Dealing With Nature – Part 4: When It Goes Bad…

OK, why should you care about any of this woodsy stuff?  After all, we are all rushing headlong into 2020, for pity’s sake, the age of computers, robots, cell phones, the “internet of things” where everything is connected to everything else.  Where a bunch of you will head out to take your landscape photos WITH your cell phone and all of its functionality.  So, who, today, really needs any of this knowledge or these skillsets?

Good and reasonable question.  And if you live in a techno-bubble where the closest you get to real nature is a Sierra Club calendar, then baring natural disasters, power outages, economic catastrophe’s etc. have a self-recovering car, and an endless fuel supply and lifetime battery capacity, and then make sure that you never stray more than a few feet from the asphalt, then it is highly likely you’ll never ever need to know any of it.

That, however, does not describe me or my life or my photography quests.  So let me give you a personal example of how things might lead to an emergency situation.

A couple of years ago, in the early Spring, I had gone up to Oakhurst, a little town on the southern border to Yosemite National Park, to visit a great friend, Nikko, and to also take a few quick dips in the Yosemite Valley area for photos.  Nikko is owner of an incredible restaurant named “Bread Head” and if you are ever in that area and need some REALLY good food for breakfast or lunch this is the place. (  And if Nikko is there, be sure and say “Hi” for me.

Nikko is also an excellent photographer and, since she has lived there for quite a few years, knows the area very well.  So she suggested we head south around Bass Lake where there was some terrific scenery.  I wasn’t aware there was ANYTHING in that direction so agreed and off we went.

She was right, of course.  There were some incredible overlooks of the lake and, further south a quaint town and, to the east, according to the map, a way for us to take a loop through the forest and end up back on the Lake road.  So after a fun lunch we were off on our adventure.  (Remember what I had, in an earlier part of this series, defined as an “adventure?”)

The “main” road was old pavement, broken in places, littered with debris from recent storms and winds.  Clearly this was not a route that was heavily traveled.  But the day was clear and sunny, the company was great, and so we stopped a couple of times for photos before we found the side road through the forest.  It was, as are most forest roads, dirt.  But it was more or less level and clearly designed for normal cars… at least during the normal summer season…

We had gone a mile or so when we came on our first snow drift across the road.  Inspection revealed that it was only a few inches deep so we powered through it easily and kept on.   A second one, determined to be only slightly deeper, was also easily negotiated.

By the time we came on the third drift, although it was longer than the others, did not appear to be all that much deeper, so without further inspection, off we went…

And we made it almost exactly half way.

What was not evident under the snow was that this was also spanning a runoff channel and someone had previously powered through it when it was muddy and carved some deep ruts in it.  When I hit those, I was stopped and now my wheels just spun and polished the snow.  It was as if the tires were sitting inside watermelon peels.  We were not going anywhere, forward or backward.  Power-rocking the vehicle was useless.  True, it did result in some movement but it was not forward or back… only down.  That was definitely the wrong direction, so there we sat.

I’m relating this tale to illustrate how easy it is, on the best of days and with no intention or expectation of doing any potentially dangerous travel, to find oneself in trouble.  During that year’s spring season it was common for late storms to move through the area so this situation could turn very bad very quickly.  We were stuck because I had made a mistake.  The length of that drift should have gotten me out of the car to walk it and probe it better.  I could see the water channel above and below it but was preoccupied and it did not register.  All of the signs for caution were readily available but I didn’t see them or pay attention to them and because of that, there we sat, halfway into the drift on a road that, given the dearth of tracks and the heavy cover of leaves and debris, likely would not be traveled for quite some time into the future.

I got out to assess the situation.  I had followed the initial mistake with yet another mistake; in trying to rock the car I had simply dug a deeper set of holes for the tires.  Years of winter driving in Colorado mountain country apparently had taught me nothing or if it had, that knowledge had dribbled out of my brain during my sojourn in Southern California.  Fortunately there was one bit of self-advice I had taken, the car was equipped with some recovery and survival gear.  That stuff tends to just live in my vehicles so I do not have to think about it except to periodically resupply or update some of it.  Good thing too, “thinking” did not seem to be my major skill that day.  I’d love to blame my company but don’t think it would hold up to any real scrutiny.

So step one was to give it “The 30-Second Stare” and objectively consider the options.  There was no cell phone coverage so calling for help was not possible.  Walking for help could be a long and unsuccessful plan unless we would walk the 20+ miles back to the little town where we had lunch.  That had to be the plan of last resort.  That meant the best plan was to recover the car back to solid ground or at least on through the drift and hope for better conditions down the road; but in both cases we had to get the car out of that drift.  Without some equipment that would be impossible, and walking would be the only option remaining, poor as it would have been… (hint hint…)

In each of my vehicles is, at minimum, a backpack of survival gear plus some recovery gear.  It doesn’t take all that much room, so plenty is left for stowing photo equipment.  Here are a couple of views of my primary survival pack.

Survival Backpack outside

Here is the outside of my primary survival pack.  It usually lives in my vehicle.  I have another smaller version I toss in if I know I’ll have someone with me.  In addition to this there are ponchos, blankets and tarps that also just live in the cars.

Survival Backpack inside

Here is the opened pack.  (It’s actually a re-purposed camera backpack.)  This has, on and in it, enough to keep[ me surviving for quite some time minus food and water for the long haul.  What you cannot see here in the packed interior, is that behind the water filters and Swiss Army Knife is a fixed blade but shorter “bush craft” type knife.  Also there is a small sewing kit in the compartment with the first aid supplies.  The fire making materials include, lighters, matches, ferrocerium rods and some magnesium shavings, plus some home-made fire-starters made from dryer lint and bees wax. In with the magnifying glass is also a signal mirror and a sharpening stone.

In addition to the survival pack I also had an incredible multi-purpose tool I bought years ago and have never seen another quite like it.  It is a “Hudson’s Bay” style single-bit axe, but the head is cleverly designed to allow attachment of several other tools including a shovel, a pick, a rake/hoe, fireline “Pulaski,” etc.  (Here is a link to the company where you can buy one:

Max Axe Lay Out

This is the “Max-Axe” from Forrest Tools.  This photo is from their web page, my own set has a lot more wear and tear on it.  Designed primarily for foresters and forest-fire crews, it is incredibly durable and designed for heavy work.  I’ve had mine for almost 30 years and have had zero problems with it.

I also had my go-to knife, my big Shrade Bowie style knife; big enough to work as a small machete.  The main edge of the heavy 12″ blade is razor sharp and the recurve is sharpened with an edge profile more like a hatchet so it can do multiple chores.  As you can see, the poor thing has seen a lot of work over the years.

Schrade Bowie

This is my favorite outdoor working knife.  I don’t know if Schrade still makes them.  This 12″ blade is based on the “IXL” Sheffield made bowie design from the mid to late 1800s.  THe modern “sub-hilt” grip design really helps control the weight.  It takes an incredibly sharp edge.  My survival kits also contain smaller knives for fine work but if I had to head out with only one knife, this would be it.  I’ve made fires and shelters with small knives too but in a pinch, this is far faster when it comes to preparing wood for shelter supports and cover, or for burning.  The choil is perfect for use with a ferro rod.

The plan was to dig a trench in the snow for each tire for us to drive through and also to line it with debris and boughs for traction.  Nikko was a real trooper.  I put the Max-Axe shovel together and she grabbed it and started work on the paths for the tires all on her own.   I took the knife and went into the heavily forested areas around the road to gather boughs.  By only taking one or two per tree the tree is not harmed but it does take a bit longer.  By the time Nikko had the trenches made I had enough boughs to fill them.  A few were forced in under the wheels to give us a starting bit of traction and with Nikko sitting on the back to add a little weight to the drive wheels, we drove out like we were on asphalt.  Without her help it would have taken twice as long and used up twice the energy, especially for an old duffer like me.  But it was doable for us because of the tools available onboard the vehicle.  The full-sized shovel worked much faster than a small folding camp shovel designed to dig latrines, and also allowed her to stand up a little better.  The big blade mowed through 2-3-finger thick boughs like butter, so my effort was reduced far below what it would have taken with a small, light knife.

Through it all, I kept track of the time and, more importantly, the estimated time before the sun went below the trees and mountains to the west.  In case we could not extricate the car well before then and had to face the likelihood of spending a night in place likely to get very cold, then we would have needed time to prepare for that while we could still see easily.  Fortunately, the car and my survival pack, also was equipped with gear to make that unpleasant situation at least tolerable and, more importantly, survivable.  We had available extra blankets, and even two sleeping bags in the car so survival was really never in question.  comfort is another issue but it always is in an emergency situation.

