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What is it Really Like? My Recent “Survival” Story

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posted on Apr, 3 2012 @ 12:24 PM
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 mind.

The Context:
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 that line.

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.

Survival Day
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.

Continued below.

posted on Apr, 3 2012 @ 12:24 PM
What was going through my mind.
Psychologically speaking, I had it pretty easy. I grew up exposed to the outdoors. I’ve been fascinated with wilderness craft and survival since I was a kid and I teach primitive skills and survival techniques as a hobby. In fact, this in part is why I was asked to do these surveys. Also, my likelihood of rescue was very high and I knew it. Even if the helicopter crashed, our office supposedly new roughly where I was hiking and even if a freak winter tornado took the people back home out, the helicopter company would have come for us too. So unless some worldwide disaster took place my ride would be back for me after a day or two (weather pending).

Knowing that someone was for certain coming for me was perhaps the strongest morale booster that I experienced during that time. Despite the positive situation though there was still apprehension. After all this was an extreme winter environment and that changes the game up considerably. I spend most of my free time in the bush in the spring/summer/fall but that is easy compared to this. I only hoped that I hadn’t missed learning some fundamental winter survival skill that was needed to get me by for however long I was going to be out here.

My survival strategy.
I took a quick look around. It was just about 16:00 and the day was already getting a lot colder. I had been standing there for a few minutes doing paper work and was starting to cool down. I was in a small valley which was much cooler than being on the level ground above, so I carried on for a few minutes until I was back up in a warmer area. During this short walk I made a mental list of the risks I faced in this environment and made sure I had a way to mitigate each of them.

Freezing was the first thing that came to mind. My feet were soaked but the rest of me was relatively dry. That was ok, I was wearing -100F rated boots and I could dry them anytime so long as I could get a fire going. The area was heavily wooded so there was no shortage of fire and shelter supplies. It was actually a very good place to survive if one had to.

Another concern that crossed my mind was wildlife but bears were all asleep for the winter, and wolverines are far and few between in this area. Moose are only dangerous during the rut and that’s about the end of the list. Again I had lucked out.

I’m a huge fan of Ray Mears. I figure If I could choose one person to be along with me in an extreme survival situation it would be him (or Jessica Beal, tough call actually). I remember him providing a great piece of advice. He suggested that you always set up camp in the late afternoon so that you don’t get caught trying to do it in the dark. Despite that I decided to continue on toward the end of my line and the pickup point. There are several reasons why. First, with the light disappearing as fast as it was I would have been setting up most of my camp in the dark anyway. Second, I wanted to finish the line if possible. Protocol dictates that if my line and my teammate’s opposing line are not completed in one day then it has to be done again. I didn’t want me or anybody else to have to do this crappy, Alder infested line again. What I didn’t know at the time is that my teammate didn’t manage to get their line done either so it all had to be done again anyway. At any rate the plan was to do the line in the dark for a while. I would wait for the helicopter to get home, and then try to get a hold of the team on the satellite phone and see if it was within protocol to continue tracking at night with my headlamp. If so I would finish the line before setting up camp. If not I could pick up speed and make camp near the pickup point a bit sooner.

A third advantage to continuing on is that my survival pack was within a couple hundred meters of my line’s end point. I checked the GPS to see where it was exactly but there was a problem. The survival pack location was no longer in the GPS. I wasn’t too worried. I ALWAYS have some survival gear on me in case something goes wrong. I knew roughly where the pack was anyway and I figured after I set up camp at the end of my line, if I had the energy I would go and have a look for it.

When I experience what may turn into a survival situation I start collecting things along the way that may be helpful. Occasionally there were areas apparently wet enough in the warm season to support birch stands. I stuffed my pockets with birch paper and cat tail heads. I was carrying plenty of fire making materials with me but why use it up when nature can provide for you. Birch paper will produce flame directly from a fire steel spark and burns long enough to get most kindling going. Mix some Cat tail fluff in with it and it flares up on the first strike.

I got ahold of my team on the satellite phone at about 17:30. They informed me that my teammate had not quite finished their line but it might be salvageable. I confirmed that I was allowed to track in the dark and continued on my way. I got to my endpoint at 19:30, sent a “Check in” satellite message (which includes my location) with my Spot device to head office and proceeded to set up camp.

What I had with me.
I am very careful about how much gear I take with me to minimize weight. In fact it has come down to a serious science and I even found myself counting out exact numbers of Tylenol for my first aid kit. I only weigh 70kg (155 pounds) so every extra gram counts. With that, here is what I carried with me every day.

