Story by Christy Thacker // Photos by Tyler McFarland
He climbs into the backseat. The warm interior welcomes him and the familiar smell of burnt coffee soothes his nerves. Haygood feels two other boys situate themselves on either side of him. He knows they are blindfolded too. The SUV engine suddenly shrieks, wrenching Haygood backward against the leather seat. Gears grind and the droning camouflaged 4x4 maneuvers up the steep mountain road. There is no turning back now.
For what seems like hours, Haygood and his companions sway as the vehicle drives up and down endless winding, bumpy trails. Haygood's mind races; his thoughts weaving between worry and exhilaration. An abrupt jolt seizes his attention and the engine stops. Haygood removes his blindfold and his pine-green eyes adjust to the fading daylight. Opening the door, he breathes in the crisp mountain air. At 8:30 p.m., it is already 25 degrees and dropping. Haygood and his companions retrieve their overnight packs and trudge to the edge of the forest line. The Sheriff's vehicle retreats down the mountain, leaving Haygood in darkness, once again.
Haygood just completed his first year of training with Spokane's Emergency Search and Rescue (ESAR) in summer of 2006 and tonight is his big test. In order to become a certified Brush Monkey, the first out of four ESAR ranks, Haygood needs to find his way back to camp by sundown the next day.
He performed several searches before and even practiced survival techniques in a field setting. But, Haygood has always had professional assistance by his side. This time, he is alone and he is lost.
Survival is more than just overcoming physical dangers. To survive, a person must equally harness his or her emotions and mind, keeping motivated and focused at all times, Haygood says. The difference between life and death is often overcoming the mental, physical and emotional obstacles that come with getting lost. Living in a society of concrete jungles, technology and instant gratification, survival is all about getting back to the basics and unearthing one's innate survival instincts.
"When you're actually lost, you can't anticipate what your head is going to do," Haygood says. "[Survival] is all about keeping a matter-of-fact business-like attitude."
Washington has 4,423,676 acres of wilderness, ranking forth in having the most wilderness acreage of all U.S. states, according to the National Wilderness Preservation System Database. Ample wilderness not only provides more opportunities for outdoor recreation, but also for getting lost or injured. In 2007, 55 Search and Rescue (SAR) events took place in Whatcom County, says Deputy Mark Jilk of the Whatcom County Sherriff's Office. In 2008, more than 40 SAR events occurred, Jilk says. SAR missions range from locating an injured hiker or skier to searching for a missing boater or runaway.
Most search and rescue operations occur in the fall and winter months, usually beginning the first week of hunting season, Haygood says. Getting lost in the wilderness during these seasons is especially dangerous due to extreme weather and temperature conditions. Environments like Bellingham are even more threatening, because of the combination of precipitation and cold. Chances of death increase in cold and wet climates due to greater risks of hypothermia and frostbite. Dehydration is also common, due to lack of fresh water sources and heavy snowfall.
Thoroughly planning outings and understanding basic wilderness knowledge can prevent accidents. However, much of the time getting lost in the wilderness is unavoidable and out of a person's control.
"It's really the outdoor enthusiasts who get lost," Haygood says. "All it takes is one wrong turn or some bad weather." and heavy snowfall.
Thoroughly planning outings and understanding basic wilderness knowledge can prevent accidents and getting lost. However, much of the time getting lost in the wilderness is unavoidable and out of a person's control.
"It's really the outdoor enthusiasts who get lost," Haygood says. "All it takes is one wrong turn or some bad weather."
Haygood's eyes adjust to the darkness as he skims his quiet surroundings. He spots a clearing next to a large, flat rock face. It is the perfect place to set up camp.
Mentally reviewing his supplies, he walks toward the boulder. He and his team of two are restricted to a map, marked with the base camp's location, a compass, minimal food and 32 ounces of water each. They were also allowed to pack a sleeping bag, a small fire kit, some first aid supplies, a signal flare, a knife and a small lantern.
Haygood knows to stay put if he gets lost. Unless an open field or roadway is in direct sight, he understand that a person should remain in the area where he or she is to prevent further disorientation, loss of energy and confusion for search teams. This also applies to people who are equipped with fancy technology, such as a GPS system, Haygood says.
Haygood says children surprisingly have a better chance at surviving once lost than adults do.
"A seven-year-old accepts that he's lost and huddles up," Haygood says. Children often realize they are not capable of navigating their way to safety and stay within their survival boundaries, Haygood says. On the other hand, lost adults with ample technology have less chance of surviving than those with nothing or just basic equipment, Haygood says.
People often buy expensive equipment such as navigational systems or GPS, thinking it will save them if they get lost in the wilderness. The average person, however, lacks the training and experience with such equipment, making the technology virtually useless in survival situations.
"We want entertainment without all the long hours of training," Haygood says. "It's like anything we doŃ we need immediate satisfaction."
Moonlight pierces through the thick trees as Haygood and his team scan the forest floor for dry tinder and wood. It rained the night before, making it difficult to find anything useable to start a fire.
