When things go bad in good places

APPLETON -- For more than a decade, Tom Watson guided kayak trips in the North Pacific waters around Alaska's famous Kodiak Island. During much of that time he was also a member of a Kodiak Island-based search-and-rescue team. He logged long hour...

APPLETON -- For more than a decade, Tom Watson guided kayak trips in the North Pacific waters around Alaska's famous Kodiak Island.

During much of that time he was also a member of a Kodiak Island-based search-and-rescue team. He logged long hours probing the deep forests and the mountains along the southern coast of Alaska in search of lost hunters, hikers and the survivors of plane crashes.

Yet he probably picked up some of his best ideas as a Boy Scout in Minneapolis. Scouting opened the door to a youth spent camping and exploring the Brule River in Wisconsin, and the Rum River and north woods of Minnesota.

Watson puts the best of his experiences together for our benefit in "How to Think Like a Survivor, A Guide for Wilderness Emergencies'' (Creative Publishing, 192 pages).

It's the third outdoor book authored by Watson. He currently lives in Appleton and serves as the director of the Prairie Waters Convention and Visitors Bureau.


His resume may read like an adventure for Outdoor magazine, but his book is more like the friendly angel you'd want on your shoulder if you ever got lost in the wilds.

No need to travel to Alaska to get lost, either. Most books on wilderness survival were developed for the military and offer advice on how to survive while dodging enemy bullets and keeping out of sight in rugged terrain like the wilderness of Alaska, said Watson.

The truth is most of the people who find themselves lost today do so relatively close to home or help. They will usually be found in 72 hours or less, he said.

They don't need the survival skills to turn wild vines into snares to catch rabbits and live off the land for weeks on end.

Instead, they need to know how to keep a positive mental attitude and do the right things that will see them safely through those critical hours until help arrives, he explained.

The Boy Scouts had that figured out a long time ago, and Watson borrows freely on the common sense approach he learned on his way to becoming an Eagle Scout. He also did his research, and contacted some of the experts on outdoor safety and first aid to craft a book that can be trusted.

He can also offer what he learned from the lost survivors he helped return to civilization in Alaska. In one case, a hunter from Wisconsin fell and broke his ankle while in an area far from where his group thought he would be. Strong, cold winds blew relentlessly. The injured hunter used common sense to aid in his rescue: He crawled to an area where he might best be seen, and used a space blanket to retain body heat and signal for help.

Rescuers reached him nearly three days later, just before he thought he would succumb to hypothermia.


When a helicopter brought Watson and other volunteers to the base camp to tell his companions about his rescue, the wind-beaten hunters were pleading for their own rescue rides, he laughed.

For those who are going to venture into remote areas, "How to Think Like a Survivor'' drives homes the fundamentals. They include the importance of carrying a small kit of essentials on your person.

"If you don't have it with you, you don't have it,'' said Watson. That's because many people stranded in remote areas have had mishaps. Their boat or kayak has capsized or they have become separated from their camp or partners.

Surviving unaided for three days in the howling, north winds of Alaska requires clear thinking and a positive, mental attitude. Surviving a mishap within earshot of civilization requires no less.

Watson said that he knows of a woman who was hiking the bluff lands of southeastern Minnesota and injured her ankle on a very chilly day. She found it impossible to crawl through the thick underbrush. She was only about 500 yards from the nearest residence, and at one point could even hear somebody mowing their lawn, said Watson.

Yet for seven hours she shivered and slowly fell victim to hypothermia while her shouts for help reached no ears.

If only she had carried a whistle, said Watson. Its piercing tone can carry great distances and can be credited with saving many lost hikers from hours of misery, if not death.

Don't make the mistake of thinking that survival in these kinds of situations is all a matter of having the good sense to carry smart gear. Your mental approach is far more important, said Watson. Readers of his book will come to appreciate the need to keep a positive mental attitude and a calculating approach to any dilemma.


They will also learn how to take advantage of materials that can often be found close at hand and used to advantage.

"How to Think Like a Survivor'' will also bring home the importance of doing the right things in the right order. While the first instinct of many who are stranded is to start a fire, Watson and others emphasize that building some sort of shelter should be the first step. It's the first and best defense against hypothermia, which is usually the most imminent threat facing those who are lost.

Most of all stay put and don't panic.

And of course, always follow the Boy Scout motto of "Be Prepared.'' It's not really that hard to do. One easy, fun read of "How to Think Like a Survivor'' will prepare even the most casual outdoors person on what to do when things go bad.

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