Survival equipment:
Mora knife
SOG Multi tool
North 49 Mini Axe
One liter water in a stainless steel water bottle
Ski goggles
Ice pins
150ft of multifilament 60 pound test fishing line
One foot of bicycle inner tube
12 extra strength Tylenol
12 Aspirin
16 Yunnan capsules
Triangular band aid
Small assortment of band aids
Light My Fire, Swedish fire steel
Two Bic lighters
Spare mountaineering mitts with inserts
Dry bag with spare clothes
Four Cliff Power Bars
Three survival broad heads
Package of char cloth
Stainless Steel camp cup with folding handle

Tracking equipment:
Two GPS units
Six mechanical pencils
Tape measure
Satellite phone
Spot transmitter
Two way radio
Silva Ranger Compass
Snow shoes
Extra batteries

Other Stuff:
Sun glasses
20 feet of TP
Lip balm
Four pairs of gloves

Also on this particular day because we weren’t familiar with the terrain in this area I had a poly tarp with me that I don’t carry anymore. I also had over 30 meters of 7mm climbing rope for crossing creeks that I don’t carry once the ice gets thicker later in the season.

Continued below.
edit on 3-4-2012 by dainoyfb because: (no reason given)

posted on Apr, 3 2012 @ 12:25 PM
Setting up camp:
I chose a location with a dense growth of Spruce. I was above a small creek so along the bank there was some Aspen and a lot of Alder. The Spruce was so thick that I only had about 40 feet of visibility. Perfect, I would be warm and sheltered from any wind. I chose a spot where four trees formed a perfect rectangle that I could stretch out between, lengthwise to the prevailing breeze. In front of that I cleared the snow and constructed a fire. I didn’t light it because I wanted to get the shelter up first without the fire in the way. I was not cold and I had lots of dry Spruce branches covered in lichen available for fire starter so I knew I wouldn’t be spending a long time getting the fire going.

My Camp

When I went to collect large firewood I had a bit of a surprise. My hatchet was gone. I normally carry it in its sheath at the bottom of my packs shoulder strap. Unfortunately the sheath’s Velcro cover faced forward and at some point, with me squeezing between the many saplings throughout the day the cover got pried open and the hatchet fell out. Of course the only time I have lost something like that is in a survival situation. I’ve since purchased a new one and have modified the sheath so that the hatchet can’t fall out if the cover is open. Lesson learned. Not having the hatchet limited my possibilities for firewood but fortunately there was plenty of dead standing trees about 3-4 inches in diameter that I was able to push over and drag back to camp. As you can see in the pictures of my camp I put the ends of the trees in the fire (making sure the prevailing breeze was always along them toward the fire) and let them burn.

I used the multifilament to string up the tarp. I always carry multifilament in the winter because all of the wonderful sources that provide cordage in the warm season are not available. The tarp was large enough that it provided a floor, roof and three sides. I left the front open to exploit the fire and used a snowshoe for piling snow around the outside bottom to seal it up and hold the walls down. Normally I wouldn’t use a tarp because it is very flammable. It is also thermally transparent meaning that it will protect you from the wind but radiant heat passes right through it. In fact I placed my gloves on top of the tarp to dry them but the heat of the fire passed strait through the tarp and was absorbed by the dark gloves which proceeded to melt right through the poly. The choice to use a tarp instead of build a shelter out of Spruce and snow was due to the fact that without the hatchet it would have taken more time than it was worth for one night. The tarp shelter took about ten minutes to construct.

I lined the bottom of the shelter with Spruce bows to separate me from the cold in the ground and to provide some cushioning. I didn’t need much because of the thick winter cloths I was wearing. I also had the dry bag used for storing my dry cloths which made a great pillow. After my shelter was set up and my fire was blazing I got on the satellite phone and called my friends that were house sitting my cats to let them know what was going on. This chat was also intended as a morale booster, after all I was feeling rather isolated, something I really don’t enjoy.

I saved the camp location in the GPS, and went for a short walk to assess the forest between my camp and where I figured my survival pack/landing site was. It was extremely thick. I was doing just fine with what I had so decided it was best left until morning.

Most people experienced with the outdoors will say that you should gather the amount of wood you think you need to get through the night and then gather five times more. As I went about gathering fire wood I would draw large arrows in the snow along the paths I was making in the direction back to the camp. This was very wise. As you collect wood you create a vast web of paths and as you get tired, in the dense bush you can easily end up walking in circles trying to find your way back.

