In honour of Penticton resident Rita Chretien, who lived for seven lonely weeks in her disabled van, I’d like to talk today about survival of the fittest. As in many cases of survival in tough situations, ‘fit’ doesn’t necessarily refer to physical strength. Grey matter is as important as muscle when the chips are down and an emergency situation was completely unexpected.
Some people have been critical of the Chretiens for deviating from their planned route to take
a shortcut through a wilderness area. The truth is, being spontaneous can lead to new knowledge and wonderful experiences that we wouldn’t have otherwise enjoyed or learned from.
I’ve traveled down logging roads through unfamiliar forest areas in a vehicle unsuited for the territory and had to turn back. I too could have been stuck. I’ve scrabbled up steep and lonely trails where it was possible to twist an ankle and be stuck on the trail alone for hours, perhaps even days.
After I began to take seriously the notion of being prepared, I reaped the benefits several times within the first few years. So did others: the victims of a horrible vehicle rollover in the snow one year, then a man who was a victim of a hit and run. My first aid supplies, blankets, wraps, water and food helped people who were hurt and on the ground, and kept my niece and I comfortable when we were stuck in a blizzard on the Okanagan Connector for three hours one night, waiting for a crashed semi-trailer truck to be towed off the road.
Today, I have a few tips for explorers, especially those of you who like to travel light.
Take a tip from a Scout or Girl Guide: be prepared. Before any distance trip, ask yourself what you will have with you in the event you get into trouble. Remember that you may not have cell phone service. What if you have a motor vehicle accident or breakdown? Or a deep cut? What if you take a wrong turn and have no idea where you are? What if an exit out is no longer available?
Rita Chretien apparently kept her head. She was stuck and alone. She knew she had to try to signal her presence. She had to ration out her food. She didn’t panic, as some do, and dash around expending energy. She put up a sign, took cover inside the vehicle, left bright fabric on the window, and counted out small doses of trail mix. For over forty days and nights she waited for help. Some wilderness survival experts were amazed that she lived.
West Kelowna residents Jordie and Laurie Bowen of Selah Outdoor Explorations, who many know from their guided snowshoe treks at Crystal Mountain Resort or their work with school children, have studied and taught wilderness survival. They know how to make snares and boomerangs to catch animals to eat. However, the Bowens say food isn’t the first item on the priority list if you’re lost or stuck in the wilderness.
“ The first thing to do,” said Jordie Bowen earlier this week, “is to take stock of the situation. Keep calm. Take a few deep breaths and check your attitude. Panic will make things worse.”
Next, said Bowen, you need to check yourself over for damage. Any wounds you may have need to be cleaned and protected- an infected wound will sap your strength. Have a First Aid kit.
“Now look after your internal furnace,” Bowen said. “You have to figure out how you’re going to conserve heat. The body loses heat in five different ways: respiration, radiation, conduction, convection and perspiration.” Bowen said one of the most immediate ways to try to prevent heat loss through radiation is to put on your layers. Remove layers when you get too warm, as perspiration can make you chill. Protect yourself from getting wet, or contacting the cold earth.
Emergency ponchos are often bright colours and easily fit into a pocket or vehicle glove box.
“If you don’t have a vehicle to use for shelter, you’ll need to build it,” said Bowen, “and if you need the heat, prepare a fire.” Inside your vehicle, a survival candle in a tin can work wonders.
The next step is to think about signalling rescuers. You can build a signal fire- hot dry material on a platform inside a tree-limb tripod with green branches laid over top – or flash a CD, or a mirror. You can stamp a message in the snow or make an SOS with large rocks, bright clothes, garbage bags or other material that can be spotted from the air. A mirror can be seen from as far as 50 miles away, and takes up the same room in your car as a small piece of cardboard. If you don’t have a whistle, you can try making one out of a pop can.
Now, take an inventory of your food and water options. The most important survival key is water. There are several ways to collect water. If you use snow, it should be melted- your body uses valuable energy thawing snow internally. Keeping hydrated helps your body stay warm and healthy and also helps you stay calm. Try to gather food – even bugs - that won’t take much energy to obtain.
“If you feel you must go for help, you have to be prepared,” Bowen said. “ You have to be sure you’re fit enough, have clothes and supplies to keep you warm overnight, and that you can establish and maintain a direction. If you can’t meet these criteria, it’s better to stay where you are. Stay put, keep warm and hydrated as possible, and signal every way you can.”
Invest in a pocket-sized survival book, and keep it in your vehicle. It should detail shelter-building, water gathering and ways to signal for help. Keep a First Aid kit, plastic poncho, fleece or wool blanket and a reflective ‘safety blanket’ folded up in your vehicle, along with a mirror, flashlight, a survival candle, matches or lighter and a flask of water. Keep the flashlight batteries in a separate, waterproof container to preserve them.
None of this just-in-case stuff takes up much room in your ride, but if you find yourself in a jam, you could be thanking your lucky stars you took the time to tuck it all in.