good information and alert you to dangers you might not have known about without prior reading.  An example of this that I turned up in my research for this same chapter on getting trapped in the wild are the many tragic stories I read of people trapped in the mud flats of Alaska's tidal rivers.  Had they known the dangers, they would not have ventured out onto this treacherous silt that can hold a person's leg as surely as cement until the returning tide comes in to drown them under several feet of frigid seawater.

The conclusion to this is that in planning your bug-out locations or just recreational trips into places new to you, try to learn everything you possibly can about the local conditions there before you go.

Regarding the movie: 127 Hours, I have not seen it yet but I definitely plan to check it out. I remember first reading about Ralston's ordeal in Outside magazine right after it happened and thought then that it was an incredible story of survival.  Here's the trailer from YouTube:

Friday, December 10, 2010

More on Survival Hunting and Food Gathering

I spent most of the day last Saturday canoeing with my long-time camping and adventure-travel buddy, Ernest Herndon.  We went to a large national forest lake here in south Mississippi mainly just to get out on the water for a few hours, but also because I wanted to shoot some footage for a video I plan to post here soon, in which Ernest demonstrates a simple paddling technique that makes long-distance travel in a canoe much more feasible and less exhausting.  I'll have that video live here as soon as I have time to edit it.

Out on the lake, as we explored the hidden coves that reach like fingers into the wooded hills of the surrounding national forest, we saw a wide array of waterfowl coming and going, as well as deer and squirrel activity within sight of the water.  Our conversation turned to survival hunting, as Ernest had read my last post here and we talked then about the different methods so many people use to achieve the same end, namely putting meat in the freezer

With over 30 years experience as a newspaper reporter in south Mississippi, including covering the local hunting and fishing reports and writing a weekly outdoor page for the Sunday Edition, Ernest has seen about every technique imaginable and has spend lots of time in the woods, swamps and fields with some incredibly skilled outdoorsmen.   Most of these guys he knows are the kind I mentioned before that probably never read survival books yet have a knack for finding and getting their game when most everyone else comes up empty handed.  They range from some local backwoodsmen who probably don't read any books at all to the highly-educated, like Ernest's own son, who is a doctor but also one of the most avid and skilled hunters I've ever met.  Anyone who has done a lot of hunting and fishing has seen the type.  The conversation reminded me of a hard-drinking surveyor I used to work with who each day after work would walk the banks of a lake near the job with a rod and reel and one specific artificial lure, and come back near dark with a plastic garbage bag full of bass.  This in the same lake where my brother and I rarely got a strike.  The same guy was equally proficient with getting deer during hunting season.

Discussing characters like this, especially the ones Ernest has accompanied and interviewed over the years, led us to more conversation about alternative methods of game and fish gathering that are rarely discussed in a survival context.  Take hand-grabbing for instance:  This involves wading along the shores of a creek or lake and reaching into holes to grab catfish that are laying up there.  People who are good at this can get far more fish than they can eat in a very short time, but again, there's a knack to it that some have while most of us would have to work a lot harder at it.  It's all about knowing how and where to look.  The same goes for setting out drop hooks in the local creek, building fish weirs or rigging snares and traps.  We also talked about frog-gigging, shining beavers, alligator, rabbit and deer at night, and even killing armadillos with a stick, if you were desperate and couldn't find anything else.  

When the conversation turned to the optimum firearms to take in a survival situation, as these discussions always seem to do, Ernest expressed his thoughts on shotguns, which would be his first choice because of versatility with a variety of loads.  He said the weight and bulk issues of the ammunition could be mitigated somewhat by choosing a smaller bore, like a 20 gauge, and that he would prefer the simplicity of a single or double-barrel over a pump or automatic.  Knowing that if Ernest actually had to bug out someday he would do so in a canoe along a local stream, I could find no fault with his choice of weapon because in a canoe he could carry all the ammo he wanted and in the thick cover around here, the shotgun would sure make it easier to harvest squirrels and most other game.  I grew up learning to hunt with a Savage singe-shot 20 gauge myself, and later switched to a .22 for small game before acquiring a variety of rifles in different calibers.

As a result of this conversation, Ernest decided to poll some local experienced hunters regarding their choice of a survival firearm and got a variety of answers, with many favoring 12-gauge shotguns, and few opting for a 20-gauge, a .22 rifle, a .22 revolver with interchangeable .22 Magnum cylinder, and one preferring a .17 HMR rifle. 

Another interesting topic of this conversation we had regarding survival hunting concerned what we have seen in our travels in various parts of the world.  Ernest went on two expeditions into the interior of New Guinea back in the 1980's, including visiting a village in the mountainous jungles there where the people still hunted with bows and arrows and wore bones through their noses. He wrote a book about it called In The Hearts Of Wild Men.  In New Guinea at that time, he also encountered various subsistence hunters that used shotguns, while crocodile hunters were still using spears.  Later, in the 1990's, we traveled together in both the jungle areas and drier mountain areas of Honduras and encountered both Miskito Indians and campesinos who hunted every kind of animal in the region with .22 rifles.  Lucio, our host at a remote ranch near the El Salvador border even used his .22 to shoot fish when we approached a stream and claimed to have killed over 200 deer with his well-worn and rusty Marlin Model 60.