When I had collected most of the wood I would need, at about 23:30 I sat down for something to eat. I had been drinking water and harvesting more by melting snow in the stainless steel water bottle. I usually only carry 4 power bars with me for food. There is not much time to eat while your tracking and I usually go through one during the course of the day. For some reason I had a large sandwich with me that day as well as several power bars. There were more power bars in the survival pack that I could reach in the morning. I certainly wasn’t going to starve. In fact I was really enjoying sitting by the fire eating my delicious sandwich. There is a well-known wolf pack that hangs out about 3km from where I was camped and I was really hoping to hear them howling. That would have made for a great dinner moment but unfortunately I didn’t hear from them the whole night. There are plenty of Linx, hair, Martin, Fisher, and maybe the odd cougar there too. I kept my eyes and ears open but unfortunately it seems I was eating alone.

You don’t get much sleep when you only have three inch trees to burn. You seemingly just nod off and then wake up cold, having to shove the trees further into the fire, turn your boot liners, socks and gloves to dry them more evenly and try to go back to sleep. Sometimes you get up to get more wood, melt more snow, mark your territory, or whatever. Sometimes smoke blows into the shelter and keeps you from getting to sleep. I maybe got one and a half to two hours of sleep in total. At about 01:00 I could hear the wind come up and whistle through the tree tops. I was very happy with my camp location. Despite high winds at the tree tops I didn’t feel a breeze on the ground.

My boots at the end of the day. Soaked, the inside crusted with ice and steam rising from within.

In the morning I got ready to head for the landing site but didn’t pack up camp. You don’t want to expend the energy of putting your shelter back up and building a new fire when you find out they aren’t coming for you yet. I didn’t know what the weather was like 100km away where the helicopter was so I wasn’t counting on my ride.

Around 10:30 I heard the helicopter before they contacted me on the radio. I grabbed all of the spruce bows from within my shelter and tossed them on the fire to create a smoke plume. As the helicopter approached we chatted on the radio and I suggested that they drop the other team members at their lines while I packed up and headed for the landing sight. Forty minutes later I was at the pickup point and the helicopter was blasting snow in my face as it landed, complete with a hot breakfast, tea and coffee care package.
edit on 3-4-2012 by dainoyfb because: (no reason given)

posted on Apr, 3 2012 @ 12:31 PM
Bookmarked for reading when you´re finished, nice trip and you made me laugh with the two pictures.
Edit: Awesome man, read your second post, waiting for more!
Edit: Finished reading. Wow, I think you went well prepared and acted wise during your trip. I´m sad your story is over. Was glued to the screen
and learned something from it, too!

Star and Flag for sure!
I really hope you have more to write

edit on 3-4-2012 by verschickter because: (no reason given)

posted on Apr, 3 2012 @ 12:42 PM
I've already had experience of the 'freezing sweat' while working offshore in the North Sea!
It's like a bone-sapping chill you don't warm up from.
I didn't think I'd get it while offshore as I was so wrapped-up, but I did.

I got warm again inside but the experience always makes me open up my clothing at the chest to get the air to do it's work etc...

Carry on OP, carry on!

posted on Apr, 3 2012 @ 12:59 PM
Yah wilderness survival is one thing. Try living under bridges and behind buildings for 7 years. That builds character too.

posted on Apr, 3 2012 @ 01:12 PM
Cool story. Glad you are fine and well.

Where could one find a cool job like this?
You know the kinds of jobs that actually test your intestinal fortitude?
I do not care much for the cold but the concept of a challenging job is what I like.

I like my life's challenges and sitting in a cube is not much of a challenge to me.

posted on Apr, 3 2012 @ 01:20 PM
reply to post by dainoyfb

Awesome account! It doesn't get much realer than that, and even with a satellite phone, a known rescue, a survival pack drop off, and significant knowledge of the terrain, you still mental and physical challenges.

This story should be eye-opening for a lot of would-be preppers. It isn't enough to just prep, you have to try your skills, practice them, and make adaptations as needed before you'll truly be prepared, and even in the best possible scenarios, you'll still face unforeseen challenges and mental anguish.


posted on Apr, 3 2012 @ 02:30 PM
Great story! (and thanks for including pics!)

At least I live in FL. Survival is hard enough without adding the whole cold factor. I did live in Alaska for a while, and did my share of camping there, but yeah, I don't think I'd want to be in your situation there....

posted on Apr, 3 2012 @ 07:42 PM
reply to post by dainoyfb

Interesting job and thanks for sharing. Made for an enjoyable read.