Unfortunately we did not document the situation.  We were so focused on extricating ourselves before it got dark, all of our effort went into that.  We had a vehicle filled with photo and video gear but none of it was used during our vehicle recovery efforts.  Sorry…  I needed my friend Don Bartletti along to document it all.  He’d have done a far better job of it than I would anyway.

The point of all this is to show that even on the simplest of photo treks into the most beautiful of places, things can conspire, especially mistakes such as I made, to turn things serious and potentially dangerous very quickly and unexpectedly.  If I’m riding with someone else and I have no reason to assume they are prepared for such emergencies than I also have a small tactical bag of personal survival gear I toss in with my photo equipment.  If I know someone will be riding with me then I feel responsible for them and try to have enough equipment for both, but if I’m going with someone else, I want to make sure that if disaster strikes I can at least take care of myself.

Check out the photos above for what I take.  That may not be the best collection of gear for you but you need to have what YOU need, and, as importantly, what YOU know how to use.  The ultimate survival tool is useless if the owner does not know how to use it.  There are still plenty of places even in Nation Park or Forest areas where disaster can strike and you cannot count on rescue unless someone knows that you likely are needing it and where to look.  And even then you might be required to survive on your own for 3-5 days.  Can you do it?

By the way, the Spring 2020 Schedule is out for City College.  If you would like to take my Landscape Class, (Photo 245, CRN 24979) where we will be covering this type of thing in addition to the obvious photo material.  My co-teacher, Melinda Holden, is still listed as the instructor, but that is the right class.  So do sign up quickly so they don’t, as they have done in the past, cancel it before it even starts because admin does not have faith there will be enough students.  The days of waiting to crash a class are over.  For details check the course page by clicking on the link in the banner at the top of this page.

And for those of you who have heard me tell tales of my growing up on the farm/ranch under the guidance of my Indian uncle, I have completed a book about him that fleshes out many of those stories and may help explain a little about me and also why I still think he was the best man I even knew.  Scroll down the sidebar on the right side of the page and you will see the link to the printer where you can order a copy of that book and/or the others on the future of photography and the issue of dealing with school and mass shooters.

As always, if you have comments or topics you would like me to address, let me know.

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Photo 360 for 2020

Some of you long term readers may remember previous years’ blog  segments on City College’s “Photo 360” events where each year we open our program and facilities to High School Students interested in Photography and perhaps a career in Photography.  It has grown from a one-day event for about 100 students all from San Diego Unified to this year a two day event for almost 300 from regional schools as well.

Since I’m “retired” (even though I’ll be back “pro rata” to teach this Spring’s Landscape Class – more on that later) I came onboard this year simply to help out and to present one of the workshop topics which, this year, was photographing vehicles.   It was, as always, a lot of fun for presenters and students alike.  For my section we had two different vehicles; a very cool restored 1959 Morris “Woody” and a very sleek 430 Ferrari.

For each group I gave a brief intro to some of the issues involved in shooting cars and then we let them blaze away.

Here are a shot of the Woody with our model.  In this scenario she was having a “breakdown” and trying to figure out what tool to use…

Woody with model 01

And here is the Ferrari. The day started out with a slight drizzle but soon cleared up.

ferrari front

And for those who think they’ve seen it all, when was the last time, even here in California, you saw a Ferrari with a Zombie at the wheel? The Special effects makeup instructor provided us with some “unusual” models for our shoots including some high fashion makeup.

Ferrari zombie

We received very high quality reviews from the participants and it was considered, once again, to be a success with everyone looking forward to next year.

I did chat with the car owners and discussed being able to take their cars out and doing some serious photography of them.  Both were amenable to it, and of course I’d show them here.  Now it is an issue of time so maybe by mid semester…  Meantime I’m REALLY anxious to go shooting for the upcoming class.






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Dealing with Nature – Part 6: Practicing at Home

Hey, Happy New Year and Happy New Decade.  The holidays slowed down my getting this segment ready but finally, here it is. OK, let’s pick up from the last post.

Once you realize you are not getting out of your predicament right away and will have to spend at least one night, maintaining your core body temperature becomes job number one.  That means, in the mountains especially, you will need to stay warm and that means you will need fire and shelter.  We’ll tackle the shelter issues in the next posts. Indeed, I was intending for this post in the series on emergencies for Landscape Photographers to launch into a fire-making segment since that may well be THE foundational skill for staying alive, right up there with staying hydrated; but hydration more a matter of preparation (having water WITH you) than woods skill to solve for this type of situation.

Remember I’m not talking about long term survival when the thin veneer of civilization is peeled away, but a relatively short term, i.e. 3-5 days staying alive if you are stuck out in the backwoods before rescue arrives.  Still, because of their importance for your longevity, I’ve hammered away on practicing to learn these skills before you need them to save your life or the lives of others.  But I received an excellent question from a reader on that subject when I talked about fire making in the last post.  He wrote, “What if you live in the city where they frown on you making fires in the parks or your yards?”  Good question. And I’d certainly not suggest you bring yourself to the unwanted and negative attention of the fire marshal or police while practicing your woods lore skills.  But, as you’ll see, you don’t have to.

Further reflecting on it, the truth is, there are several issues that also might make it hard to practice some of these skills.  For example, due to the fire danger from years and years of uncleared underbrush here in SoCal, the forests are tinderboxes just waiting for some ignition, so in dry season (most of the year) open fires are often not allowed even in camp and picnic grounds.  By the way, as an aside, by comparison, In Colorado you were encouraged to collect and use any dead wood to help reduce the fire danger.  But here, they require you to leave it all as “natural.”  It hasn’t worked out all that well for them, or for poor people whose homes are close to the forests, but the fire goddess, Madam Pele, has simply loved all the dead stuff lying around and the fires here are consequently infamous for their ferocity and speed of travel.

So before we venture out and have to do this for real, lets examine how a city dweller, or an apartment/condo dweller, or even a picnicker or camper here where open fires are not allowed, might practice starting a fire for emergency overnight ordeals out in the bush?   And if THEY can do it in town, anyone with greater access to locations where making a fire is allowed, has zero excuse for failing to practice what could easily turn into a life-saving skill.

So to practice in an urban setting, there are two things to remember.  The first stems from the martial arts dictum we mentioned up front, i.e. the best way to deal with an incoming punch is not to be there when it arrives.  If – IF – you have properly prepared for your photo trek, including letting people know your itinerary, carried with you the means to navigate in and out of your desired shoot location, have the tools you may need, been careful along the way and not overextended your hiking, climbing, endurance, skill levels, then the odds are very high you will not ever need to use the remainder of  those skills except to show off at the next camping trip.  The very act of properly preparing tends to make you think of the things you need to do in advance and to carry with you.  Survival is as much a mindset as it is a skill set.

However, in terms of fire-making skills specifically, the second thing to remember is that the beginnings of a fire – any fire — are quite small.  Even if you were intent on making a huge council fire (and why you would do that eludes me), you would still start with a small tinder bundle and small pile of kindling, no matter how much fuel you might pile on later.  Getting that small flame started can be practiced safely at your backyard/patio grill or, failing that, a large, heavy-duty roasting pan filled with sand or dirt as your substitute for the ground.  Learning to find and identify good wood sources can be done without actually gathering any of it if you are in an area that prohibits it.

Learning to further split down chunks of wood can be done with a firewood bundle from the grocery store.  And with that, you can learn to make tinder and kindling as well as you can using real found and gathered wood in the forest.  Knowing you have with you the proper ignition kit and how to use it to start a fire, even if you learned to do it in your back yard or on your patio, is as helpful as learning it over a campfire.  And trust me on this, you do want to learn it before you have to do it under emergency/survival conditions for real with your life, and maybe others, depending on your success.

(As an aside, we’ll be demonstrating a lot of this in the Landscape Class at City College this coming Spring Semester)

As photographers, especially if you are also professional portrait or product shooters, you probably already have the gear to even practice shelter making.  For example, light stands, properly staked or weighted can be substitute “trees”  or poles to help you learn to rig a lean-to shelter with your tarp and other gear I’ve recommended.   Indeed, if you are a seasoned location shooter for stills or video, your location kits and grip kits with stands, boom arms, clamps of every description, reflectors, flags, cordage, etc.   would place you well ahead of the game and all you would need to learn and practice is re-purposing some of that to rig a temporary shelter instead of location lights, light modifiers, etc., for which they are designed.  And once you understand how to do it with your photo gear, it will allow you to understand what to look for in nature to substitute for it with natural materials when necessary.

