Sunday, February 25, 2018

                                                                PART 1 OF 2

I suppose this will vary according to your geographical location and activities you are participating in. Here in the mountains of Montana, the Spring season, in my opinion, threatens the survival of more people than any other.

Some folks might argue that Winter is worse, which may be true for some, but then again, we expect Winter to be harsh and dangerous so we are most likely to be very prepared and equipped for surviving harsh, unforgiving cold weather. On the other hand, Spring is a deceiver; a wolf in sheep clothing. Even the most pleasant Spring day can transform into a savage beast in an instant. I will elaborate on my point with this survival story. This is a rather long survival story so I will break it down into two parts for practicality and simplicity. Part two will post next week.

The month of June I guide fishing trips on the Legendary Smith River in Montana. This is a spectacular 60-mile trip that lasts 5 days and takes us thru a beautiful, yet harsh wilderness landscape. Once we launch at "Camp Baker", there is no egress for 60 miles, with no cell service and very few places to get satellite reception. Most of its length we pass thru towering sheer cliffs and forest land. The weather on the Smith in June can range from snow to 90 degrees or more. Typically, days are warm, nights are cool but usually not too not cold. The prior two weeks had been very pleasant and "summer-like", so we were not quite prepared for what the week had in store for us.

Survival on one such trip proved to be a challenge even for us, the professionals. It began raining the night before our planned departure and shortly after we launched the boats it really began to pour and the temperature began to drop. We had 8 guests and 7 crew on this trip. Everyone had "good" name brand rain gear and chest waders, but... all was the uninsulated "breathable" type. Now, breathable rain gear and waders are the "norm" and usually work quite well under most circumstances, however, torrential constant downpours are not one of them. I had taken the weatherman seriously for once and had also brought along wool long underwear, a waterproof saddlecloth rain parka, a pair of neoprene gloves, and a pair of wool mittens.

By noon that first day most everyone was wet and cold. We pulled into the first campsite to build a fire to try to warm up and found there were 7 or 8 boats tied up there and all the occupants huddled in a tight group trying to get a fire started. These were not guided parties, but GP's - general public
(guide lingo). They were pouring boy scout juice (lighter fluid), on big wet wood and fanning the flames with an air pump. This may have worked had they taken time to gather up some kindling and went easier on the air pump.

I watched patiently for a while and noted that one of my clients and several of the "GP's were shivering quite noticeably and figured they were approaching hypothermia. Some of these folks looked to be in their 70's, and I know from experience that older folks are usually more susceptible to hypothermia, and I realized then that this could go from "uncomfortable" to critical in a short time. While the GP's were breaking out their second quart of boy scout juice, I went in search of some dry kindling.

Dry material for getting a fire started is usually not too hard to find, but this location proved to be a challenge. After at least 15 minutes of searching, I finally found some. At the base of a cliff, I found where a few big rocks had recently fallen, and from under these rocks, I was able to gather as much dry twigs, pine needles, and duff as would fit inside my coat. I was also able to collect some lumps of pine pitch from a beetle-infested tree. With this dry material and a hurricane lighter we were able to get a roaring fire going in a short time. Most of the folks had their duffel with them in their boat, so were able to dig out more clothing and get better dressed for the conditions. my clients' and my duffel were on the gear boat already down-river and most likely already at our campsite. I had my extra parka and three pairs of gloves which I shared with my boat mates, and a couple of large plastic garbage bags which we made into makeshift ponchos for them, and got back underway.

In spite of the conditions, we did experience fairly good fishing up to that point, but we did not even attempt fishing in the afternoon. We were just rowing hard to get to our camp, which we knew the gear boaters would have put up by the time we would arrive.

Our camp consists of 2-man "summer" tents for the guests, and a large 20'x24' wall tent that serves as the kitchen and dining tent. This is also where the crew sleeps. We refer to this one as "the big top". This time of year the weather is usually quite mild, so we don't pack heating stoves for the tents, but the propane cook stove in the big top heats it up well, so this is where everyone was congregating
this evening. Needless to say, it was very, very crowded. Everyone had gotten changed into dry clothing, but we had no way to dry all the soaking wet clothing, raingear, and waders. So after dinner, we built a lean-to shelter next to the campfire. We used oars and webstraps to construct the frame, and stretched a poly-tarp over it. In spite of the heavy downpour of rain, we had the fire roaring so hot the rain never reached it. Soon, the framework was laden with all the wet clothing, which dried in 2 - 3 hours. The lean-to was big enough for most of us to fit under, and it really saved the day. With warm dry clothing on and drink in hand, everyone's mood was lifted as we enjoyed our social time swapping stories and lies. The only downside was the smoke that filled the lean-to, which we dubbed "the smokehouse". It was also a challenge to keep up with the wood consumption. These are designated campsites used nearly every night from May thru the middle of July, so, needless to say, there was very little firewood close to camp. Our headlamps were all but worthless. Because it was raining so hard all you could see was the raindrops. A flashlight held at waist level was the best way to see where we were going and what we were doing. Under such conditions, an axe is not the best choice for cutting wood. Thankfully, we had a folding survival saw that worked quite well and much safer than the axe.

This was a long miserable first day, but we survived it and ended the day on a good note. A major concern we Guides shared was the river level. This much rain (which was showing no signs of letting up) was surely going to raise the river. How much was the big question. We had not shared our concerns with the clients yet at this point, but figured it would be pretty apparent to everyone the next morning. As a precaution, before retiring for the evening a couple of the Guides dragged all the boats well up on the beach and tied them down securely. This river is capable of rising several feet overnight and carrying a boat miles downstream before you would even know it was gone.

Please check back here next week to see how the rest of our trip went for us and what we did to survive it, and some tips on how to be better prepared for a situation like this. Thanks for reading!

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