Saturday, May 12, 2012

Lost Brook Dispatches: Safety in the Back Country

Because of my extensive experience in back county adventures I am asked from time to time for advice on gear, preparation, priorities and so forth.  It’s pleasurable to write about such things, to make lists, to engage in (somewhat inane) discussions about favorite this and necessary that.  It’s an idle passing of time, a way to do a little daydreaming.  And yet there is good advice to give too.

Today I begin a short series of Dispatches that will allow me to get on to one of my favorite subjects: food… but not yet.  At first I thought I’d start right off with it but as I began I realized I needed to cover safety first, because the topic of food in the back country is directly related to what one carries into the wilderness.   The decision on what to carry into the wilderness must begin with safety; every other consideration is secondary.

The Adirondacks, as we all know, cannot be taken lightly.  People disappear and/or die here every year.  Many more risk such a fate and survive with luck as much as anything else.  Then there are the scores of parties with poor preparation or judgment who make it out in one piece only because of the tireless work of rangers or rescuers (there has been a lively debate about this on the Almanack thanks to Phil Brown’s columns on whether or not to charge for rescues).   Safety must be first… so let’s start with that.

Before I write another paragraph let me offer a disclaimer: while I have a great deal of experience in these matters and even have certifications in things like first aid, I am an amateur.  Endorse, enjoy or disagree with my opinions all you like, but in the final analysis always take the advice of a professional.  That would not be me: that would be your New York State DEC Forest Ranger.  Every once in a while we encounter some sort of criticism of Forest Rangers or their policies.  You can be sure that such criticism, whatever else it might signify, indicates that the writer has absolutely no idea what a Forest Ranger does.  These men and women are experts, especially our excellent Rangers in the Adirondacks, many of whom I have spent time with.  They are the best.  I for one am happy to take this opportunity to thank them for protecting the park and the people who partake of it.

I should first describe what I mean by “safety.”  I have adopted a pretty narrow definition by which I conduct my own affairs in the back country.  For me safety is about the big, immediate things: preparing for, avoiding and if necessary managing injuries or disasters that are potentially life-threatening or damaging in a permanent way, or could prevent me from getting out of the woods and thus lead to tragedy.

Safety to me is not about less-immediate things.  Safety is not about avoiding fear, discomfort or minor injuries.   For example, to avoid getting lost is not a safety criterion to me.  If you are lost it does not mean that you are in danger; it just means you are lost.  How you react to it has everything to do with whether it becomes a safety issue.  Get ready then, for if you engage in any reasonably serious level of back country fun you are going to get lost.  Another example: to avoid Giardia is not a safety criterion to me.  You should avoid it by all means (I’ve had it, trust me you don’t want it).  But contracting it does not mean your safety is in question.  Its effects are neither immediate nor life-threatening.

On the other hand a sprained ankle is a safety issue. Even a moderate sprain can leave you stranded in the wilderness with a greatly reduced capacity to take care of yourself and no way to get out.

I can imagine some would argue with such a narrow definition.  By no means do I claim to have the last word.  However I am an unrepentant realist and as such I maintain that it is counterproductive to overdo it.  Self-reliance is critical.  The hiker buttressed with gear against every contingency is not ready for much of anything and is likely to end up severely restricting his or her enjoyment.  Besides, it is impossible to avoid trouble.  We call it wilderness for a reason and risk is (an exhilarating, even delicious) part of the game.   It’s just that risking cuts, bruises and discomfort is not the same as risking one’s life.  So be smart.

There is another benefit to his narrow definition of safety, namely how it impacts the gear l take into the back country.  My thinking about this has matured over the years to the point where I find a lot of items on many lists kind of silly, as though back country travel is some kind of romantic equipment game.  If you don’t know what you are doing in the back country the last thing you want to do is be falsely comforted by the presence of a flare gun or a signal mirror in your survival kit.  These things are all but useless, as is any equipment that serves as a crutch.

When I was twenty and still pretty much of a neophyte backpacker I bought one of those little handheld flare guns.  I never used it in twenty-five years.  It just got more dinged up and flares were lost one by one until only a single flare remained.  Feeling a need to use the gun at least once – as though thinking that would be less wasteful, I suppose – I took my kids to a big field near our house on July 4th and set it off.  I got a quick lesson in just how far those things go.  It soared, I mean just soared.  It made our neighbors’ bottle rockets and little fountain deals look puny.  It kept ascending, describing a beautiful arc and painting the sky red until it was far beyond the confines of the field, then plummeted to earth in a dimming shower of sparks, right over the local Chrysler dealership.  My last sensation of the flare, as I ran away like a chicken with the kids close behind, was a loud metallic clunk as it presumably embedded itself into the top of some shiny new car (sheepishly I went back the next day when they opened; it was determined that the casing had landed on a metal roof.. phew!).

But I digress.

When all is said and done I come down to three things you should take into the back country in order to be reasonably safe: the right experience, the right attitude, and the essential gear.