So for this segment, let’s return to the issue of starting a fire, but this time we’ll talk about doing it in the back yard so you can learn how to do that with minimal effort and almost no travel.  Just remember, except for location, it is exactly the same process out in the woods. You still need (1) a properly prepared place,  (2) a source of ignition,  (3) then something REALLY easy to ignite as your tinder.  Then you need (4) to have ready an intermediate material that the tinder can light (the kindling) and which, in turn, will burn long enough to light the (5) actual fuel.  Let’s examine each of these elements.

However, also pay close attention to what you will need to do and especially what tools you will need to accomplish these tasks.  If you do not have these tools or supplies with you, then you are going to be in deep trouble or at least be facing a truly miserable night.

First, before you start to construct and ignite your fire, take the time to prepare a place for it.  One of the huge fires this past decade in the San Diego area was started by an idiot pretend hunter who decided to make huge “signal fires” without proper preparation and it quickly spread and got out of hand.  Several people died and countless homes were destroyed by his ignorance.  Karma was asleep for that one and he got away safely.  The critical lesson is to make sure people know where to come look for you and then, if you must make a fire, make it for warmth and first, properly prepare the area.  If you are next to a stuck or disabled vehicle, use the roadbed itself instead of wandering away from your best shelter and starting a fire where you might bring down the whole forest.

But if you must survive away from the vehicle and in the forest, and you need a warming fire, then first prepare the ground for it.  Scrape the area free of debris and all loose flammable material.  The bigger this area the better to avoid sparks from launching out into the forest, but at least clear an area about 5 feet in diameter.  The drier the fuel the less it will spark.  Those cracks and flying sparks are moisture trapped in pockets in the wood, boiling and exploding while blowing out small pieces of burning wood.  Many outdoors experts recommend also digging down a little, perhaps six inches, to make sure there are no roots or covered materials that can catch fire and actually burn underground until finding a way to erupt into surface flames and then into a real wildfire.

Do NOT use your knife to dig this fire pit. (You DO have a real knife with you, don’t you???)  Its blade and sharp edge is too valuable to risk damaging it on hidden rocks.  Your knife should be seen as a toolmaking implement and not the final tool itself.  Find a stout branch, whittle a small flat spade-like end with it and use THAT to dig and scrape around on the ground, reforming it as it wears down.  If you have a folding (or real) shovel in your kit, then great, by all means use it.  The axe/shovel/pick tool I showed in a previous post is perfect for this but I normally do not lug it with me when away from the car.  So if I am forced to do this without the car right there, and I’ve not taken one of my survival backpacks which usually have a folding/entrenching shovel in them, then all I may have is my knife.   So, again, use your knife to make a digging tool, not AS the digging tool itself.

If you are able to create a depression for the fire, make some trenches to bring air into the center.  And if you can find them laying about, ring the pit with stones.  These will also provide some additional height to a barrier to sparks being ejected from the fire into the surrounding areas.  IF you were near a source of them, you could also line the fire pit with small stones according to some manuals.  But here is an issue.  If the stones were in the water, for example at a stream bed, even a dried one, they might contain pockets of water inside.  When those heat up and start to boil, they can make the stones explode in a shower of rocky shrapnel.  Unless you are absolutely certain about the stones being bone dry or gathered well away from water, just use ones found on the land for a ring and make sure the ground under the fire is free from anything that might ignite or smolder from the heat of the coals.

Of course, in town you need not worry about that, use the barbeque grill with some aluminum foil as the ground or if you do not have a grill, use the large roasting pan mentioned above with an inch or so of sand or dirt in it.  Now, lets get this thing going.

IGNITION:  Ignition is created by either a small flame itself (like with a match or lighter), or a source of sufficient heat to ignite flammable materials such as a hot spark (flint and steel or ferrocerium rod) or a hot beam such as from a lens element.

Depending on the ignition and  tinder to be used, the initial heat source itself might be all that is needed, or, it might require a secondary part such as the “char cloth” traditionally used with flint and steel, or some form of “fire-starter” material.  In that case, a “tinder bundle” is used to transfer the fledgling flame to the proper tinder itself if the ignition source itself does not itself include a flame.

If you were a tribal member away from civilization this would be something you did every day and so was easy for you.  But, let’s get real here: you are not; and for you it will not be easy, especially the first time. That is why now, in the 21st century, it is so much easier to simply have a match or lighter handy, perhaps even a candle, stored away in your vehicle.  When you are cold, a little unnerved by what is happening, and perhaps have some very anxious folks gathered around looking to you to help them make it through this ordeal, anything that will make it easier is worth its weight in gold.  And don’t fall for the myth that aboriginal people or pathfinders like mountain men, made their fires with only stuff found at the site.  Mountain men and explorers of the 1800s carried flint and steel and charcloth; many aboriginal people gather good fire drill spindles when they can and then carry them with them on treks.  It is not a failure of your Daniel Boone merit badge to do as they did, but with modern supplies such as matches or a lighter.  After all flint and steel was “modern” to Jim Bridger and the mountain men and the natives quickly adopted them when they could.

I believe in redundancy based on the old survival adage when referring to equipment and supplies: “one is none and two is one.”  If you only have one source of ignition and it fails or is lost, then you are now in deep trouble.  Always – ALWAYS – have at least one backup available, just in case.  I pre-make small fire starter bundles from dryer lint or cotton balls removed from pill containers.  For mine,  I also coat them in candle wax and pack them into cut-down cardboard tubes from paper towels or toilet tissue.  For mine I  include some magnesium shavings so that when ignited simply with a match or even a hot spark, they will burn very hot and catch most kindling on fire quickly and easily. They will burn for 10-15 minutes which is long enough to even dry and light some damp tinder.  REI and other camping supply houses have commercial fire starter available and it works fine.

By the way, should you make something like this, remember to NOT hold in in your bare hands to light it.  The magnesium burns at several thousand degrees.  Use some sticks like chop sticks if you don’t have pliers or something in your car.  My uncle used to make such fire starters from wax-impregnated cotton balls and a home-brew version of a sort of thermite.  It certainly worked but it was a little harder to ignite requiring a very hot spark, and, to me, it was a bit dangerous.  Thermite-type compounds are easily made but once ignited, burns at around 4,000 degrees.  It will then ignite darn near anything that burns, but it will also burn right through darn near anything — including steel – and are extremely difficult to extinguish until the material is all consumed.  As an example, thermite cannisters are used by the military to burn through tank armor. To be honest, it always scared me a little, so I tended to stick to traditional tinder.  However, my first job out of high school was as an engraver with Hallmark Cards in Kansas City.  Most of the embossing was done on magnesium plates, so I would collect the shavings and use them instead.  They were much easier to ignite and burned at about 2,000 degrees, which is still hot enough to catch even damp wood on fire.  It worked so well I still use it.

TINDER: Tinder is composed of flammable material that is so easy to ignite, that a small flame from either a lighter or match or from a fire starter such as a tinder bundle or even a small candle, can be successful.  The process is to start with easily ignitable material and add increasingly large pieces until a sustainable flame can be created.  To this end, such material as very small twigs, purpose made wood chips, saw dust, so called “feather” of “fuzz” sticks created on the spot, are used to create this “pre-fire” fire.  Often it was traditionally composed of dry grasses, tiny twigs, forest floor litter so long as it is dry.  However, one of my home-made fire starters will suffice to ignite the kindling directly and I don’t have to go on a quest for truly dry material for a traditional tinder bundle.

KINDLING: Kindling, the next step, is some relatively easy to ignite material that the small, tentative flame from the tinder can set it  ablaze, and which will, in turn, produce a flame of enough intensity and duration to ignite the lager fuel pieces. Kindling is usually finger-sized small, dry branches or pieces of a fuel log that were split down to finger size.  A hatchet or carefully employed axe can make easy work of splitting larger chunks of wood into smaller ones for kindling.  Note: do not – repeat, DO NOT — try to hold a piece upright with your hand and then swing a hatchet or axe down on the end to split it unless you are really tired of the hand you are using to hold the piece.  The injury you can inflict on yourself doing this will be astonishingly painful and because of the speed of infection out in nature, can bring your survival attempts to a swift and painful, if premature, end.  Besides, hitting yourself in the hand with the working edge of a sharp axe will pretty much destroy any plans you may have had about continuing your fire or shelter making project.

