I’m not dead yet!

Posted on July 23 2014 in The Arctic

WFA1 1032x338In the rush to get ready to drive, I haven’t had a chance to tell you about all the fun stuff I’ve been doing in my battle against being the weakest link.  What skills, I asked myself, do I need to develop so that I can be a responsible member of the team?

First thing that leaped to mind, of course, was Wilderness First Aid.  As promised, it was a full two days of drinking out of a fire hose.  A remarkable amount of information was communicated through short lectures and role-playing.  After a quick lesson, the twenty of us would break into groups of patients and rescuers.  The patients would be given the scenario (what symptoms they had, what had happened, etc.) then the rescuers would come back into the room, find a patient, and have to assess the situation, try to figure out what was wrong and what the best way to treat them was, then determine whether a rapid, slow, or self-evacuation was required.

We wrapped each other in splints and bandages, got covered in fake blood, and had infected wounds drawn on us in magic marker.  By lunch the second day, the little “laceration” on my forearm, carefully cleaned and covered with a see-through Tegaderm waterproof bandage the day before, had become so “infected” with red ink that I had to cover it over with my napkin at the restaurant so as not to disgust the diners at the next table.

What I kept running up against, as I’m sure everyone else did, was a chasm of ignorance.  When I was a rescuer and the patient would give the clues as to what was wrong with them, I just kept thinking, what does that mean?  What should I know?  What am I missing? It gave me new respect for the amount of knowledge medical personnel have, and it made me very happy to have the Wilderness First Aid Handbook on my iPhone, at least for as long as the batteries hold out.

After first aid, I tried to think of what other skills might I need.

We’ll be using knots and carabiners to secure everything in the rafts. So I took an outdoor rock climbing class, on real rocks, not the gymnasium climbing wall fake rocks. It doesn’t take leaving the ground very far to give you a sense of your mortality, and I discovered that I have no inner Sir Edmund Hillary.  When it got too scary, I was willing to stop. There was absolutely no part of me that pushed to power through my fear and reach the peak “because it’s there.”  But I learned a lot about types of knots, which was the whole point.  The main knot we needed to know, the one that kept us from plummeting, splat, to the ground, was the Figure Eight.

If you’ve ever had anyone try to teach you a particular type of knot, you know that they always have some funny little story to describe what you’re supposed to do.  The Figure Eight story was the best I’ve ever heard.  Our instructor had been teaching a group of rough inner-city kids once.  After he had shown them how to do the Figure Eight with his own mild story, probably having to do with a bunny hopping down its hole, he overheard a particularly scary looking kid teaching a friend:  “So you make a loop. This is a guy’s head, see? Pinch his throat so he can’t breathe, then wrap a noose around his neck to strangle him, then poke him in the eye.”

The image may be violent, but it works like a charm.  I can now make a mean, and I do mean “mean,” Figure Eight every time.

Next Skill?

Rowing.  OK.  I know this one is stretching it, but when the word came around that instead of paddling the rafts, we would be attaching a frame and rowing them, I knew I had my chance.  I have always admired the solitary figures out on the bay in the early morning calm or on the river in the mist balancing in their delicate sculls and rowing with graceful rhythm. Here, finally, was my excuse to join them.  So I conned my friend Erica into signing up for beginner lessons with me at Open Water Rowing in Sausalito.  Two 2-hour sessions. Erica and I were exact opposites: for her the hardest part was getting to the 7:30 am lessons; for me it was not falling in the water.

Man, there are a lot of things that can go wrong.  If your hands separate even by a few inches when you are rowing, the boat starts to tip over. And it was ridiculous what percentage of my strokes missed the water completely.  And this going backward thing.  Somehow you are supposed to look over your shoulder every couple of strokes to see if you are about to run into anything. You know, like a dock, a buoy, a supertanker. Problem is that you have to look over your shoulder in such a way as to not lean to one side and end up swimming with the fishes.

Was being on the water as the sun rose over Angel Island a dream come true?  You betcha. Is it a successful new hobby? Not so much.  I’ll stick to facing forward in my kayak.  But at least if I am called on to spell my other Expeditioneers in the raft, I’ll have a bit of experience and humility with which to undertake the task.  They shouldn’t worry too much.  My mean and nasty Figure Eight will ensure that all the gear is secured so we won’t lose anything when we capsize, and I’ll be able to tend to the wounds inflicted after we flail our way to shore.



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