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Don’t Be The Next Tragedy

A recent tragedy on the Ozark trail has really touched me and gotten me thinking. A thirty-six-year-old father who was an Air Force veteran and his two sons, ages ten and eight, died of exposure after getting turned around on their way back to the lodge where they were staying.

The weather had started out warm, and they were ill-prepared for a temperature drop into the twenties along with a hard heavy rain. Searchers had to turn back for the night when flash flooding made the search in the dark too dangerous to continue. They were found dead the next morning, soaked to the skin, along with their pet dog who survived.

Stories like this really get me because I have two sons that are very near that age. I can’t help running over and over in my mind what happened, and asking myself “What would you have done?”

I feel the best way we can honor them is to learn from their experience and pass on these lessons to others who someday may face a similar situation. After some troubling reflection on the specifics that were reported, I can offer the following observations and advice.

Even Trained People Make Mistakes

As an Air Force veteran, the father has had some survival training. The story says he knew the area but missed the trail back to the lodge in the dark. Many times we grow complacent when we are in familiar surroundings.

Once, while hunting in Colorado, I shot a nice buck about two miles from my truck. Not wanting to hike back up over the hill between me and the truck, I decided to follow a drainage ditch downhill and hit the road I was parked on and hike it back up to the truck.

Another mile or so down I realized the path I was following wasn’t going to connect with the road I was parked on. I ended up continuing down to the highway and catching a ride back up to my truck. It was ten miles from where I came out to where I was parked.

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Looking at my situation, if I had tried to take the downhill route because bad weather was coming in, or because there was some other emergency, my mistake could have turned deadly.

Cold, rain, and darkness will often cloud our judgment and will tend to make us not think as clearly as we should. We must keep this in mind no matter our situation. Human nature will tell us that if we go just a bit farther, we will be okay. Usually this only makes things worse.

Years ago, there was a children’s program called “Hug a Tree.” It taught that when you realized you were lost, you should stop and stay where you were (hug a tree). Adults should do the same thing, especially if they are in a dangerous situation. Find what shelter you can, even if it is a leeward side of a tree, and stay put until the danger has passed or until you are rescued.

The Situation Can Change Quickly

According to the report, the day’s temperatures started out in the 60s, but it dropped into the 20s as the day went on, with heavy rain starting in. The survival rule of threes states that it only takes three minutes without air, three hours without shelter, three days without water, and three weeks without food before you die. If you are breathing, the next most important thing to worry about is shelter. Shelter is meant to keep you warm, so in that sense, fire and clothing can count as shelter.

I was caught in an August snow/sleet/rain storm above timberline one summer while archery hunting. All I had on was light camo clothing and an old pair of worn-out tennis shoes on my feet (another mistake on my part). Luckily for me, it was straight downhill to the road where I was parked, and after some slipping and sliding, I made it to the shelter of my truck and drove home.

Another time I was heading up into the hills after work for a quick hunt before dark, when I hit a bump in the road and my truck battery bounced out of the tray and onto the fan blade. I ended up spending the night in the middle of nowhere without a running truck. We need to learn to expect that things might go wrong and be ready to face changes in our situations as they happen.

Seal out the elements while high-visibility orange makes it easy for rescuers to spot

Even A Basic “Kit” Can Make A Difference

I can’t tell you the number of times I have been out in the wilds with nothing more than what was in my pockets. True, I always have a knife and a lighter, but I wouldn’t want to face the situation in this story with just that.

Having a survival kit, go bag, bug out bag, or some other collection of survival paraphernalia handy can save your life if things go south on you. The best kit is always the one you have with you. If it is so bulky and uncomfortable that you leave it at home, it won’t do you much good if you are caught out in the rain, cold, and darkness.

A small kit packaged in an Altoids tin is very popular. An internet search will turn up many variations of this kit. These small kits are great in that you have something instead of nothing, but in the Ozark situation, trying to start a fire in the dark during a cold downpour is a losing proposition.

To cover more bases, you should add some sort of shelter to your kit. A Mylar emergency blanket can save your life. If nothing else, add a garbage bag that can be worn as a rain poncho (to prevent suffocation, never wear it as your head cover). Again, remember the rule of threes—only three hours without shelter in extreme weather and you can be done for.

I am not the person to assign any kind of blame for this tragedy, especially since I have pointed out potentially deadly mistakes I have made myself. I can only hope we learn from this that anyone, no matter how experienced, can and sometimes will make mistakes. We can try to be aware that normal everyday situations can get out of control quickly, and if they do, hopefully we will have prepared ahead of time to try and get through them with as little trauma as possible.

My prayers go out to this family and those affected by these deaths.

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