If you have a strong enough knife you can also use a technique called “Batoning” with it to split the wood down into useable kindling.  But unless you are working with very soft wood, if you try this with a thin blade or a folding knife, you will likely just break it and then have a small broken blade fragment that is not good for anything other than cutting yourself.  Making some “feather” or “fuzz” sticks mentioned above from a few pieces will make it easier to catch the kindling on fire. The small thin edges of the “feathers” will catch pretty easily and, in turn, ignite the main piece.  But this too is far easier with a really sharp knife not damaged by trying to dig with it.

Once the kindling starts to burn, additional pieces of kindling are added until a flame is well established, a bed of coals is started, and larger pieces can be added and will burn without crushing the starting pile.

Some campers and survivalists buy sticks of “fat wood” (readily available on eBay) to include in their survival kits especially when carried in a vehicle.  Fat wood is usually some type of pine, spruce, cedar, fir, etc. that has lots of resin and pitch in it.  It lights easily and burns very hot.  Lots of people buy bundles of it online to use with their fireplaces.  Good fat wood can even be lit with sparks from a ferrocerium rod directly without needing tinder.

FUEL: Fuel “logs” for a small survival or camp fire are typically wrist or arm-sized chunks of wood.  Wood of larger diameter can be used once the bed of coals and fire is well established.  But gathering such larger pieces requires some equipment (axe or saw) while the smaller parts can be often gathered by using leverage to break longer dry branches or standing dead saplings between trees, hitting them over rocks, other logs, or across trees.  You can pre-notch the longer branches or saplings so they will break where you want them to.  If the wood is truly dried out then you can often create fire sized pieces faster this way than trying to chop them to length with an axe. But do go back and look at the contents of my emergency backpack where you will see a folding saw…

FIRE LAY:  The “Fire Lay” describes how the components of the fire are to be arranged and structured.  Since we are into safety and wanting to make sure your survival fire does not get out of control and start a wildfire that consumes the forest and you along with it, the issue of the “Fire Lay” will also include preparing the ground upon which the fire will be constructed as we noted above.

So, with the ground prepared, it is time to start the fire making process.  Here, it is easy to get off into the weeds, so to speak.  “Experts” (and the quotation marks are on purpose here) declare there is only one proper way to lay a fire.  Unfortunately, they disagree as to what that is… and there are several traditional options and an almost unlimited number of ad hoc variations and hybrid combinations of approach.    Here is the real secret:  they all work.  So why the debates?

Well, given the size and dryness of the wood involved, some will work a little better in some conditions.  Traditional types are (1) the “teepee” lay, (2) the “log cabin” lay, and the “lean-to” lay.  Sometimes a combination is used, for example, kindling is structured as a teepee lay to give more surface area to the flame which burn upwards easier then downward, then fuel might be added in more of a log cabin lay.  If you are rebuilding a fire and part of a fuel log remains, or if you are starting a fire with minimal kindling then a lean-to approach can work to more quickly start igniting the larger pieces of wood.  This is used a lot in fireplaces and stoves where the fire was allowed to go out before all the pieces were completely burned to ash.

But, again, THEY ALL WORK.  The secret is that there is no secret.  Until you are experienced enough to know when one approach gives you a slight edge over another, the key for all of them is that the infant fire needs plenty of oxygen, especially at its early stages before it has gotten hot enough to set up its own draft.  The trick is to have the early tinder and kindling pieces close enough together to ignite each other but separated enough to allow a good flow of oxygen in and around them.

Blowing on the embers or using a bellows in a fireplace works because it increases the oxygen supply to the infant flame.  Some survivalists and outdoors experts use a bit of tubing or even straws to direct the flow of air to the critical spot rather than simply blowing that wastes a lot of your breath on non-burning areas.  When all else fails, use your hat to fan the starting flames into a real fire. Just down blow or fan embers into the surrounding areas to start a wild fire.  Those embers are capable of starting a fire in dry grass for several minutes until they completely burn out.

Just remember if you are doing this practice in a roasting pan or on a grill, all you really need is to get a small handful of kindling going.  If the kindling is lit then the added  dry fuel will catch easily.  Your task is to learn to get the fire going to the kindling stage, the rest is the easy part.

OK, so you have your fire going, now you can not only help warm yourself and your area, you can calm the nerves of any companions worried about the critters around (whether or not there actually are any to worry about), and you can help purify water or prepare some warm food or beverages If you thought to bring some.

But your upcoming night will be made far less miserable if you also have a good shelter.  So that will be our next segment.  We’ll then talk about dealing with injuries and then later we’ll wrap this series up with a final segment on getting yourself found as quickly as possible.

Stay tuned.  If this has been of interest or helpful to you, let me know or “like” the post.

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Quick Aside for Fun

I’ve been working on the next segment of the “Dealing With Nature” series, but this week I actually got to go play a couple of times.  On Thursday I went to Balboa Park to help a friend learn to use a tilt/shift lens and to learn to make a multi-shot panorama.  I carried a camera around but didn’t have a chance to use it until late in the afternoon.  While setting up a pano I could not help but notice the incredible reflections in the pool in front of the botanical house.  And there, swimming in the midst of the astounding color was this lady Mallard so of course the title of the fun shot is “Lady of the Lake.”

LAdy of the Lake

I couldn’t help but wonder if the duck had any awareness of the color in which she was swimming.  This was taken with an old 135mm soft-focus lens designed primarily for portrait use.  The setting was to maximum but there was no time to re-calibrate it for the shot.

Then on Sunday, after breakfast, I almost always swing by the Ocean Beach Pier to see if there is anything interesting.  A major onshore wind has been whipping up some serious waves.  The pier was closed for safety.  I missed high tide but even here you can see the fury of the water and the height of the water.

OB pier 12-2019

Needless to say the surfers were staying out of the water.  Shooting the pier, never a good idea, would have been borderline suicidal…

Even if only for a couple of fun shots, it was nice to get out a little.  OK, back to the keyboard and series…

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Dealing with Nature –  Part 5:  But What if You Couldn’t Get Out?

I wondered if I would pique your interest with any of this.  Most photographers I have met here in SoCal give this almost no thought.  To the contrary, those I knew back in the Rockies thought about it all the time and were generally prepared mentally and equipmentally to deal with almost anything.  Perhaps that is because in that country, from Montana down to New Mexico, there exist far more places where the hope of rescue is slim if no one knows to come looking, and the places where adventures can be seriously life-threatening are far more common.

But that does not mean that such dangers do not exist here as well; they are just more isolated.  The serious landscape photographers, in search of new and exciting images, are precisely the ones to often find themselves in such places, and, unfortunately, in such trouble because they had no expectation of it beyond a pleasant hike in the beautiful country and the acquisition of some stunning images.

Here, too many weekend pathfinders think of the mountains and deserts as if they were just on a Disneyland adventure ride where it is exciting and thrilling in a vicarious sort of way, but where the apparent dangers are not real.  Yet, just this past week on the news, was a couple who were rescued barely in time (and by blind luck) and another instance involving a lone hiker who whose body was found too late.  Not one of them thought it would ever happen to them.  But it did.  Let me assure you, the dangers can be real even here in la-la land.

Big Pine Creek for blog

Taken along Big Pine Creek on the trail back to the site of the Palisades Glacier.  It was on the road to this trail my student below got stuck.  Further down this trail is a gorgeous glacial cirque but where the footing can be treacherous and requires constant attention.  On one workshop a student looking for a shot stepped off the trail and slipped down toward the creek, fortunately with only cuts and scrapes.  But it could have been far worse; had he made it all the way to the Glacier and THEN had he had a broken bone or seriously twisted ankle, and had he not had the help of other students to get out, the situation could have turned dire pretty quickly.  Even sending a person out for help would mean likely at least spending a night.

On a workshop into the eastern Sierras I had a participant with a flashy new 4WD leave the group on his own, with one other person, to go try out some of the roads into the mountains where he promptly discovered, to his surprise and in contradiction to the salesman’s assurances, that his spiffy 4-wheeler was not a tank.  Fortunately, they were not a long walk from the main road so help was relatively close and it was still early in the day.  But the road they were on could have taken them far into the backcountry where getting stuck could have turned very, very serious.  They had not bothered to tell anyone else what they intended or where they were headed or when they expected to be back.  Trust me, the next day we had a true “come to Jesus” meeting where the rules I thought I had spelled out earlier, were reinforced a bit more clearly and graphically.

