When Survival is a Little Too Close to Home

This story came as a bit of a shock if not a sobering reminder that survival isn’t always about being stranded miles and miles from civilisation…it can happen anywhere, even 12 miles from your own home. But survival situations don’t just “happen”…the fact remains that this party was not prepared for their endeavours, nor were proper precautions made beforehand.

On the 8th of June, three young adults [Sarah Kowats, 21, Shane Barrese, 28, and Wayne Pelham, 26] went out for a fishing trip on Lake Lillinonah in Newtown, Connecticut at around 5 in the evening. The boat, owned by Sarah, was a small aluminum craft fitted with an outboard motor. The three were repositioning themselves on the boat when one end of the boat went below the surface, causing water to flood in until the boat capsized. None of them were wearing life jackets.

Sarah and Wayne managed to swim to the shore of Paugusset State Forest, but Shane, Sarah’s boyfriend, struggled because his boots were weighing him down, and he caught his arm in a fishing line. Both Wayne and Sarah pulled Shane to shore, where he passed-out from panicking and swallowing too much water. After numerous failed attempts to revive Shane, they strapped him to a tree and quickly moved into the nearly 2000 acre forest to seek aid. After only a short while, a thunderstorm rolled in – it took them 5 hours to find their way out.

“We screamed for help and no one heard us,” Kowats said. “We were climbing rocks in the middle of the woods. There were no trails… We were scared, afraid to run into animals.”

Meanwhile, Shane awoke much later to a deserted, nightly shoreline. Through his fright and confusion, he decided it would be better to stay and wait on the shore.

“I was in a panic,” he said. “I kind of stumbled around, walked barefoot for a while… I was freezing cold, so I laid down, covered myself with leaves to try to keep myself warm.“

After discovering a trail and finding their way out, Sarah and Wayne headed towards Hanover Road, where they flagged down a policeman on patrol. The search and rescue operation had begun.

Shane was found by a Newtown Underwater Search and Rescue boat at 02:40 in the morning Tuesday. Sarah was badly bruised and suffered two sprained ankles. All three were treated at Danbury Hospital.

The boat remained missing, and the three lost their personal belongings…cellphones, keys, spare clothes, wallets, fishing kit, and a cooler.

Michael McCarthy, chief of operations at the Newtown Underwater Search and Rescue, stated that there are a number of ways to prevent such accidents from happening. Safety equipment is a requirement on all vessels – life jackets, floatation devices, etc. A waterproof box is also a necessity for stowing important belongings, such as cellphones or radios, so that help can be contacted in case of an emergency.

Shane’s decision to stay on the shore doubtless saved hours of time and energy of his rescuers. “We were very fortunate he didn’t wander very far away from the water,” McCarthy noted.

On Thursday the 11th, Sarah Kowats received two tickets for insufficient safety gear and reckless boating.

More on this story from the Connecticut Post and News Times.

National Trails Day and a Double Score

This post is a bit late due to troublesome computer hardware malfunctioning, but thankfully all is well now.

The first National Trails Day began 22 years ago on the 5th of June in 1993, initiated by the American Hiking Society. Across the country, hundreds of outdoor societies and organisations, including the National Park Service, took part in the event. “National Trails Day is a time for all trail users to celebrate and enjoy their trails,” according to former NPS Director Robert Stanton. “Through the Rivers and Trails Program, the National Park Service is able to extend its mission far beyond the boundaries of our majestic national parks by helping to preserve natural treasures close to home.”  Indeed, upon the 20th anniversary of National Trails Day in June 2012, it was estimated that 157,000 citizens attended over 2000 events (from http://www.nationaltrailsday.org).

This year there were several events for the occasion in my locality, but instead of being swarmed with summer outers I decided to do things a little differently. Something that I consider a key fundamental to Bushcraft is the act of slowing down, observing more, and becoming more aware of the environment you are in. Not only does this make every trip outdoors all the more refreshing and rejuvenating, but it is also essential to successful hunting. Nature has limitless subtleties that await the perceptive outdoorsman/woman.

My venture took me to a hidden meadow in my local woods, where the field was full of blooming Ox-Eye Daises.

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These daisies are quite delicious – the young leaves and unopened flower buds taste almost like carrot and make a fine addition to any salad.

There was also a lot of Sheep Sorrel, sometimes called Arrowhead Sorrel (Rumex acetosella), along the perimeter of the meadow.

