The thing about being independent and prepared is that sometimes we might think that we are better off than we actually are. In the end, to learn more about ourselves, and to discover where our weaknesses might lie, we should try to simulate some hardships… We should train. Disaster Survival can be planned out but no plan is complete without practicing its implementation and a big pile of equipment doesn’t do anyone any good if they have no idea how to use it…
The following took place in the winter months of 1999 in the Selkirk Mountains, British Columbia. It was cold, dark and wet…a perfect “get out of Dodge” scenario. For those of us who live in very cold climates about six months out of the year, we must think about what bugout might be like in the bitter cold. How to live out of our Seventy-two-hour kit and how to take care of any possible emergencies while “on the go”.
THE FINAL LANDMARK
It was about two o’ clock in the morning. I have been walking for a better part of the day and it appeared that I was coming to the end of my journey. That is to say, not where I wanted to be. I was lost…sort of.
The objective was to find an old trapper’s cabin, long abandoned and left for nature to reclaim. The living space measured about seven by nine feet.
I couldn’t find any maps of the area but I did have a compass. Quite proficient in its use I was confident that I’d be fine. I carried my “Bugout” kit based on my beloved U.S. Military A.L.I.C.E. (All Purpose Light-weight Individual, Carrying, Equipment) pack. I choose that pack because I love packs with external, removable frames and the ALICE pack has so far been the only one which remained in one piece after a few months of serious, heavy-duty use. I also carried a 12 Gauge Winchester 1300 L Defender Shotgun, two knives and about three day’s worth of rations.
With my shotgun carefully hidden in my pack, I began hitchhiking from the town of Nelson and had no shortage of rides. Eventually, I got off the highway and followed a forestry road. This road eventually turned into a cross-country ski trail, then a narrow deer path and then nothing. I was up to my butt in snow looking at the bright, full moon and wondering where my next landmark is. That landmark was a small creek. I knew I had to cross it and as soon as I am on the other side it was up a small hill, sharp turn to the left and there was the cabin on a nice flat clearing. If I came to the waterfalls I went too far. It sounded pretty simple. I have been to the cabin many times before but the last time I visited the place was about five years prior. A lot can change in five years.
I kept on wading through the deep snow when suddenly I heard the muffled flow of water. I picked up the pace and soon I found myself on the bank of a creek. More accurately…a river. By my conservative estimates, I figured it was about seventy-five yards to the other bank. At first, I thought I was in the wrong spot since the “creek” that flowed through here was only about five yards across. I had several choices. I could set up camp where I was and carry on looking in the morning. I could attempt to cross and hopefully find my destination, and I could backtrack and start over. I chose to cross. Dropping all my gear I divided everything into three piles. The logic was that if I go through the ice I won’t lose everything all at once. I picked up the first pile, slung my shotgun across my back and stepped out on to the ice. It didn’t take me long and I was on the other side, congratulating myself on a job well done.
I came back to get more gear and once again, all went well. I picked up my sleeping bag and few other things and headed back across. Suddenly, the ice cracked and before I knew it I was up to my shoulders in water so cold it was indescribable. The temperature knocked the wind right out of me and I had to do what I could to keep my mind as calm as possible. The river wasn’t deep, only up to my crotch, but when I initially fell in I slipped and laid myself right out. The ice chunks that broke off caused the ice to start cracking and breaking up downstream from me. As I looked up after my initial shock, all I could focus on was my sleeping bag sack floating down the river and was about to disappear in the darkness. I stood up with all I had and dove after it. Reaching out in a blind grab, I felt the string of the bag and gripped it like my life depended on it…and it did. It only took a few steps to get back up to the spot where I fell through. I threw the bag towards the other side praying it would land on solid ground. It didn’t but the ice near the shore was strong enough to hold it.