Never forget this: when your vehicle will take you further into the wilds than you can walk out in a day (assuming you know where to go) you have just put yourself and any companions in potential trouble.  If it goes bad, it is on you.

So, after reading the little adventure of the previous post, some readers asked me what I would have done if Nikko and I had not been able to extricate the vehicle, or if the incoming storm arrived early or the vehicle was damaged and, for whatever reasons, the result was that we were really stuck there?  So let’s think about that.

Once it was obvious that we were not going to move the vehicle by ourselves, then the situation changes abruptly.  The next steps depend on the answer to the question as to whether we can expect anyone to come looking for us (or stumble upon us) in the relatively near future.  When you are off truly exploring new (to you) roads or trails, it is unlikely you would have left precise itinerary since you are making this up as you go along.  When truly exploring to areas, my Rocky Mountain photo friends are always prepared to have to bivouac in place.  Are you?

Nevertheless, a general idea of your working area and a time of expected return along with a description of the vehicle would be enough to get a rescue mounted the next day.  If that were the case, then we could reasonably expect rescue within a couple of days, especially, if we helped the rescuers to find us.   However, if that rescue effort is at least a day away,  don’t waste time or energy right now with trying to signal anyone.  You’ll need every scarp of energy you have to make it through this first night.

If no one knew where we were going or when we expected to return, then we might not be missed until it was too late for us and exposure or dehydration killed us.  It might be weeks before anyone else tried that road and if the weather turned bad, our survival would be in serious question if we had no way to extend our survival or get to help.

For sake of this entry, let’s assume for now that you have all gotten the message about leaving word of your plans and then sticking to them, and rescue can be expected in 2-3 days.  I have noted before and it is worth repeating, your car will be much easier to spot than you will, so staying with the car is almost always the best thing to do.  It provides a waterproof shelter and windbreak.  And if your engine still runs, it can, with proper rationing, provide enough heat to keep you from freezing (assuming you have proper clothing or blankets) for several days.  Unless you are intimately familiar with the local terrain and environment, trying to strike out across country can be suicidal.

California mountains near big bear for blog

Taken in the Big Bear area with a 500mm lens.  In the center distance is a ledge road winding into the mountains.  If a vehicle broke down there, the inhabitants would have to hike from there to the main road where this shot is from (a lot closer than where the ledge road forked off from its primary forest service road.  That would likely take more than a day and anyone doing that would have to be prepared for it. 

In our case we were on a road that branched from another road that led to a town.  If we absolutely had to leave the car, the trail would have been easy to follow though it would have probably taken a couple of days if the snow was getting deeper.  But trekking through the snow at night is less than brilliant, so we’d have needed to at least spend that first night at the car.  The first thing is to lay out and take stock of your resources; i.e. what do you have available from your survival/emergency gear, recovery gear, and even your photo gear, that you can bring into play to serve your survival needs?

Remember the triage of needs:  (1) maintaining body temp, (2) staying hydrated, (3) if you expect the arduous hike out such as what would be necessitated by the terrain in the above shot, then maintaining your energy reserves becomes important, and (4) making yourselves easy to find for any rescuers if you expect them to be looking.

As an aside, although I said where we were there was no cell phone coverage, it might have been worth the effort to hike to some higher ground and see if you could at least get a text message out since you need far less signal strength for a text than for a voice transmission.  If that worked, then after getting word out and an acknowledgement of your message, you’d be better backtracking to the car and wait for help. The better you were able to pinpoint your location in the message, or at the site of your shelter, the sooner that help will arrive.  Now you only need to stay alive and help them find you.

OK, back to the situation at hand.  Assuming your vehicle is not totaled, burned up, or at the bottom of a steep cliff, it will be the best spot for at least this first night.  So to get you through the night, miserable but alive, you will need to maintain core body temperature and stay hydrated.  Question 1: will the car start even if it cannot be moved?  If so, and if you have plenty of gas, you can ration that fuel with short, 10 minute periods of running the heater in the car.  Make sure the exhaust pipe is clear so that CO (Carbon Monoxide) does not enter or build up in the cab, which could be fatal for you.

Do you have plenty of water on board?  If so then you are all set to spend a very uncomfortable — but very survivable — first night.   But if any of those conditions (a car you can shelter in, enough fuel for running the heater, and several days of water) is not true, then you will need to take some affirmative action to solve it.  So question # 2 is, what time is it, or, more importantly, how long will it be until sundown, which will tell you how long you have to prepare for the night.  If the sun is still high you have plenty of time, but if it is low in the sky time is limited so it is more serious.  Stumbling around in the dark when you are already upset by the situation, is dangerous.  So how much time do you have?  Your hand can tell you.

Hold your hand at arms length away from you toward the sun, turn your palm inward, fingers together, and note how many finger-widths the sun is from the point where it will fall behind the terrain or trees.  Each finger width will give you approximately 15 minutes of sunlight to use. Put on a good hat or cap and gloves since you lose a huge proportion of body heat out through your head and exposed extremities.  As the sun goes down conserving body heat (and replacing it) becomes a life and death issue.

If the car cannot help provide warmth then you will need to start a fire.  That fire will also help if you need water for hydration but we’ll get to that in a moment.  Remember for a fire you will need tinder (the fine easy to start material that will then ignite…) some kindling (small finger sized DRY twigs or other flammables) which will then ignite the real fuel (arm thickness dry wood.)  Remember a few paragraphs above I asked what time it was, well that is now critical because you will need to gather the materials for your fire while you can still clearly see.  It is easier to STAY warm than to let yourself get chilled and try to re-warm your body, so time is now an important element in your actions.

So while there is still enough light for you to see, gather enough DRY material to get the fire going and to last through the night, roughly a pile of fuel logs about three feet wide by three feet tall and kindling equal to a couple of the logs.  Now, does your kit contain fire starting tinder material?  If not, you will need to create a tinder bundle from dry grasses, leaves, fine wood shavings, and resin filled “fat wood” you can find, or any paper you may have in the vehicle.  Are you beginning to see that movies and TV may have lied to you about how easy it is to do this unless you are well equipped and well-practiced at it?

But there is more to consider.  Do you have an ignition source to start the tinder going?  A match or lighter?  Even the cigarette lighter can work.  Sparks from your battery can do the job.  Or, if you have it, a ferrocerium rod and anything with a good sharp edge such as your knife or even broken glass or screwdriver blade it will make the process easier — not as good as a lighter or match but still fairly easy..  Let’s dispel another myth right now.  Unless you have a propane torch handy, starting a fire requires some tools and materials.  Even primitive tribes carried with them – and often held sacred – the materials to start a fire.  Perfect sticks for the “spindle” part of a bow or hand drill were prized and when found, gathered and kept safe.  Mountain men carried their flint and steel and char cloth with them.  NONE of them simply sat down to a pile of wood and magically started a fire with nothing to ignite it that was most likely not brought with them.  Just remember, none of those implements were designed to set a log on fire; they were designed only to set the tinder or tinder-bundle on fire.

While we’re in the myth-busting mode, let’s deal with a myth for photographers having to do with igniting a fire with a magnifying glass made from a photographic lens.  First of all, to use a magnifying glass of any type to ignite a fire needs good strong clear-sky sunlight, the higher in the sky the better.  Does it work?  You bet, and it is quite fast if you have good sun and good combustible material and all the variables are in your favor.  Once the sun starts to drop in the sky, however, it becomes much harder.  By the time the sun is near the horizon, using the lens from a planetary telescope will not get your fire going.  And, while we’re at it, tiny lenses like the one on a Swiss Army Knife, are not going to do it either. That little lens is great for finding that irritating splinter, but not so great as a reliable fire starter.  You will need a lens at least 2” to 3” in diameter to do this easily and even then, it’s easier during mid-day.  (BTW, a large (8×10) Fresnel lens will do it too.) But… when it is overcast or dark, you better have a plan B ready to go.

Now, as to the trope of using a photo lens or lens element:  it’s true that the front objective of a photo lens (The front-most lens element in the lens body) is normally a simplex or duplex lens that could be used.  But… it must be removed from the lens body.  Can you do that and without damaging the lens beyond repair?  Take a good look at the screws holding it together… your automotive or construction screw drivers are not going to work.  Counting on just grabbing your camera lens, with its complex arrangements of elements and groups, and focusing a hot spot to start something on fire, is almost certainly going to leave you with the prospect of a very cold night.