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It shares the same genus as the docks, and has a distinctive sour taste due to the presence of oxalic acid.

Looking up into the hedges of Japanese Barberry, I discovered this fellow…

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…a small orb weaving spider. Its green colour helps it blend in and remain hidden. With a closer look around the shrubs, I found many more of these tiny arachnids.

The bushes were also home to Spittlebug nymphs.

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They secrete this bubbly froth to protect themselves from predators.

I headed back down from the meadow, making my turn-off at a deer path to bushwhack.

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In this lowland, marshy area, the air was particularly humid. After about 50 yards, I crossed a brook and made my way near a small knoll whereupon an orienteering marker was placed. And, to my surprise, right next to a graceful American Chestnut sapling, I found the jackpot…

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…Chaga, also known as True Tinder Fungus, and quite a huge chunk of it at the base of this Sweet Birch :D. Funny thing that I have been through that same area multiple times in the past and yet I never noticed the growing glob. But this just goes to show how rewarding an outdoor trip can be when you take the time to slow down and become a part of the very landscape. Still, I did not think that Chaga could be found where I live in southern New England. For a long time I believed it more of a Boreal and northern dweller to be found only in Canada, Scandinavia, Alaska, Russia (and Siberia) and the upper part of this region.

Besides being a useful ember-bearer for fire making, Chaga is also prized as a tonic when dried, ground, and brewed into tea. Northern European peoples, including the Saami, have made use of it for centuries…as a coffee substitute, and as a booster for the immune system. Chaga is a parasitic fungus that grows on birches, though there have been reports that it can be found on hardwoods such as American Beech and Ironwood (American Hornbeam). Its appearance suggests burnt wood or charcoal, but the inside is the colour of tanned buckskin, or a light orange-brown.

After marveling over such a fortunate find, I decided to continue on bushwhacking, slowly ascending a larger, rocky hill that rose from the edge of the lowland. On the other side I knew I would find the Ives Trail. At this point the grey clouds opened with a gentle rain. After reaching the trail, I turned to follow it towards the day’s point of interest…I had noticed on my topographical map that there was a spring about 1.5 miles ahead next to Muskrat Lake. The Ives Trail has suffered erosion in spots over recent years, and more and more loosened rocks made for tricky footing.

Taking a side path around the western shore of the lake, I found the unmistakable sign of beaver, chew marks left on a Red Maple and Scarlet Oak.

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And, towards the southern edge of the lake, the residences of two beaver families.

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The lodge in the top picture was built by the first clan of beavers. Up until now, I had thought it a Muskrat’s lodge, but the closer view on this side of the lake proved me mistaken.  The second picture shows a new lodge built by another family. Given all the signs of beaver activity in the area, it seems fitting that I should rename this body of water “Beaver Lake” :).

As I walked further along the shore, I came across a fallen, uprooted Scarlet Oak, which bore a large rosette of Sulfur Shelf bracket fungus.

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I couldn’t pass up such an unexpected opportunity, so I broke off some of the tender lobes, and improvised a basket out of green cat-tail leaves to carry them in.

Sulfur Shelf is an easy fungus to identify because of its bright orange colour with a yellowish margin towards the edge of the lobes. It can grow on a variety of hardwoods, oaks in particular, both alive (decaying) and fallen.  **Remember that all foraged mushrooms/fungi should be cooked before consumption – my own favourite method is to stir-fry them**. Sulfur Shelf is also known as Chicken-of-the-Woods because the cooked flesh has a colour and taste similar to chicken. More on Sulfur Shelf here.

Continuing on my way around the lake shore, I saw a grove of Canada Hemlocks nestled deeper in the surrounding woodland at the southern foot of Black Oak Ridge. According to my topo map, this is where the spring would be located. Sure enough, I found water runoff flowing gently down the slope. I followed it a short way until I reached the very source.

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The light rain had ceased, and the humid day made a drink from the spring all the more worthwhile. It was quite cold and very refreshing. **If spring water is collected directly from the source, and if there is no sign of chemical or natural contaminants (decaying corpse, poo, etc.), you can drink the water straight as it is without the need to filter or boil it. But if you are not sure about the water quality, purify it to be safe.**

After quenching my thirst, I turned back and headed home for a late lunch at the end of the 5.25 mile hike. I took some chives some the garden, chopped them up, and made myself a stir-fry with the Sulfur Shelf. It was positively delicious, and tasted very much like chicken (to me). The Chaga will be dried for future use as tea.