Alaska is one of the most beautiful places in the world to live in or to visit. However, that beauty can turn into a killer if you are not ready for survival situations. In summer, you can get lost in the woods or the many winding rivers and sloughs; or you can get stranded in the wilderness if your boat gets disabled or if you have to make an emergency landing while traveling by aircraft.
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Family members, happy to have them back, huddle around lost victims. It is always a happy but very emotional moment.
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In winter, a nice day can entice people to venture out into the wilderness for traveling between communities, or to go hunting, fishing, or gathering wood for heating homes and steambaths. Things can seem normal in one moment, but turn into a struggle for survival in the next!
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Bethel SAR volunteers help get an Alaska State Trooper C-208 Caravan ready as they prepare to assist in an air search as “Spotters”.
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A short trip between villages can turn into days of trying to find your way back. You can break a leg while logging and become unable to return to your means of transportation or to operate it. Therefore, it really pays to be prepared when out in the wilderness: Always bring survival gear and dress appropriately!
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Bethel and Kasigluk SAR groups search under the ice with underwater cameras for a man reported to have fallen through open water in a snowmachine. BSAR member Harry Faulkner Jr. peers into a monitor while a co-SAR volunteer maneuvers the camera beneath the ice.
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Surviving in the wilderness – what to do and bring on long trips
Before leaving on a long trip, like a pilot that files flight plans before he takes off, it is prudent for travelers to file a travel or wilderness plan: Always let someone know where you are going and when you expect to arrive or return. If you fail to show up, we can come looking for you where you said you’d be.
-Always bring some form of communication – A VHF radio or cellphone. When talking with airplanes flying above you, make sure you set on low frequency (1 watt) or else you’ll sound staticky.
-Bring a map, GPS or compass. Bring flares, a flashlight or rescue laser for signals.
-Bring matches, a lighter and firestarter sticks or paste to make fires for heat, making water and food, and signaling.
-Bring food and water, and one or two pots (metal coffee cans are great for this) to make hot water or food. Bringing a small one-burner stove is always a good idea.
-Bring a knife, hatchet or ax. You’ll need them for cutting wood or branches for shelter and making firewood.
-Bring a tarp or tent. Bring rope or twine. Bring enough sleeping bag to cover each traveler when sleeping.
Travelers, if they run out of gas or break down far away from communities, are advised to stay close to their snowmachines. When you don’t arrive at your destination as planned, we will begin to search for you. Many times, we find snowmachines right away, but their owners have walked off and it takes longer – sometimes days longer – to find them.
In winter, bring a shovel for getting a stuck snowmachine out of deep snow or for building a snow shelter if you get stuck in the wilderness. When a snowmachine is stuck in deep snow, tamp down the snow below it and a good 5 to 10 feet in front of the snowmachine so it has firm ground to take off from. When in deep snow and you get going, don’t stop or slow down until you get back on firm ground.
For shelter, if you can find a snow bank, dig out a hole into one side away from the wind, and hollow out a sleeping area. If there is any material nearby – branches, boughs or grass, gather enough to make bedding. If you are going to cover your entrance with snow or tarp, make sure to leave or poke a small breathing hole above the entrance.
Another way to make shelter, if the snow is firm, is to make a hole or rectangle (as long and wide as you) in the ground and make snowblocks to make a snow fort (tall enough for you to sit up) around the hole and cover with tarp. If there is no tarp, make an A-frame roof using long snowblocks. If there is any material for bedding, gather that and put it between you and and snow floor.
If snow is powdery, first pile enough snow to make a very large mound, then wait an hour or two for the snow to bind; then make a hole near the ground and dig out enough space in the mound to make a shelter. If it begins to crumble when you start, wait another hour for the snow to bind. Again, if you will cover your entrance hole, make sure you have a breathing hole. Use any available materials, esp. spruce boughs, to put space between you and the snow floor.
If you are stuck near spruce trees, if you need quick shelter, find one that has a hollowed out trunk area covered with boughs or branches. With a shovel, hollow out more space for enough shelter room. Cut more branches and boughs from nearby trees to make your shelter as tight as possible, as well as, a bedding area for sleeping. Use snow blocks for windbreaks as well.
Another idea is when you bring a sled or tobaggan, is to make a rectangular hole in the snow and turn the sled upside down over it to make a shelter. Make an entrance in the back of the sled to crawl into. Make sure you chink or cover all the holes around the sled except your entrance. When going to sleep don’t completely cover the entrance or you’ll run out of air.
Signaling for help
When shelter has been made, begin to get ready to draw attention to yourself and be seen by searchers. Many search teams will head home at night to rest, refuel and resupply for more searching the next day. Gather and pile as much wood as possible for fire to make water or food. You can also make a fire to keep you warm at night. If you could, get some rest.