Don’t fight it. Don’t ruin a good lens.  Just toss a good lighter in your kit and be done with it.  As we said before, this is an emergency.  It is not a test of your 1840s-vintage mountain man skills, it is the 21st century, so take advantage of that chronology with your emergency/survival prep.  It is not what the preppers call a SHTF (fecal matter impacting the rotary air moving device) situation where you are on your own for months or even forever.  It is, instead, a relatively short term scenario, so your list of supplies and equipment is not extensive.  But this is not the time for cheap tools and equipment that may break the first time it is under stress. You are going to have enough to deal with without adding the frustration of failure after failure to get a fire going.  Since, even if it was the 1840s, you would have brought fire making supplies in your “possibles” bag, welcome yourself to modern times and carry a lighter or some “strike anywhere” matches along with the kindling and fuel gathering gear.

(If you’d like a little tutorial on how to do that, let me know.)

Once you have an ember glowing and smoking, gently envelope it in the tinder being careful not to smother it, blow softly on it until you get a flame, then place it under the first layer of kindling and then add kindling as needed to get a sustainable flame then add fuel, being careful to allow a flow of oxygen and not to allow the kindling or fuel logs to collapse and crush the beginning fire.

Once the fire is started and burning on its own, you can rig a space/emergency blanket from your survival/emergency kit to help reflect heat into the car like an oven. And now it is time to think about hydration.  And let’s dispel another myth right now.  Do not think that eating snow is the obvious and simple solution.  In fact, eating snow can speed up your demise.  Here’s why.  First, typical snow is about 10% water and 90% air.  That means you would have to eat a lot of snow to properly hydrate yourself even if you are not burning energy with other activities.

But it gets worse; eating snow is also an energy loser.  Your body has to burn energy in order to warm itself after the injection of cold snow.  It may already be struggling with the temperature issue and putting cold stuff inside will accelerate your energy drain.  Plus, it will accelerate your mental and motor functions losses as your body takes the warming blood from all extremities – including your brain – to keep the heart and lungs functioning.

Snow can be a source of water, even if an inefficient one, but you need to melt it first and drink it already warmed if possible and, better yet, with some bouillon cubes for at least a little protein.  That is why my pack (shown in part 4) contained the steel canteen cup, and why making a fire is essential even for hydration when snow is readily available, as counter intuitive as that may be.  And be further warned, old snow will be filled with debris and pathogens as harmful to you as drinking from a contaminated stream. Of course, if it is summer, you don’t even have that option available.  So, again, don’t fight it or try to be a hero, bring water with you.

When the short term survival issues (core body temperature and hydration) are dealt with, now you could think about food; not because you are likely to starve but because food is a major morale booster.  Being hungry is not pleasant under the best of situations; in an emergency if it chips away at your morale and dedication to survival, it can indirectly be deadly.  Protein for energy, carbs to help keep you warm, all contribute to getting you through this.  Forget hunting and trapping and fishing for a one or two day situation and just put protein or granola bars in your car sufficient for 2-3 days (6-9 bars per person) and if you have a way to heat water, some bouillon cubes..

So you made it through the night, certainly miserable, a little cold to be sure, but you woke up and discovered somewhat surprisingly, that you were alive and had made it.  Now with a whole day, there are some critical decisions to make.  So we’ll tackle those in the next post.


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This and that… Upcoming stuff and Announcements

The classes are posted at San Diego City College for Spring 2020 semester and it does look like the Landscape class will run – if – if enough people sign up for it.  This will be one of the most extensive classes on the genre to be found anywhere.  Two instructors cover everything from the traditional foundations of the genre to the modern techniques and equipment; from the business angle of it to even the issue of surviving emergencies out in the field – this class will have it all.

For details click on the link in the banner above and sign up as soon as possible.

And for another not-so-subtle note from the shameless commercialization department… Steve Burns and I are putting together a workshop for Spring to be held in Santa Cruz dealing with using the Zone System concepts to take complete control of your digital shooting.  It will combine lecture and hands-on field work and in-lab editing instruction – a little of everything.  As soon as details are available, I’ll let you know.

And, one last announcement but one important to me on a personal basis.  I’ve just finished a book that made its way to my “bucket list”  for the last year or so but I never seemed to have time to start.  I’ve never considered myself a writer, but I did the “Future of Photography” book in 2017, the book on School Shooters in 2018, and now while it is still barely 2019, have done another one.  Go figure… But this one is not about photography or anything related to it.

Those first two books did not start out to be books at all.  The first was conceived as a treatise required for a sabbatical leave, and the second started as a blog entry based on some questions from students.  Both somehow got way out of control (imagine that) and ended up as book-length works.  I never saw them as commercial in nature but, with no discernible pattern, sales have been OK.  I’m not likely to retire to some exotic spot on them but they’ve at least more than paid for the efforts.  And hopefully the one on school shooters has had an impact on thinking about the subject and how to try to minimize or stop it.

But this latest piece was seen as a book from the first, and a very personal one at that.  Those readers that actually know me and have spent any time with me have probably been subjected to stories of the uncle that raised me and anecdotes from the time I spent on his farm and his attempts to teach me what he saw as the important old ways of his people (he was half Cherokee) and the values he felt were important.  A year ago, on a lark, I tried to look up his grave site (which I have actually been to) and found the cemetery has no record of it.  A look at Google Earth revealed that the area of the farm and the great woods that surrounded it are now housing tracts and part of greater Kansas City, a place that used to be “the big city” we would occasionally venture into.

That was so disorienting to me, it was like thinking all those memories were something out of the Matrix-like concept of imposed hallucination, so I even contacted old friends from back then to verify it had really happened. I was relieved to learn I had not completely fantasized a large portion of my life, but now was really distressed to learn that most of the signs of that life and those people were simply erased.  It was a very strange feeling.

But that exercise spurred me to want to finally write down at least enough to leave somewhere, even if only in a book nobody ever read, a memorial and tribute to the person I believe was the best man I ever knew; a man whose guidance changed my path from one of likely self destruction, to one following, with some success, my art and photography.  I think there are lessons in it for a lot of us.  If I had kids of my own it is the teaching I received from him and his modelling as a good man that I would want to pass on.  The book’s title is simply “Unk” which is what I called him.  Maybe I can do some of that teaching through this little homage to him.

The writing took me in some directions I had not planned, but in the end,  I think and hope it allows people to know something about the only real father figure I had, and maybe, in the process, reveal something about me.  Anyway, I just finished it and it is now available to order directly from Lulu Press.

I’d be honored to introduce him to you.  Here is the URL to my spotlight page where all of this recent series of books is listed:  Given a few days to process, it will be available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble but it will still likely be a little cheaper direct from the printer/publisher.

OK, that concludes the market section for this post so I’ll get back to things photographic with the next post as soon as I can.

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Dealing With Nature – Part 3: Getting Equipped for an Adventure

OK, so far in this series we’ve talked about the allure of landscape photography and how mastery of it can inform virtually every other genre you might work in; but there are issues and dangers you need to consider before you just start out for the tall and the uncut (part 1).  And we’ve talked about getting prepared for a landscape trek both for yourself and your vehicle (we did NOT talk about photo prep in this series, that’s for elsewhere) in order to try to avoid emergency or even survival situations (part 2).

But now its time to talk about those times when even the best preparation has failed and you’ve been blindsided by a natural or man-created event and find yourself in the middle of a major emergency where you are not close to civilization and cannot extricate yourself and must spend at least a night in the middle of nowhere.  What are the tools and skills needed to survive such situations?  If you are interested we can add another segment or two on how to use those tools in an emergency situation.

But first, a (hopefully) calming introduction.  Remember, and this is important, we are NOT addressing skills needed to live off grid in a post apocalyptic world where the veneer of civilization itself has been pealed away with no grid remaining to even worry about for the rest of your life… or at least a very long time.  Barring that sort of nightmare scenario or prolonged natural catastrophe, most emergencies for nature photographers happen within a day’s hike to a road or other easy means of exit or help, and in the vast number of cases, happen when the photographer simply intended to hike out a few hundred yard or less and then things went seriously south in an instant.  For the most part, if – IF – you followed my instructions for leaving a plan with someone not going, and then sticking to it, rescue happens  in an average of three days (and usually less) and only rarely does the emergency actually last a full week.