I moved as fast as I could to get the rest of my gear. My fingers were getting numb and I knew that I could be in trouble very soon. The last trip across the river went well…all things considered. I collapsed on the other side exhausted but I knew I had what I needed to make it. The question was can I keep my mind focused enough to start a fire and get warm…? The problem with starting fires in an emergency is that the more desperately you need it, the harder it is to get it going. And that’s why, instead of immediately trying to collect wood and get the heat on, I chose to look for the cabin.
The deep, powdery snow absorbed a lot of the water out of my clothing but I was freezing nonetheless. My fingers and feet were getting numb and I could feel the cold creeping into my torso. My body temperature was dropping fast. I was moving and working hard negotiating snow drifts but I knew that time was running out. I had no cell phone, and no one really knew where I was. Had I died there, the wolves would get my body and I’d be missing forever.
Then suddenly I saw something shiny. It was the moon’s reflection on the window of the cabin. There was a window on each side. Many years ago someone threw a log through the old glass windows and two of my friends and I repaired them using two layers of a vapor barrier. We did a great job as the plastic was still there. Now I was staring right at it and the moonlight reflection acted like a beacon of hope and comfort.
I kicked the door open violently and threw my pack on the floor. There were pieces of wood, leaves, twigs and other debris laying about. This I began to quickly gather up as a fire was the first priority. There was an old, cast iron type stove which some good soul took the trouble to drag up there and in my eyes, it was worth well over a million dollars. I had cotton balls dipped in gasoline and taped in a small tin box but Bic lighters wouldn’t work. They were soaked. I pulled some matches out of my waterproof container but my hands wouldn’t work well enough to light them. Getting very impatient and shaking violently, I pulled my emergency hand-held flare. I unscrewed the cap, gripped the pull cord with my teeth and yanked on the flare as hard as I could, quickly shoving it into the stove. My kindling caught and soon I heard the snapping sound of burning wood.
It didn’t take long to warm the small cabin up to very cozy temperature even though the chimney was partially plugged and the stove didn’t have a good draw. I stripped out of my wet clothes and threw them outside. The clean, fresh military fatigues I had in my pack felt amazing. There was enough wood inside and under the roof overhangs outside to last me the night so I piled a nice bunch next to the bed, spread my sleeping bag out and crawled in. I was worried that it would be wet but I wrapped it well. I used a Gore-Tex bivvy bag as well as a heavy duty garbage bag and it all paid off. I slept like a baby.
I woke up to a beautiful day in the mountains. Snow everywhere and the sun was as bright as can be. My fire was out but I was warm. I stepped outside and witnessed the most picture perfect scene. The pine trees were straining to hold up the snow on their branches. Clear blue sky as far as the eye could see and the mountain peaks surrounding me felt like the cupped hands of God which were protecting me. About twenty yards from the cabin door, there was a small Mule deer making his way through the deep snow. He stopped and looked at me as if embarrassed that he was sinking so deep. I was happy that I made it through last night…
I should have never crossed that river. Some part of me knew that I was at the right spot but playing it safe and camp for the night would have been the right thing to do. In emergency scenarios, one should never take unnecessary risks and I did have the skill and the equipment to spend the night in the snow. If one does get soaked, he should always start a fire and get out of the wet clothes immediately. I didn’t have the means to measure how cold it was but it was cold enough to freeze the water and that’s cold enough to bring on hypothermia and death. I got lucky. I could have just as well been somewhere completely different and had no cabin to run to. That would have been the end.
Ten days was the total amount of time I spent at the cabin. I came up there with only three days worth of food which means I starved…a lot.
A WORTHWHILE ENDEAVOR?
I love Canadian mountains and wilderness. My time spent in these environments is always worth it. Had this been an actual catastrophe, I would probably not get a ride from town as everyone would be busy trying to save their own skin but everything else that took place was an excellent exercise. This article should not be taken as encouragement to run out into the wilderness and try to live off the land in the middle of nowhere. I prepared for this trip for months. I carefully selected the gear that I knew would work for me and I practiced using it beforehand. But expeditions such as these did help me in gauging my abilities.