Experience and attitude are much more important than gear, yet gear is often all we ever hear about (and attitude is almost never mentioned).  In fact, the first two utterly negate the importance of the last one.  You could take my friend Vinny McClelland and deposit him in the Western Adirondacks in the winter with no gear at all save for reasonably appropriate clothing and he’d be completely safe.  The necessities – shelter, water – are always available in the Adirondacks.  Think about that next time you fixate on equipment.

I will write about attitude in my next Dispatch.  Then for the fun of it I’ll devote the following Dispatch to my version of essential gear.  But let me say a little bit about experience in this one.  In the Adirondack back country you have to have a lot of it, period.  Now I am not saying that everyone needs to have a wealth of experience before they should go backpacking in the park.  Obviously people need to gain experience and learn as they go.  First-timers are some of my favorite people to bring into the wilderness.  What I am saying is that you should pick the makeup of your company with experience in mind.  You can ask a few questions to serve as a guide.  For example you can ask “If I get lost do I know how to find my way out?”  If not, go with someone who does.

If you insist upon stretching yourself without the company of an experienced hiker, I’m with you… that’s how I did it.  But recognize that you are trading risk – and depending upon your itinerary, considerable risk – for safety.  That’s a dicey bargain and it’s easy to take it too far.  One’s first winter ascent or two-mile bushwhack should not be done without an experienced companion.

I also think it is important to differentiate between experience and knowledge.  Lots of people read books on backpacking.  That’s pleasurable.  I love to read such books for the fun of it and sometimes I even pick up a neat idea I had not previously considered.  But make no mistake: a one week trip with an experienced backpacker is worth ten times the value of an entire library of backpacking books.

Here’s a favorite example of the difference between knowledge and experience.  Lots of people know what to do if (when) they encounter a bear because they have read up on it.  That’s nice.  I did that reading long ago.  When I was twenty-five I could quote you chapter and verse on bear safety.  But the reason I would consider myself in good shape now when it comes to dealing with bears is not because of that knowledge.  Rather it’s because a few years ago I had a short course in bear relations given to me by a fellow named Tractor.   Some of you know who Tractor was, in which case you are smiling right now.  For the rest of you, I won’t say who he was – I’ll save my joyful, loving rendezvous with him for a future Dispatch.  But here’s a hint: Tractor weighed north of six hundred pounds.

Bottom line: never substitute knowledge for experience.  There is no comparison.

Of at least equal importance to experience is attitude, both attitude towards one’s self and towards the wilderness.   Attitude gets short shrift in these kinds of discussions but it is so often the difference maker as to whether someone is safe or not.  As mentioned before I also think that attitude has a dramatic impact upon what one should carry in on their trip.  Next week we’ll take a closer look at the impact of attitude upon safety and upon the contents of one’s pack.

Photo Caption: The kit is good, but what’s in your brain?

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Pete Nelson

Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.

When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.

Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.

4 Responses

  1. Great point about experience and attitude being at the top of the list of the “10 Essentials.”

    I think we’ve all carried stuff in our packs for years without ever using it, but your rescue flare story is a classic. Come to think of it, I’ve never before heard of someone carrying a rescue flare.

  2. Jeff Calderone says:

    Being safe and knowing your limits, staying calm when things go bad and knowing what to do when things go bad to survive. Having the proper clothes for the worst conditions possible. Leave an itinerary and follow it! Knowledge is good yet experience has no susbstitute. Proper working tent, fire starting devices many types for worst possile conditons, multiple flash lights and bat/bulbs. First Aid Kit and proper nutrition for the task. Water purifier and good survival knife or two. Compass 2, maps, GPS, and some knowlege of the hike ahead even if never done before… IF you doubt your skills thier are now personal locator beacons… Otherwise cell phones do not work in remote country… Experience, attitude, gear, knowlegde of the area with everyone in the party retaining a map and having the willingness to survive should some catastrophy take place…
    ADK Hunter/camper/hiker

  3. Paul says:

    Jeff, I agree. Having spent a lot of time in the woods in the dark before and after hunting (or fishing and coming back from fishing) is expedience that really makes you learn how to remain calm in the woods if you get into a pinch. I’ll never forget when I was 17 years old, having fished alone until dark at Pine pond (one of the many!) I was carrying my canoe through the woods in the dark when a very large black bear stepped out in front of me. Well I dropped the boat and took off back toward the pond as the bear ran off just as fast in the other direction. Then I realized I would have to go back and get my boat and continue home. You have a few experiences like this and being “turned around” is a piece of cake. Once you can navigate around the woods in the dark the rest is easy. Even if all you have is a compass there is no way that you should get lost in any place like the high peaks. There are trails all over the place.

  4. Dan Crane Dan Crane says:

    From my experience the best way to deter bears is to bring a camera with you, and know how to use it. Nothing makes bears run like hell more than a camera. Apparently, Adirondack black bears are extremely camera shy.