Weekend class helps prepare for wilderness emergencies

Friday October 19, 2012

You and some friends have rented the only cottage on an idyllic island off the Maine coast for a late-season weekend getaway. No access except by small boat, no cell phone or wifi, total relaxation. The Maine Island Trail maintains a campsite on the far end of the island, but you don’t even know if anyone is camped there.

It’s a nasty, cold afternoon: Screaming winds, pouring rain, low clouds and fog, crashing surf and it’s getting dark fast...

You are inside, snug, warm and happy. Sud denly, a specter appears at your door with blood gushing down his face begging for help. Five friends were camped and a large tree has crashed over onto their tents. When you arrive at the scene, two are still pinned, one has a broken leg, one is unconscious; two others are badly hurt, one has a branch driven through his hand. There’s no way to call for help. All you have is what’s already on the island and what you know.

Would you be able to formulate a plan, aid the injured and move them to greater safety? I suspect for most of us, the answer is no, not really. It’s one thing to fantasize playing super hero, quite something else to deal with twisted bodies and blood, where you can’t just call 911 and make it go away.

The scenario described above was our "final exam" in a two-day Wilderness First Aid course I took this past weekend at Mahoosuc Mountain Lodge (www.mahoosucmountain
lodge.com) in Newry, Maine. Our instructor was Jon Tierney of Wilderness Medical Asso ciates (www.wildmed.com), one of the premier providers of wilderness medical training in the world. Jon is a critical-care paramedic, an internationally certified mountain guide and the owner/head honcho of Acadia Mountain Guides (www.acadiamountainguides.com) one of the top climbing schools/mountain guide services here in the Northeast.

All weekend long, we alternated quick, thorough, informative classroom lectures with outdoor practice on startlingly realistic scenes you might encounter if you travel in the wild. Jon brought enough gruesome wounds and fake blood in his kit to make an entire class of fourth-grade boys happy at Halloween.

We dealt with everything from mild hypothermia, slips and sprained ankles to insulin and anaphylactic shock, broken limbs, possible heart attacks and spinal injuries. We learned the latest CPR techniques, learned how to give a shot if we needed to, made splints, bandages and litters from materials at hand (think MacGuyver), all while keeping people alive in cold, wet, windy conditions.

Was it perfect practice? Of course not. Most of our victims were conscious (which makes a huge difference), and were polite enough not to scream uncontrollably or spurt blood from open wounds. Still, we learned that you almost always have more time than you think and your best immediate response in an emergency is usually to "STOP" (Slow down, Think, Observe, Plan). Don’t plunge in heedlessly, putting yourself at risk.

We learned to evaluate the patient not just for obvious injury, but also for hidden problems and long-term trends. We learned to evaluate the resources at hand and use them wisely; to assess each situation to decide if it was serious or not serious, urgent or not, stable or unstable. We learned not to get behind on keeping the victim (and ourselves) as warm, dry fed, rested and upbeat as possible.

With each practice scene, we got incrementally more confident and competent. None of us are ready to do surgery. But we are all carrying more knowledge, experience, and skills in that most-essential emergency kit -- the one we carry between our ears. Life isn’t a spectator sport. Get out and enjoy!

Ideal to real

The classroom training and hands-on practice we experienced in this first aid course was designed to help make the transition from ideal to real. When someone is severely injured in the backcountry, "ideal" is a helicopter with paramedics dropping in to save the day. But that can’t always happen. Some people think a cell phone can solve any problem, but it can’t if there’s no battery or signal.

It’s what you do with the "real" that can make things better and save lives. A big part of our weekend was learning to do the best we could with what we had available, to make a plan and keep moving forward, dealing with problems one at a time as they arose. It would be easy to panic and freeze when faced with most of the situations we encountered. Training helps you to keep moving effectively.

This is more than just first aid training, of course. The critical thinking, assessing, planning and creative problem solving skills we learned in this Wilderness First Aid course are what you need to take with you every time you leave the road.

More training available

I was so inspired by what I learned this weekend that I’m seriously considering signing up for a more-intensive Wilderness Advanced First Aid or Wilderness First Responder course. Mahoosuc Lodge is the perfect setting for these courses and it is in the process of scheduling a number of courses for the future. Visit its website or sign up for the newsletter for details. This a beautiful spot to learn in.

Zoar Outdoor (www.zoaroutdoor.com) in Char le mont, Mass., also offers a number of Wild erness Medical Associates courses each year.

Tracking workshop

While at Mahoosuc Lodge, I saw a flier for a weekend tracking workshop with evening slide presentations to be presented by Susan Morse of Keeping Track (www.keepingtrack.org) on Friday, Dec. 7, (evening slideshow), Saturday, Dec. 8, (8 a.m. to 4 p.m., with evening slide show) and Sunday, Dec. 9 (8 a.m. to noon).

It sounds like this workshop involves a lot outdoor time and would be a great way to get kids and adults more interested in wildlife and tracking.

The workshop costs $175 to $275 per person, depending on meals and accommodations. The slide presentations Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m. are open to the public at $10 per evening. Call Polly or Kevin at Mahoosuc Guide Service (207-824-2073 or email info@ mahoosuc.com.) for questions or to register.

Tim Jones is the executive editor of the online magazine EasternSlopes.com and writes about outdoor sports and travel. Email: timjones@easternslopes.com


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