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The Survival Experts

A Maine Guide, a Coast Guard search-and-rescue specialist and an Air Force survival expert. Those are the pros who make up the Outdoor Life Survival Team. Their combined 58 years of outdoor survival experience provide a wealth of knowledge that could mean the difference between life and death the next time you go afield.

Don Helstrom - Maine Guide
To become a Maine Guide, you have to know more than just where the deer hang out. There are licensing and certification requirements for expertise in map and compass use, lost-person and survival scenarios, navigation and even sea kayaking.When clients follow Don Helstrom into the woods, they’re relying on him to get them out alive. Don, who’s been guiding for 45 years, is certified as a Master Hunting, Fishing and Recreation Guide.

Question: In your experience, how do most problems in the wild start?

Answer: The problem I encounter most often is a person getting lost. On a bear hunt, people stay out until a half hour after sunset, so it’s easy to miss a trail on the way back. If you walk 20 minutes in the wrong direction, you can get a long way from the road.
Other things can happen, too. One hunter fell out of a tree stand last year and broke his arm. He used his cell phone to call his nephew, and asked him to call for help. But the nephew just laughed because this guy’s always pulling jokes. He had to make another call to get help.

Question: What equipment should outdoorsmen carry that would be useful to them in a survival situation?

Answer: For each type of activity—whether it’s flyfishing from a canoe, snowshoeing or following a game trail—there’s a different list of equipment. A life jacket, a compass, a GPS, waterproof matches, a fire starter, proper clothing, food and a first-aid kit are the givens. But for a January icefishing trip a hundred miles north of town, you could need two spare tires, extra gas, an air compressor, an extra battery, a sleeping bag…the list goes on.

From my standpoint, the most important thing is a written checklist of everything that must be secured before the trip. Trying to remember what you need to gather is nearly impossible. If you’ve got it written down, you can’t forget anything. You can prepare a general list, but it’s important to keep in mind that each activity has its own requirements. Sometimes it’s 90 degrees and sunny, and sometimes it’s 30 below and there’s a foot of snow and the wind’s blowing, so you’ll need a different list for each activity. Check off everything to make sure you have it before you leave.

Question: What should someone do if he finds himself in a potential survival situation?

Answer: The first step is to stop, assess the situation and avoid panic. The second step is to take care of any injuries. The third, whether you’re alone or with a partner, is to make a plan and carry it out. And fourth, depending on the predicament, you’ll have to decide whether to stay where you are and wait for help or go for medical assistance by the safest and fastest route possible. In all situations, panic is most often the reason people get into trouble. Trying to avoid panic is the biggest challenge. When the sun goes down and the wind’s blowing and you don’t know where you are, the ability to avoid panicking is not a given.

Question: I assume that thinking things through helps to keep a person calm.

Answer: Yes, it does. Once you think things through and have a plan, at least you’re able to collect your thoughts. Sit down and say to yourself, “Step by step, what am I going to do?” I know of a man who went hunting within three miles of town wearing relatively light clothing. A freak storm came in and he got lost. He built a fire and did everything he’d been taught to do. Then a train came by on a track not a quarter mile from where he was and blew its whistle. He just took off, left the fire and his rifle, and went after that whistle. They found him the next afternoon, nearly unconscious. The ability to make a plan and stick with it is the number-one priority.

Question: How can a survivor assist in his own rescue?

Answer: The foremost thing is to have a plan and let somebody know where you’re going to be and what time you’re planning to be back. That way, rescue can start at a given time and place. When you come to the conclusion that you’re lost, build a fire and stay put. Don’t go wandering around.
Everyone thinks he should fire three shots if he gets lost. I’ve had hunters lose their way in the middle of the afternoon and fire off all their rounds trying to attract attention. People who hear those shots just think somebody’s into a bunch of deer. Nobody’s really looking for somebody to be lost in the middle of the afternoon.

At night, when shots wouldn’t be fired at a deer, it’s a different matter. I’ve gone after shots fired at night, and the hunter was so far away, his .30/06 sounded like a BB gun. But if you let someone know where you’re going to be and what time to expect you back, that’s the first step. Then, when you’re overdue, stay put and start a fire. You’ll be easier to find.

Question: What about preparation and planning to help stay out of trouble?

Answer: It’s all about the four P’s: Preparation Prevents Poor Per­for­mance. Be prepared by using an equipment checklist. If possible, recreate with a partner or a group. Check the local weather report, and dress and travel accordingly. Recreate within your ability level. If you are going to be in an area where there is cell phone coverage, by all means take the phone with you. A satellite phone will put you in touch with help no matter where you are, so if you can afford it, buy or rent one.

Question: How can a person prepare mentally for the psycho­logical stress of a survival situation?

Answer: The ability not to panic will come with confidence in your skills and knowledge of the outdoors. Book knowledge is a big help, but outdoor knowledge is priceless. Each time you pull your compass from your pocket and use it to travel 500 yards to a road, or build a fire to cook a hot dog, or look at the sun and your compass to determine what time it is and then confirm it with your watch, you’re one step closer to having the confidence in your abilities to get you through a difficult situation.
Each day you’re in the outdoors, paying attention to what you’re doing, you’re one step closer. Do it until it’s instinctive, and your confidence will grow. And that will help control panic.

Question: Do you have a personal survival story to tell?

Answer: Having guided for 45 years, I’ve been on a few late-night jaunts to gather up wet and concerned clients. But the one that comes to mind was back in the mid ’70s, during a coon hunt on a rainy, 34-degree night. I was within three-quarters of a mile of my pickup truck when my flashlight went dead. Reaching for my spare light, I found that it was also dead. Trying to travel in the dark was impossible, so my next shot was to start a fire. No matches! But I did have a 60-pound hound to help me ward off the rain.
I curled up under a blowdown, pulled the dog over my head to keep the heavy rain off and stayed there until it was light enough to travel. It was a long time until daylight, but—other than being a little wet and cold,  my pride was the only thing that was injured. I got out my compass and made it back to the road just fine.

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from ARClarkson556 2/26/2011 at 10:41am

Was just looking at the picture of your list in the notebook. Dryer lint---I've heard a lot of different ways to start a fire, but never dryer lint. Excellent! I'm going to go wash a couple loads of laundry!

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from ARClarkson556 2/26/2011 at 10:41am

Was just looking at the picture of your list in the notebook. Dryer lint---I've heard a lot of different ways to start a fire, but never dryer lint. Excellent! I'm going to go wash a couple loads of laundry!

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