I don't participate here much even though in my youth I had extensive survival training. The year our Scout Troop went for our Eagle we were given a chance to have a full year of survival training from and expert at the program at BYU, instead of going for Eagle and we jumped on it.

We had weekly classes and monthly two day trips that included one winter trip at high altitude in the snow and a full month in the summer on the desert in Southern Utah. We started with a Boy Scout Knife, a wool Army Blanket and whatever clothes you had on for the weather that day. Nothing else allowed unless you made it yourself. As time went on we each put together complete survival gear, all made by us.

The first few trips we had emergency food supplies, but after that nothing was allowed. No food at all. Porcupines became a primary food source in the mountains as they were so easy to get and provided the whole camp with meat. The Fish and Game allowed us to take small Game but no Deer or Elk. Although while learning stalking we were challenged to touch a Deer which we all managed to do at lest once. It was remarkably easy once we knew how.

I liked the Desert trip the best which was a month in the desert near Moab Utah. Food is easier to manage in the desert and I actually developed a taste for Rattlesnake and Leopard Frog legs. On the last day they airdropped a turkey to us to celebrate.

Thanks again for the story.

posted on Apr, 3 2012 @ 08:54 PM
Good story.

In Michigan I was a scouter with Troop 42, White Lake.

One of the events they did every year was a survival campout.

Allowed to bring whatever you can fit in a coffee can.

Scouts make improvised shelters to stay in.

Later they try to make snares to "catch" a cornish hen provided by the scouters to cook for dinner.

It was a fun campout. Not as easy as one would think.

posted on Apr, 3 2012 @ 10:26 PM
Thank you for all of the positive comments and for sharing your experiences.

When I was out there it really made me think about how isolated the astronauts who landed on the Moon must have felt. That's a long way from anywhere. If something went wrong they only had so much air, and nobody could come and get them. It must have been stressful knowing that.

posted on Apr, 3 2012 @ 11:32 PM
reply to post by dainoyfb

Sounds like a Great Job! I wish I was there!

posted on Apr, 3 2012 @ 11:41 PM

Originally posted by Apollo7
reply to post by dainoyfb

Sounds like a Great Job! I wish I was there!

It's not what I usually do but I have to say it's a great break from the norm and despite the work load a unique and fun experience. I look at it as getting paid to get in shape. I couldn't have had a better team to work with and that's what really made it.

posted on Apr, 3 2012 @ 11:41 PM
reply to post by dainoyfb

Beautiful pictures and a few new 'things to remember', arrows in the snow...
Wonderful story and pictures! Thanks for sharing your story!
And I thought 3 weeks without power with a young child was rough!

posted on Apr, 3 2012 @ 11:43 PM

Originally posted by intrptr
Yah wilderness survival is one thing. Try living under bridges and behind buildings for 7 years. That builds character too.

No doubt!

posted on Apr, 3 2012 @ 11:47 PM
Very Interesting and wonderful read, I was glued and read non stop to the end of your story. It is wonderful to get first hand experiences like this to learn from,,
I always love when someone gives their list of items they think important to survival.
Yours had something I did not know about,, but am sure to get now that I have seen it in your list and went online to research it.
Yunnan capsules
Wow,, what a wonder item for my pack.
Any info you might think important to this Item would be nice to hear.
Again Thanks for you story,, learned alot

posted on Apr, 3 2012 @ 11:48 PM

Originally posted by anniquity
reply to post by dainoyfb

And I thought 3 weeks without power with a young child was rough!

It probably was very rough. You should post about it. I'm sure we would learn a thing or two.

posted on Apr, 3 2012 @ 11:52 PM
Thank you so much for posting that amazing day in your life. That was an excellent read. You sound like a very calm person so I don't think you would have had issues no matter how long it was.

Wow! What a job you have lucky duck!

posted on Apr, 4 2012 @ 12:00 AM

Originally posted by Skewed
Cool story. Glad you are fine and well.

Where could one find a cool job like this?
You know the kinds of jobs that actually test your intestinal fortitude?
I do not care much for the cold but the concept of a challenging job is what I like.

I like my life's challenges and sitting in a cube is not much of a challenge to me.

If you have skills like being able to identify birds, plants, or animal tracks or if you are willing to acquire any of these skill prior to seeking the work then there are always surveys going on and they are always looking for people that are comfortable in the wilderness to help do them. Conservation, environment and other wildlife monitoring organizations typically run these programs. Some are government agencies and some are civilian organizations which are sponsored by government and industry. Start looking up and talking to these organizations in your country and they will know who is looking for people.

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