Welcome to the Wilderness Class Four: Wayfinding and Signaling

Welcome to the Wilderness Class Four: Wayfinding and Signaling

By April Thompson

“A family was cross-country skiing in the backcountry in December, when Dad injured himself late in the day, hurt too bad to move. It was a day trip and they had no equipment with him, and no way to carry him out. How did they signal for help?”

We shouted out potential solutions popcorn style, none “right” in terms of what happened, but we were thinking the way our “Welcome to the Wilderness” instructor Jason “Drev” Drevenak taught us: to work with your available resources, because the best tool to have is the one you’ve got with you.

“Signaling,” said Drev, “is one of the most important things to know how to do. If you’re out in the wilderness enough, it’s not a matter of if but when you will need to get help, and how bad it will be to get yourself out.”

Since day one, Drev stressed the importance of not just planning a wilderness trip, but telling someone about it – where you’re going, when you’ll come back, even details like the color of your clothing or canoe. Drev goes so far as to promise to call his safety check by a certain hour, or else they should call search and rescue. (But make sure you’ll have cell reception for the return call, so as not to set off a false alarm, as he once almost did.)

Other planning and signaling tips Drev offered up included checking cell phone coverage for the area you’ll be, and bringing signaling devices like a mirror, whistle or lightweight glow-in-the-dark “chemlights,” which you can tie to parachute cord and whip around your head for a surefire signal.

And do always bring your common sense. “Mother Nature doesn’t care; whether it’s plant toxicity, wildlife weather, she isn’t going to negotiate with you,” says Drev, rattling off names like “Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin and grizzly enthusiast Timothy Treadwell as examples of people who died in the wild not due to bad luck but from arrogance and disrespect to the wildlife they claimed to love.

By the same token, Drev admitted to having been more careless in his younger years, until close calls with snakes, bears and other dangers taught him the importance of a Plan B. I too shared a wilderness oopsie from my younger years. Despite the old townswomen urging me not to go alone, I’d followed trailmarkers up the wrong mountain in Bulgaria, and ended up spending the night on the peak banged and bruised up (both ego and body) in a shell of a shelter left by guardian angels. Another participant shared the story of a rescue device in a family boat accidentally set off by a friend, which, to their surprise, sent an angry aquatic rescue troop to their location.  Smart people learn from dumb mistakes, and sharing our stories made us collectively all the wiser.

“You’ll get lost in a shopping mall before you get lost in the woods in Maryland,” quipped Drev, who ranked navigation last on the list of wilderness skills, which was good, because it was my weakest. He walked us through the steps of using map and compass together to set your course, but it didn’t stick as well for me as some of the other skills we learned.

I did walk away with a better understanding of contour maps, and the relativity of the cardinal directions. (Who knew that true and magnetic north differed by such a literal degree, and that the latter was always changing? Not me – and if you didn’t, you’d never get your bearings right using a map and compass.)

We also learned concepts like dead reckoning, which isn’t something that happens when you meet your maker, but is the process of calculating your position by using a previously determined position, with the help of your estimated speed and course.

Sadly, it was our last class together, but we celebrated with a wildcrafted potluck that included Drev’s sauerkraut and black raspberry ginger jun, two kinds of wild spring pestos from chickweed and garlic mustard, and my own addition, mealworm pancakes and cricket stirfry inspired from our previous class on food sources in the wild.

Undoubtedly, we each took away new skills and knowledge from our four sessions that could help us in innumerable situations. Time would tell which of them we would need.

Oh, and that cross-country skiing family? A leftover packet of cherry Kool-aid, that’s what’s saved them. Spread out in the snow, its red crystals spelling “HELP” was visible from a scout plane overhead.

For more teachings by Jason Drevenak, visit his new website: www.bushcraftforbipeds.com

Written by April Thompson, @prillytee on Instagram

April Thompson is a Washington, DC-based writer, gardener, foodie, and forager. Working as a freelance writer for more than 20 years, April has covered food, travel, sustainability, gardening, foraging, and other subjects for dozens of publications, including her ongoing column in Natural Awakenings magazine. She has taught workshops on wild edible plants, fighting food waste, and related topics for Knowledge Commons DC, Rooting DC, and other organizations. She is a founding member of the Bruce Monroe Community Garden, a board member of the Mycological Association of Washington, and an alum of the UDC Master Gardener program. She currently serves as Director of Marketing and Sales for Bloom, a recycled biosolids fertilizer developed by DC Water.

To read about more foraging adventures with April, you can subscribe to her blog The Wild Life!

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