Haygood spots a large Evergreen tree. Hunching down, he digs for small twigs and fallen brush at the trunk. Trees like Evergreens have thick, wide branches, creating a natural umbrella for anything underneath.
Sticks in hand, Haygood rakes away needles and leaves to create a clearing for the fire near his shelter. He fetches a small film canister from his pack and removes two cotton balls soaked in petroleum jelly. The soaked cotton acts as a fire starter and is more promising that relying on dry tinder, especially in wet climates.
"That cotton will save your life. The rest will kill you," Haygood says. He builds a nest of shredded cotton and a palm full of dry moss and bark, before adding a flame. Slowly adding small twigs, Haygood limits his blowing on the coals to prevent putting the fire out.
Haygood and the others are capable of physically surviving the night without a fire. All three are equipped with warm clothing and a sleeping bag, but in addition to warmth and protection from predators a fire also offers psychological comfort, Haygood says.
"A crackling fire provides physical and mental assurance," Haygood says. "It makes you feel like there's someone else with you."
The growing fire pops and crackles, heating the face of the boulder. Haygood places his hand on the toasty, smooth rock. It is the perfect foundation for a warm, waterproof shelter.
Natural surroundings are ideal substitutes when a tent is not available. A large rock or fallen tree provides a solid foundation for any shelter. Due to the large size and flat shape of the rock, Haygood decides to construct a lean-to shelter, the most basic and easy type of shelter to build.
He sweeps away brush and debris under the rock and lays several layers of pine boughs on the ground. Keeping off the bare ground is one of the easiest ways to prevent hypothermia, Haygood says. Pine boughs and moss are abundant in wilderness environments and protect the body from immediate heat loss.
Haygood finds fallen tree limbs and sticks, measuring in diameter from a bottle cap to the size of a soda can. Leaning each stick 10 inches apart against the boulder, he creates a basic skeleton for the shelter. Gathering more pine boughs, he covers the branches until all gaps are sealed.
He places strips of bark over the pine boughs, simulating natural shingles. Bark shingles keep water and wind out, while keeping heat in.
"It's not a cozy chamber, but it is waterproof and offers protection from the elements," Haygood says.
Clothing and Heat Regulation
The soft, dawn sun peaks through the shelter door, gently waking Haygood. The warmth of his teammate's body heat made for a comfortable night and Haygood is ready to make his way back to the base camp.
Although a shelter can block out much of the cold, staying warm in the wilderness is not always possible says Ken Small, a Bellingham Mountaineer. In his 20 years of climbing experience, Small has gotten lost several times.
He has woken up shivering in his shelter, unable to get back to sleep. Small says eating a bit of food, drinking some water and performing kinesics is a simple way to warm up and return to sleep. Tensing up muscles, as done in kinesics, produces natural, internal heat, when external heat is unavailable.
Clothing is also crucial in surviving extreme wilderness temperatures. Haygood and his team dressed in preparation for the cold and wet climate. "Cotton kills!" Haygood says.
Haygood dresses in polyester and polypropylene. He wears three layers on his top and two on his bottom. Layers act as both a heating and cooling system. In cold weather, layers insulate and trap heat. In warmer weather or when a person sweats, layers can simply be removed.
45 minutes into hiking, Haygood and his team hit a large hill. It rained the night before making the forest floor slippery. With only a few ounces of water left, Haygood cannot afford to lose any more water.
"Try not to sweat," Haygood says. "It's really not rationing your water; it's rationing your sweat."
The boys trek, switch-backing, or hiking in a z-shape pattern, up the hillside. Reaching the peak, Haygood sees the valley where the base camp is located, but nothing more.
At the bottom, Haygood sees that the terrain slopes downhill all the way to camp. Excitement rushes Haygood's mind, urging him to pick up his pace. However, he resists his feelings and maintains his slow, but steady pace.
"If you feel like the going is getting easier, don't rush or else you'll waste energy," Haygood says. "Pace yourself, mentally and physically."
Three hours go by and Haygood's stomach growls. He has two power bars left and no water. Snubbing his hunger, he continues downhill through the soggy undergrowth.
A haze of smoke twists through the trees 100 yards ahead. Moving closer, Haygood spots a large, white vehicle, popping against the green and brown canvass of forest. With every step, the sound of radio static and low voices grows louder.
His heart races and his mouth twists into a smile. Haygood's breathing grows heavier; flushing out his cold cheeks. His adrenaline spikes and his body temperature rises. The smells of burning wood and roasting food sweeps into his nose and Haygood sees a group of silhouettes moving about. He brushes through a curtain of pine boughs, stepping out of the forest and onto a dirt clearing-- it's the ESAR base camp. He made it. He did not just research or read a book, but actually survived a night in true-blue wilderness, Haygood says.
Walking into the campsite, ESAR volunteers greet Haygood. He officially passes the test and is now a Brush Monkey and ESAR Team Leader. More, Haygood achieves his own personal trial; overcoming his emotions and mind, and channeling his strength and innate instincts to survive on the basics in the wilderness.
Mentally and physically drained he sits down by the fire. Haygood relaxes his shoulders and without hesitation, accepts a large plate of campfire cooked pancakes and bacon.