It’s true that hyperbolic stories now and then hit the press about people surviving for weeks or months and those gather lots of coverage on all media fronts.  But those are extremely rare and usually are prolonged due primarily to human error or negligence, not the nature of the emergency itself.  For the typical nature photographer off on a typical photo trek, and other than a true survival hike or week long but planned-out journey, usually following established trails where you are carrying everything needed for that planned outing, your serious planning needs only to consider having an accident or losing your way and having to survive up to three days.  That is a VERY different issue than what to do in case of a civilization collapse or, something really likely like, oh, say, a zombie apocalypse.

If you recall the chart on what kills people at what rate, the things you will need to be concerned about for a 2-4 day sojourn are primarily maintaining core body temp and then water… in that order.

No, I didn’t forget about food.  For one thing you are not likely to starve to death in three days or even a week.  Oh, make no mistake, you’ll be REALLY uncomfortable and very hungry, but your survival will be dependent on other things than food.  And that means having to hunt or trap or fish for sustenance will not be a requirement.  And that is a good thing that already gives you a leg up.

Most survival kits contain fishing line and hooks but, movies and TV shows aside, throwing a line with a hook attached into the water, except perhaps during a salmon run, is likely to leave you frustrated, and worse, frustrated and REALLY hungry thinking about the fish you failed to catch.  Building a fish trap (assuming there was a good place for one) or hunting for small game is equally likely to fail and trapping is much harder than it is made to look in those great demos by some heir apparent to Davy Crockett.  And if you succeed in getting a fish or squirrel or rabbit, do you know how to clean it and prepare it for eating?  Can you recognize the signs of diseases on the meat of game, especially in rabbits so you would know what NOT to eat?  My advice is to bring plenty of energy bars and forget hunting or fishing for food.

While it is possible to live for a few days without water if you expend ZERO energy, in reality after a few hours, only 6-10 hours of any effort, you will start to dehydrate and feel the effects in an increasing failure to function properly. Dying from dehydration is really ugly.  I always have extra water in the vehicle and also have a water filter in the emergency kit.  But because here in southern California, and especially in the desert areas, water can be hard to find, the safest, easiest thing to do is simply carry extra with you and when you take off away from the vehicle, have a canteen with you.

To maintain body temp, which is the thing that will kill you the fastest, you will need some form of shelter from either the brutal rays of the sun or from cold and wetness.  If you are near your car and it is not wrecked or otherwise dangerous to be in or around, then it is the best existing shelter you can have because it is also far more easily spotted from the air by rescue personnel unless you’ve driven it off into heavy bush or into a deep lake or river.  If your car is simply stuck or stranded, stay with it.  If you have brought the suggested supplies (and you can carry enough in your car to several people for several days) you are ahead of the game and your main worry will be terminal boredom waiting for help.

But if your vehicle is not available, your primary needs for a 3-5 day stay, in terms of real survival, and assuming no medical emergencies mandating rescue or movement, will still be primarily shelter and maintaining body temperature. (We’ll talk about medical emergencies needing extraction later…) You face an immediate decision that is critical, i.e. Should you stay where you are or should you try to find your way out?

Many of us (mostly men I’m embarrassed to admit) assume we have some built in GPS system that will allow us to intuit our way across terra icognito to safety.   Listen carefully… YOU DO NOT.  To navigate in an environment that is not intimately familiar to you, requires two pieces of hard data: (1) where are you more or less exactly, and (2) where, precisely,  is the target destination and safety?  Study after study has shown that NO ONE can walk in a straight line for very long.  So what? Well… consider this:

If you are a mile away from your destination and know what is the precise bearing to get there, an error in your travel of one minute of angle (a 60th of a degree), equal to only one inch off in 100 yards, will have you missing your target by about 175 yards, nearly two football fields.  Not a problem if you are heading for a town, but if you are trying to get to a known spring, or your vehicle, or a cache, or a camp, especially in dense woods, you will walk by it and never understand how close you were as you march on to your death.

If you are not a very experienced outdoors person, highly skilled in land navigation, AND know those two basic bits of data, AND have a compass or GPS, you are almost certainly better off to find a close clearing or meadow where you can make yourself very visible to rescue aircraft and patrols.

Does your pack contain any high visibility sheets you can stake out to make your position more visible?  If not, add it now.  Old timers talk of building signal fires and would tell you that three fires belching smoke, located in a row, is a universally recognized symbol of distress.  And that is true.  But…  With the increase in droughts and extremely dry conditions, building large signal fires creates a huge danger of starting a wildfire and leaving nothing but your charred remains for later searchers to find, not to mention incredible danger to anything in the area from an out of control wildfire that YOU started.  So don’t do it.  There are better ways to attract attention.  One of the most devastating wild fires in this area was started by a lost hunter.

Most packets of high-visibility sheets also contains diagrams of how to arrange them for signaling your situation.  A large “V” means to pick you up there.  A large “X” means a medical emergency.

If the rescuers see you individually from the air, then you only need to know 2-3 of the body/hand rescue signals.  Once you know you’ve been spotted and the aircraft is circling to watch you or hovering, if you need rescue and to be picked up hold both arms straight up and steady.  If you need medical help but the situation is not life threatening, hold both arms straight out from your body parallel to the ground.  If you have a life-threatening medical emergency, as the pilot watches, lay down on your back, fully prone on the ground with arms overhead.

There is a whole language of body and hand signals for more specific communications, but when you are stuck in place, unable to proceed and need rescue, those are the ones you will need.  A normal plane will rock its wings to indicate it has understood you before it goes for help.  A helicopter will search to see if there is a close place to land and if not will circle then go for help.  Take a deep breath, it is almost over.

If it is dark enough to where your flashlight can be seen – you do have a flashlight with you??? – then an SOS will get the attention of anyone who can see it.  Three short flashes, three longer flashes, and three more short flashes, is the international “SOS” or “MayDay” signal.  If the sun is out, a signal mirror can send the same message for miles and miles if you have line of sight to an aircraft or where there is some sign of human activity.  Even the light from a cell phone, especially the flashlight function, can also be seen for miles.  Even if you do not have any signal for a call or text, the flashlight function will work. If anyone sees it, even a commercial aircraft, they will call it in.

There is some controversy that an SOS is meant for dire, life threatening emergencies only; but my feeling is that if your life is on the line, I’d worry about explaining and apologizing later after help arrived and you are safe.  If the SOS signal is received, the receiver would normally respond with an “R” (short, long, short) set of flashes, or two quick “Rs” together indicating they received your message.  But while almost anyone will recognize the emergency signal, not all that many people know enough Morse code and radio protocol to return the “R” signal. If they signal ANYthing back, it means they got your message.   If received by an airplane there may be no way to let you know they got the message other than, in the day time, when they know you can see them, rocking their wings.

So, OK, you’ve found a place to stop and stay, and you know it probably won’t be until the next day that search efforts get underway after your backup at home alerts the cavalry you did not return as scheduled.  Now it is time to think seriously about the upcoming evening.  Of course, you checked the weather forecast ahead of the trek and know whether it will be mild or cold once the sun goes down and dressed accordingly.  If rain is forecast then some form of shelter will be called for.  And for many people, rain or not, a shelter just feels less open to the scary dark and the real or imagined creatures that live there. A tarp would be wonderful but lacking that (they are heavy) a lean-to or A-Frame with sides made from tightly shingled boughs, can shed all but the most severe rain storms.

While fire may or may not be really necessary for heat,  a small containable campfire can do wonders for your morale; so it will be well worth your while to learn how to build one in such a way as to eliminate the likelihood of it getting out of control and setting the forest, and maybe you, on fire.  And if you are leading a small group here, your ability to get a campfire going will be almost magical in its ability to instill calm and confidence in you and reduce panic that can get someone killed.

Many folks, especially men, I hate to admit once again, seem to feel that buried in male DNA is the code to fire starting.  We expect ourselves, and are often expected by others, to simply kneel down, rub a couple of sticks together and poof, a beautiful campfire, ready for weenies or marshmallows, springs into existence.  Alas, there is not a shred of truth in that.

Making fire is a skill that must be learned and, once learned, needs to be practiced in a stress-free environment, so that when the adrenaline is running like Niagara and fine motor skills just left for a better party, and you are frightened, cold, and frustrated at the hand you have just been dealt by nature or your own actions, you can still start one easily.  When you know how, have the tools, and have practiced it, it actually IS easy although somewhat tedious.  But when you don’t know how, or think watching a few YouTube videos are all that is needed, you are going to be in for an ego shattering, incredibly frustrating, and perhaps very chilly evening.

