Wednesday, May 22, 2013

BLOG 46. Wilderness Signaling Devices


by Cliff Jacobson

In June, 1967, my friend, John Orr and I made our annual pilgrimage to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area of Minnesota.  Along a portage, we met a group of teenagers who were carrying a 15 year old girl on an improvised stretcher.
She said she had a “stomach ache” and had taken Tums and Pepto Bismol, but they didn’t  help.  When John--a football coach--gently touched her abdomen, she shrieked in pain.  He diagnosed appendicitis and suggested we evacuate her immediately.
Then, a miracle!  As we were loading her into a canoe, a forest service fire plane appeared on the horizon (really!).  I whipped out my Silva compass and luckily, the mirror flashed the pilot’s eye.  He saw our frantic waves and settled on to the lake. Then, he flew the girl to Grand Marais, where her appendix was removed without complication.

This was the only time I have signaled for help in a medical emergency.  But I have used signals for other reasons.  Here’s what I carry in my kit:
L to R: Iridium Satellite phone, VHF Aircraft Radio, CB radio, Orange Smoke
These burn for 50 seconds or more and produce bellows of thick orange smoke which, on a clear day, can be seen for miles.  I have used orange smoke’s twice, and each time, they caught the pilot’s eye.    Every marina has them.

It is very difficult to precisely flash an object with a standard mirror like the one on an Orienteering compass.  I bring a military (ESM/1) signal mirror, which has an aiming cross in the center.

You may not hear a whistle above the roar of rapids--that’s why you should know the official hand (safety) signals.  But a whistle works if you wander off a bush-whacked portage trail and become confused. Pea-less type whistles like the Fox 40, which work when flooded, are best.

Choose brightly-colored canoes, packs, tents and clothing that can be seen from an airplane!

VHF TRANSCEIVER (JD200 Tranceiver/Sporty’s Pilot Shop)
An aircraft you can see is probably within ten miles of you—close enough to be reached on a hand-held VHF aircraft transceiver. The typical VHF radio with a 15 mile range allows about five minutes of talk time at typical float plane speeds.  As a courtesy, most bush pilots will circle and keep you in range until the conversation is done.  But high flying jets won’t change course, so you better talk fast.  One of my greatest thrills was getting weather conditions from a passing Calm Air passenger jet.  We talked for about 20 seconds. In a life-threatening situation you may broadcast on the restricted emergency frequency (121.5 megahertz), which all pilots monitor.  But for other concerns you must stick with the frequencies that are assigned to the charter air companies.  Be aware, that transmitting without an FCC license isn’t strictly legal!  In the bush, however—and given the short range of hand-held transceivers--everyone looks the other way.  Indeed, most charter air services are pleased that you have a radio.
 Note:  You must have an aircraft model VHF radio to talk to pilots.  A  marine band VHF radio won’t work.  Aircraft models are much more expensive than marine radios and are generally available only from pilot shops.

If you charter a power boat on Hudson Bay or one of the big Canadian lakes, you’ll want a CB radio so you can communicate with the captain.   Naturally, you must know the channel of operation before you call.
When we reached the complex delta at the mouth of the Tha-anne River on Hudson Bay, I called my charter boat captain on my CB radio. 

He said, “Better hurry—tide goes out in 30 minutes!”

I punched his position into my GPS.  Twenty minutes later, the white fishing boat came into view.  When time is short, or bad weather threatens, a confident course can make a difference!
SPOT Satellite Messenger
These satellite messengers are lightweight, compact, waterproof and—if the weather cooperates—reliable.  A button push will initiate search-and-rescue operations. The basic SPOT allows you to send three prewritten messages and your GPS location/tracking to your contacts via text and/or e-mail. More advanced SPOT units, and the DeLorme inReach GPS locator allow you to send text/eMail messages through your smart phone. A subscription plan is required.

I prefer the basic SPOT which uses AA batteries. Satellite texting through your smart phone makes sense only if you have a way to keep your cell phone charged on a long trip—and if you can afford the pricey subscription plan.
DeLorme inReach with PN-60 GPS

If you’re going where help is an airplane ride away, a satellite phone is the way to go. Satellite phones operate just like regular phones, except that calls must be dialed in international mode. I’ve used my sat phone many times on canoe trips and it always been reliable.  Rental phones, however, can be troublesome because the batteries have been recharged so many times.  Every failure-to-function I’ve observed has been the result of batteries that won’t hold a charge.  Rental phones should come with an extra battery AND a solar charging unit!

Cliff Jacobson


R. A. Fowell said...

While the 4"x5" tempered glass General Electric ESM/1 (with cross-shaped aiming hole) you carry has not been made since WWII, over a million were made, so they come up regularly on Ebay.

The OSS made a nice military training movie for the ESM/1 signal mirror in 1943 - I posted a copy on YouTube under the title "The Signaling Mirror: WWII US Government Training Film".

The US military moved on to signal mirrors with retroreflective mesh aimers after U.S. and British testing demonstrated they were much easier to aim from a bobbing raft than the ESM/1.

The current US military glass issue mirror (with mesh retroreflective aimer) is the MIL-M-18371E (made by Howard Glass)- you can get the large (3"x5") version online at "The Supply Cache" (no affiliation save as satisfied customer).

Unknown said...

Thank you, R.A. This was a terrific comment. We all appreciate your insight.