What is it Really Like? My Recent “Survival” Story
So what is really like to be unexpectedly in a survival situation? We all try to imagine it. A couple months ago I ended up, by myself, in my own
minor survival situation. I’ve posted this thread to offer my perspective of the situation. I will try to explain what happened, why some things
went well and why some things went wrong. I will explain what I might have done differently, and I will try to describe what was going through my
Several times this winter when snow conditions met specific criteria, I journeyed to northern Canada, near the North West Territories border to do
government sponsored wildlife surveys.
My team would stay at accommodations (usually a B&B) within helicopter range of the survey location. Every morning at legal light our team would pile
into the helicopter, a Eurocopter AStar
, and fly for up to an hour, often into a beautiful
sunrise, to the day’s survey location.
The idea is that each of us is to hike/snowshoe in a straight line for 5km and identify/document all of the animal tracks (from mice up to Bison) on
A Lynx print. We see these almost every day.
We only have satellite images to go on before we get there so we fly the line first to make sure that it is passable on foot and to make sure there is
somewhere the helicopter can land at each end of the line. We actually land at the end point landing area, partially to make sure the helicopter
really fits, and also to drop a survival pack for the person doing that line. We then head to the start point, say a goodbye to the pilot and rest of
the team and we are on our own for the rest of the day.
A typical landing spot with the low Northern Sun
At the beginning of the season when we first start tracking, the sun is very low in the sky and there is so little energy coming through the
atmosphere that you cannot feel its heat on your face. Legal light starts around 09:30 and ends near 16:30 which means you have seven hours to fly
out, check the lines, drop the survival packs, do the tracks, pick everybody up, fly home, and land the helicopter before it is too dark to legally
have the helicopter airborne.
After getting dropped near my start point I took a few minutes to document a bunch of things like temperature and snow depth, set up my GPS, etc. and
get on my way. It was a warm day, starting at -16C and eventually climbing to -3C. We don’t like warm days because it means that we are going to
get wet. We get wet from warm snow falling off of the trees that we brush past and we get wet from sweat.
If you sweat you die. –Les Stroud
On warm days it’s a constant battle to balance our body temperature to keep from sweating so we don’t later freeze. A 5km (3.1 mile) hike
doesn’t seem far. I hike groomed trails around town all the time and a 5km brisk walk takes about 70 minutes. In the thick Northern forests, through
deep snow, with 20kg (45 pounds) of gear you push as hard as you can to accomplish a little better than 1km per hour. Two minutes after you start your
breathing is strongly elevated, your heart is pounding and it stays that way for the rest of the day. After ten minutes of slogging through deep snow
your leg muscles are burning and you have the rest of the day ahead of you. Sweat is unavoidable but you do what you can to keep your clothes as dry
as you can for as long as possible. It is safest to have your coat open and be uncomfortably cold rather than to be warm and accumulating moister.
Often the coldest part of the day is the ride home in the helicopter while you are sitting still for an hour in drenched clothing. Sometimes your
cloths are so wet that it doesn’t matter how hard you are working you feel your temperature drop. It’s important to notice this happening and
change into dry clothes and gloves, put a toque on and button up until your body’s heat generation catches up again. If you are working hard this
only takes about twenty minutes.
The type of forest that you hope to be hiking through
Inevitably you often run into stuff like this.
Anyway, as it happened I ended up with a very difficult line on one of the shortest days of the year. On top of that the snow was particularly deep
and heavy. In the summer this is a wet mossy mixed forest and there were thick Alder patches slowing my progress the entire way. I started
daydreaming about portable flame throwers and the evil Alder bushes burning to the ground as far as the eye could see. I worked my but off but even
though I was the last person of the day to get picked up I was only about 2/3 of the way to the end of my line. Unfortunately, the others had trouble
finishing their lines as well and by the time the helicopter made it to my location there was only about five minutes left before it would be forced
to head for home for the night. That would have been fine if I was at the landing area.
I knew from flying the line in the morning that there probably wasn’t a place that the helicopter could land within about a half hour hike for me.
I radioed the pilot and said that if he couldn’t find a place to land right here then I guess I’d see everybody in the morning. I’m not sure
what was discussed in the cockpit at that point but it only took about ten seconds before the pilot said “Ok, gotta go” and flew away. I’m told
that it was a very quiet ride home. We prepare for the possibility that someone might have to spend time out there but it’s not part of the job
description and we never expected it to happen. To my team’s credit, they were really looking forward to the hot tub that night but elected not to
go with me stuck out in the bush.
Where I was.
The green arrow points to my approximate location.
You can see some clear cut areas to the South. Beyond that is pretty much where civilization ends in North America.
The Map included in the post shows my approximate location. It’s about 100km from the nearest community to the South. It’s a very desolate area.
I’ve never been to another place where you can hike for days and not see a sign of human existence. No garbage, no sounds, nothing. To give you an
idea of the vastness of it, the green square to the East of my location is Wood Buffalo National Park. Its 44,807km square (17,300 miles). Isolation
is complete. If a person had to hike from my location to the nearest community in the winter it would take nearly a month. You wouldn’t want to
anyway. Not far South of this location is a lawless area of rivaling native reserves and we’re told from the start that if we had to emergency land
in those areas, outsiders, if caught, are in serious peril.