Fire requires several things.  It requires fuel that will burn with a plasma flame such as most wood, it requires oxygen, and it requires ignition from some source.  The fuel itself is broken into three parts.  Once it is going well, fuel logs are fine.  Those are the larger, thicker chunks of wood, about arm or wrist thickness, that one normally associates with a wood fire.  But wood of that size does not ignite easily unless your tool kit contains gas and a portable blow torch.  Those are not items one normally carries in their pockets or emergency kits.  Even a storm-proof match or butane lighter is not going to get a log burning for your fire.  Fortunately there are other ways.  Before the fuel wood can be ignited, you need to start smaller.  Those intermediate steps are first the “tinder” and then the  “kindling.”

Tinder is fine, easily ignitable material, often dry grasses, pine needles, shredded bark, or man-made tinder such as fire cord, or even dryer lint.  Those are easy to ignite with the normal things such as matches and lighters.  But they also ignite with the more old-time approaches such as flint and steel (or the modern counterpart, a ferrocerium rod), a good magnifying glass, or even, if you are very skilled at it, a bow drill.  I can show you how to use the old-time approaches; but c’mon, get real.  Most of you are not interested in learning that stuff and in an emergency where you completely are blindsided by the need to make fire, the good news is that you are not going to have to make fires long after modern igniters run out.  You’ve only got to make one or, at the most, 5-6 fires.  So make it easy on yourself.  Toss in couple books of matches or a couple of butane lighters and relax.  For short term emergencies, where you will have enough emotional distraction to last a lifetime, we can accept that this is the 21st century not the 18th or 19th century.  This is not a test of your long term survivor skills, it is a short term life or death issue but the operative term is “short term.”

That means all you have to do is be able to get the tinder and kindling ready and perhaps split down some of the larger fuel woods for your fire, then “lay” a fire that allows the smaller tinder to ignite kindling and then fuel wood.  I know, I’ve met some… there are woodsy elitist who would have you believe there is only one proper way to lay a fire – most common are the “teepee” and “log cabin” lays.  But in an emergency, the proper lay is one that works.  Again we can cover this in detail if you want.

Meantime, let’s start with tinder since that is where you’ll have to start with your fire.  And, once again, you can either return to the days of ol’ Dan’l Boone, learn bush lore and what kinds of trees produce “fat” wood (resin infused wood), and how to properly scrape up a pile of it, crush wild grasses and twigs, etc., make “feather sticks” and char cloth (all of which is fascinating and worthwhile knowledge for any photographer spending time in the bush), or…  in the short term, you can take advantage of our modern world.

It turns out that modern conveniences produce excellent tinder as a by-product that ignites with far more consistency than grass (which has to be bone dry to work).  Your clothes dryer produces very efficient tinder in the form of “dryer lint,” especially when it is from cottons and wools (polyester lint is not very good).  The cotton that is used to stopper many supplement bottles is also very good tinder.  Instead of throwing it out, bag it and save it. You can make it into an incredible fire starter by combining it with some paraffin, bee’s wax, and/or magnesium shavings (very cheap on ebay). Put it in a baggie, toss it in your emergency pack and it will last essentially forever  When you are laying out the materials for your fire, in the tinder pile you can also include low hanging dead/dried twigs, shavings and chips from any wood chopping or sawing you had to do.  Then start collecting the kindling.

Kindling is small, up-to finger sized twigs and small branches (all DRY) or strips left over from splitting down larger logs into wrist and arm sized fuel logs.  The tinder will ignite the kindling and that will produce a large enough and long-lasting enough flame to ignite the actual fuel.

The reason things like feather sticks and shavings work is that thin, finer edges catch on fire far easier than the flat or rounded sides of larger pieces.  Once lit then they will continue to burn into the larger sides and edges.   Collect enough kindling to be equal in volume to one or two fuel logs.  Speaking of which, now it is time to collect the real fuel.

This fire starter tinder and even most kindling can be collected with your bare hands although it can be easier and a knife would be required for making a feather stick or shavings.  But to collect fuel wood, you will find it easier with some tools.  Yes, if you can find enough arm and wrist sized downed but dried wood branches, you can break it into campfire lengths by breaking them over a rock or against a tree.  But while often that might get you going, before long – and certainly a day later, you will run out of them and either have to forage wider and wider to find them (and remember you are lost because you were not all that good at navigating in the woods)  or you are going to need to be able to split and break down larger chunks of wood into reasonable pieces for your fire.  So, what tools will you need to have available?

To identify the tools we might need, let’s first identify the work you will need those tools to do.  You will need to cut down larger dead limbs and or use fallen dead trees and limbs that need to be “bucked” into firewood length pieces, some of which must then be split into firewood.  You might also need to be able to create wood shavings, and be able to shape some pieces into splitting wedges.

In an ideal world you would have several tools available: a good saw, an axe or at least a good sized hatchet or tomahawk, a larger knife for chopping and making intermediate tools, and a smaller knife for more precision cutting and slicing, and perhaps a pack mule to carry it.  Having all of that would make fast work of your fire-making chores.  But let’s face it, almost no photographer, and most especially one already whimpering about the weight of a DSLR, is likely to wander off for a shot with all that gear readily available in a pack or on their belt.

The fully loaded emergency pack that lives in my car when on the road includes all of that plus first aid and medical stuff, shelter pieces, fire making tools and supplies, water filter, canteen, lashing and rope, navigation equipment, it even has toilet paper on board… but it weighs in at about 40 pounds.  It really is designed to live in the vehicle and I almost never carry it when I think I’m just going down the trail over that little rise where I expect the wily image to be waiting.

So what do I carry on those short hikes where I only expect to find a shot, take it, and hike back to the vehicle in, at most, an hour or so?  I strap on a belt (often a surplus military web belt or law enforcement utility belt whose width helps spread the load) with a large knife, a Swiss Army knife in its own sheath, a small pouch with fire making stuff, simple first aid supplies, a canteen of water, and some lashing usually in the form of paracord.  And if, for some reason I had to pare that down to a one or two items, I would take the big knife and stuff some matches or a ferro rod in my shirt pocket.  If you wish, in a later post I can show how to use that stuff.

A critical warning however is that all the best survival gear you can find on the web will not save your life if you do not know how to use it.  Just like your camera, it is just a collection of tools waiting for the skills and knowledge to arrive to put it to good use.

But there is one potential issue we have not yet considered.  What if you, or someone in your party, are injured?  I don’t mean a minor cut or scrape that can be temporarily dealt with using a Bandaid® and maybe some antiseptic ointment, I mean something serious, like a broken bone and/or serious blunt force trauma from a fall or, worse, sharp force trauma from falling into a sharp broken tree branch?  Tripping over hidden roots or rocks, or making a misstep on a shelf or ledge trail, can, in an instant, turn a pleasant hike into a serious, life or death matter.  There are too many really easy ways to hurt yourself in the bush to ignore this possibility.

I once had a student walking through the timber, intently focused on a shot they thought they saw through the trees to the side, walk straight into a broken branch sticking our and peeled back a major flap of skin on their forehead.  It was not life-threatening, but it bled ferociously, looked horrible, and needed attention immediately to help keep it from getting infected.

What if you trip and break a leg or an arm?  With that injury and the agonizing pain, can you get back to your vehicle or somewhere where medical help is available? What if you reached over a rock to pull yourself up and got snake bit?  If by some miracle you had cell phone coverage, could you tell rescuers precisely where to find you?

I don’t want to scare you or make you afraid to go into the bush for photographs.  But the more you are aware of things that can negatively effect your trek, and the better prepared you are for them, the more enjoyable your photo trek will be and the more you’ll want to come back. And the more you return, the more beautiful photos you take, the more viewers will come to appreciate and want to take care of nature.  So add a comment if you’d like more details…

BTW, it looks like the Photo 245 Landscape Photography course will be allowed to run this Spring.  It is in the course schedule online but I do not know if you can yet register for it.  It lists my team teacher, Professor Melinda Holden as the instructor but that is the right course so if you are interested, sign up as soon as you can so it will not be cancelled.  I’ll have more details later.

Plus Steve Burns (PhotoShop guru extraordinaire), and I will be doing a workshop in Spring along the central coast dealing with using the concepts of the Zone System applied to the digital world to give you total control of your captured images and to better prepare them for advanced editing.

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