Be careful NOT TO PERSPIRE while gathering firewood. Stop to cool off if you get hot. Sweating and getting your clothes damp can lead to fast heat loss and lead to hypothermia.
Pile this wood where you can start a large fire, such as under a tree (but not your shelter) when you hear searchers on the ground or in the air. (If you are near dead trees and you get cold at night, you can light up a dead tree for a nice hot fire.) Also gather green boughs for “smoking” or signaling during the day. Green boughs emit a darker smoke than dry wood. If necessary, cut out a good portion of your snowmachine seat for burning when signaling. A burning snowmachine seat emits very black smoke that can be seen for miles. You can always replace your snowmachine seat but you can’t be replaced so do what you can to attract attention to you.
Make sure to light your signal fire when you hear searchers about. There is nothing like a big puff of smoke in the distance to lead searchers where you are. It is also okay to light your signal fire at night if you think airplanes are looking for you. Sometimes, air searchers will do a night flight in case they might see a signal fire.
Use flashlights and lasers to attract the attention of air searchers. Keep flashing until they see you.
Falling into water
In summer, if you fall out of your boat and you are alone, grab onto your boat and try to get in. If you cannot and your motor is not running but in the down position, move toward the back and use the motor’s cavitation plate (the fin just above the prop) as a step and hoist yourself aboard. DON’T ATTEMPT THIS IF YOUR MOTOR IS RUNNING!
When in the boat, make for shore or the nearest shelter. If you have no shelter, wring out as much water out as you can, then drive to shore and stuff your wet clothes thickly with grass (dry grass preferably). If home or shelter is far and you’re able to make a fire with resources around you, then make a fire to dry your clothes and keep warm. If boats are visible, wave for help if you need help. If you have unable to travel but have a way to communicate, call for help.
In winter, it is near impossible to wring your clothes as your wet clothes will begin freezing right away. You will have to work fast to ward off deadly hypothermia. As soon as you get out of water, get out of the wind by going immediately to a sheltered spot. If it is freezing, roll in the snow to draw the moisture out. If it’s not that freezing, wring moisture off your clothes or else begin gathering grass to stuff into your clothes. Stuff grass wherever wetness touches your skin. Pull your boots off to drain the water out and wring your socks. If necessary, make an oval mat out of grass and insert into your boots to make an insole. If you are able to make a fire, make a fire to stay warm and dry off your clothes as much as possible. If you are able to walk or travel, make for the nearest village or shelter.
Survivors of water plunges in winter have been seen arriving home (or to their destinations) very fat looking, due to all the grass stuffed into their clothes. The grass creates a pocket of air between the clothes that body warmth heats up and allows a person that has fallen in water to survive for a time. Survivors that are hypothermic have extremely slurred speech and have difficulty walking or keeping balance so warming up a hypothermic person is the first priority (make and provide heat, hot liquids or food). Sometimes, a hypothermic person is mistaken for a person that has been drinking, except there is no odor of alcohol.
Even if a person hasn’t fallen in water but gets cold while out or stuck in the wilderness, dry grass can be used as temporary insulation. Just find some and stuff the front and back of your coat to the hilt and enjoy the warmth until you get home.
Winter Traveler’s List of Survival Gear
Dress for body (5 layers)
Thermal or t-shirt (or both)
¬Sweater or hoodie
Parka or heavy coat with hood
Full cover cap; wool cap for sleeping
Face mask, neck warmer/scarf
Insulated gloves or mittens (lightweight gloves under mitts)
Cotton and wool socks
Sub-zero arctic boots
Tent and axe
Sleeping Bag (synthetic; down gets and stays wet) and pad
HOT TIP: Bring a pillow case for stuffing a jacket for an instant pillow.
Tarp and Rope
Towel, soap (or hand sanitizer)
Shovel and icepick
Compass, map or gps with map
First Aid Kit
Fire Starter Kit (see below)
Whistle (can be heard from greater distances than a yell)
Mirror (can reflect the sun up to 20 miles)
Personal Locator Beacon, like SPOT
Fishing line, hooks and lures
Pocket knife or hunting knife
Rabbit snare wire
Energy/breakfast bars, oatmeal packs
Coffee, tea, sugar & cream
Pots/pans for beverages & cooking
Stove & fuel
Sandwiches or pilot bread w/cheese
MREs or other instant dinners
Butter and jam
Dryfish and strips
Birthday candles (the “trick” ones)
Magnesium bar (scrape off bits with knife)
Firestarter sticks or dry tinder
Matches in waterproof container or Bic Lighter
Cotton balls (include in your first aid kit. Soak your cotton balls in neosporin and use them as fire starters under your dry tinder)
HOT TIP: Things that will also burn: Potato chips, fine steel wool, thin plastic material, small strip of oil or gasoline-soaked material (be very careful with gasoline), piece of snowmachine seat foam.