The Importance of Being Heard

by Ronald M. Mann

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    The following three true stories illustrate the importance of being heard in the wilderness and how you can improve your chance of surviving.

    The first story took place during late spring in the Cascade Mountains. Rodney and Micki, my two sons, and I had decided to do some early mountain climbing. We had been climbing through spotty snow fields and clumps of evergreen trees when we heard the unmistakable roar of large boulders bounding down the mountainside. From the noise they were making as they struck trees and undergrowth and ricocheted off larger rocks, we could tell they were headed our way. Barely in time, we jumped behind a large, old snag as the first of several boulders roared by, barely missing our old protective tree. After the roar stopped as a result of the rocks piling into a snowfield, I poked my head out from behind the tree and looked in the direction from which the boulders had come. I soon detected the cause of our problem; looking like several small busy ants, a group of boys were rolling rocks down the mountainside. At first I yelled and waved my coat, and then we all yelled and waved our coats, but to no avail. Was our weekend hiking trip about to come to an early end, or would it be worth the risk to continue climbing while the youths above rolled rocks down the mountain?

    Two months after the above experience, the second adventure took place. I was again out in the mountains, this time with a group of Scouts, and we were 20 miles out in the back country. We were taking our annual 50-mile hike and had decided to do it a little differently; we would hike in for 15 or 20 miles and then take day hikes into the surrounding lakes and streams where the boys could do some fishing. One day we broke into three groups: The first was going to hike in three or four miles to some high beaver ponds along a stream where the fishing was alleged to be great. The second, of which I was the leader, was headed to the top of a beautiful mountain about six miles away. The third group, exhausted from several days of such activity, would stay in camp, fish in the adjacent stream, and clean up. All went well with my little group of eight young Scouts and also with those in camp, but the first group was in for quite an experience. As the boys arrived at the appointed fishing areas, they spread out along the river for about a mile, each selecting what he thought would be the best spot. As the day wore on, they collected around the proven fishing holes. However, one young Scout had started working his way downstream looking for a new spot. Suddenly he experienced what felt like an attack of appendicitis. Being nearly a quarter of a mile from the nearest boy and close to the noisy stream, his yells for help were in vain. Not being able to walk because of the pain in his side, he lay down next to the river in despair, fearing for his life.

    The last story took place later that fall while a family was taking a pleasant, 3 1/2-mile hike to a beautiful lake in the Cascades. As they returned down the trail later that day, their young daughter started falling behind. They weren’t really too concerned as it was a good trail, it was still light, and they had been on similar hikes before. The parents continued down the trail, arriving at the road just a few minutes ahead of their daughter, so they thought. After waiting for more than an hour for her, they became concerned and started back up the trail in search. This started a search that would last three days and cost thousands of dollars and many man-hours.

    How did these three misadventures turn out? In the first story, we yelled many times together without any luck. Then Micki said, “Daddy, I bet if I blew my whistle, they would hear it!” So he did and they did! We were then able to communicate, after which no more rocks were rolled down the mountain, and we were able to continue our climb.

    In the second illustration, the young Scout remembered his whistle and his training. Three blasts at three minute intervals was a plea for help. His whistling was heard by two boys up the river, and they came running. It wasn’t long until he was being carried on an improvised stretcher to the base camp where medical care was available.

    The third illustration even more effectively points out the value of always carrying a whistle and being trained in its use. The little girl had wandered off the trail while picking flowers and had gotten lost in the process. After wandering around for many hours, she lay down beside a large tree where she remained in shock and exhaustion for two days while searchers walked all around the area looking for her. When she was finally found on the third day, she was only 100 yards from the trail!

    Often in tragedies or near tragedies, a simple inexpensive item could or does make the difference. In two of the above stories the difference was a whistle. In the last, it was a combination of human errors. However, once the young girl realized she was lost, and had she been previously trained and equipped with a whistle, the long, costly search may never have been required. Being a real believer in the value of carrying a whistle, I offer the following advice.

    Although there are numerous types of whistles available, I have found that the medium-size, metal police whistle is the best. It will hold up under much abuse (plastic ones are easily broken!), can be heard for amazing distances, and is relatively inexpensive. The whistle should always be tied around the neck on a strong piece of nylon. The nylon should be long enough to allow easy access and use. The system for signaling that I have found to work best is three short blasts at about three- to five-minute intervals for help, two blasts at the same intervals for acknowledgement, and one blast for assembly while playing or to stop while hiking. Probably any system you can devise will work as long as you train your group in its use. One last precaution that can’t be stressed enough: while in the field, never use the whistle as a toy; only use it under the agreed-upon circumstances.

    Why not improve your chances of being heard while in the woods by including a whistle in your gear?

    Illustrated by Parry Merkley