The conclusion we came to is that you use what you have and what you feel comfortable with.  When we stopped for lunch and Ernest broke out his banjo to pick some blues, I decided maybe he won't have to hunt after all in a post-apocalyptic world!  People are still going to need entertainment after the lights go out, and what could be better than some banjo blues by a campfire out in the backwoods?  I recorded one of his tunes for YouTube and thought I would share it here too:  

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Some Thoughts on Hunting Season

Deer season is in full swing here in Mississippi and naturally, in a state blessed with an abundance of woods and game, hunting is a big deal here.  The woods are full of folks out to fill their freezers with venison or seek a trophy rack to hang on the wall.  As I've mentioned here before, I believe that plenty of the backwoodsmen who grew up in places like this learning to hunt and fish from childhood could feed themselves just fine if forced into a bug-out situation after the SHTF. Although they may not read survival blogs on the Internet, own any books on the subject, or even give it any thought, many would know where and how to to find game and have the skills to do so.  This is especially true of the older generation around here, such as those who grew up in impoverished rural areas where hunting was a supplement to the everyday food supply back when many people still grew most of what they ate and raised livestock for the same purpose.

Today, despite all the concrete and the cities and roads and the ever-growing human population, deer are more abundant in the South than they were at the time of De Soto's expedition in the 1540's.  Wildlife management programs are largely responsible for this.  Another major factor is a lack of natural predators, such as mountain lions (usually called panthers down here) that were long since wiped out but may be coming back.  Finally, one of the biggest factors is the reversion of most farmland back to woods or pine tree plantations, creating more natural habitat.  This explosion of the deer population is evident everywhere, especially along the highways and backroads where they are frequently hit by vehicles and are especially a menace to those of us who sometimes ride motorcycles.  Large numbers of deer are often seen wandering into suburban neighborhoods and down city streets at night, something that was unheard of here when I was growing up. 

This abundance should make deer hunting easier than ever, and it has, but few "hunters" that I know of anymore practice anything that really resembles hunting.  Instead, today it has become all about ease and comfort, with so much reliance on technology and expensive equipment that skills and woodsmanship are rarely considered.

I don't know how widespread this practice is in other regions of the country, but here the concept of climbing a tree to get a better view and to get out of the deer's line of sight and normal zone of awareness has evolved in just my lifetime to something completely different.  When deer hunters first took to the trees to get above their game, it was by either climbing a tree with well-spaced branches and perching in a fork or building some simple wooden platform in the fork with perhaps a few 2 x 4 rungs nailed to the trunk for easier access.  Then, the portable climbing tree stand was introduced, allowing hunters to carry the stand most anywhere and use it on straight, limbless trees to get an unobstructed shooting platform.  I remember buying one of the earliest ones on the market - a dangerous contraption with a flexible steel band that wrapped around the tree and held the lightweight plywood platform in place - as long as your weight was properly centered on it.  Climbing tree stands got better over the years, with more security aloft and better methods of attaching and climbing the tree, such as this one: Summit Viper SS 81066 Climbing Stand


Then the portable climbing tree stand fell out of favor with most hunters and was replaced with a variety of ladder-stands, with the platform and ladder all built into one.  These were heavier and bulkier, of course, not something you could backpack into the wilderness to set up in a new location on every hunt.  But this didn't seem to bother most hunters, who then decided to skip the tree part of the "tree" stand altogether and erect free-standing shooting towers, much like those you see guarding the perimeter walls of a prison or garrison.  No longer simple platforms, these stands featured "shooting houses" atop them, complete with comfortable chairs, shooting ports and heaters.  Some of these were home-built on site, but a new industry sprung up to provide a variety of such tower stands with built-in shooting houses.  Now these are all the rage around here, and they can be seen from the highways and backroads overlooking cut-overs, pipeline and powerline right of ways, and food plots.  The portability is gone, except of course for the initial set-up, which in the case of the biggest ones requires equipment like a tractor with a forklift.

Because this new type of hunting from a fixed location eliminated the possibility of scouting recent deer trails and setting up ambush sites based on the current movements of the deer being sought, shooting house hunters had to either bait their quarry with a planted food plot or set up over an open space like a pipeline and hope for the best.  The food plot option has of course, become the most popular.  It is without doubt an effective means of killing deer, but will those young hunters growing up using nothing but these methods be able to effectively hunt if cast out into a survival situation in trackless swamp or mountain forest?  Will they know how and where to look for deer signs, and how to take advantage of available cover to still hunt from the ground, and to get within effective range of an open-sighted rifle or more primitive weapon such as a traditional bow?  It seems apparent to me that many hunting skills are being lost, even by those who are growing up in the country and raised in a hunting tradition - not to mention the vast majority of more urban youth who have no interest in it or access to it at all.

I don't have a problem with anyone's choice of hunting methods and I'm all for anything that thins the herd some, since there are no predators other than human hunters and speeding vehicles on the highway to do this.  But the point I want to make is that such methods do not prepare one for real survival hunting while on the move and in the deep woods and swamps where shooting houses and food plots are non-existent.  If you want to be prepared to hunt for your food in a bug-out situation, you're going to have to get off the 4-wheeler, leave the comfort of the shooting house, and forget about the carefully-planted food plots.  You need to know what the natural foods are that your quarry depends on  in your region, and what seasons they are available and where to find them.  You have to think about water sources and look for well-used trails to and from them.  You need to be aware of wind direction and natural techniques for masking your human scent.  You need to know how to move quietly and slowly when in your hunting territory, and how to stalk with excruciatingly slow deliberation when necessary to get closer for a shot.  You need to be an expert with your hunting weapon of choice as one shot may be the difference between going to bed hungry or well-fed. 

Another factor to consider is that hunting the old way can be more fun and certainly more challenging.  You may not get a deer as often, but when you do, it will be more rewarding and you will know what it feels like to be a hunter.  Getting your game on its own terms and at the same level will give you the confidence you need to know that you can survive.  If this is something you are already doing, then take it to the next level by using more primitive hunting weapons.  In a future post I will show some examples of the traditional and primitive archery equipment that I have made to give you some ideas about how you can get into this too if you find it interesting.  

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