You’re on the last trap of the exhausting day’s trap-line several miles from the truck, and at least an hour’s drive from any sort of civilization. The tell-tale sign that something was caught is seen around where the trap was set; nearby branches and vegetation are torn up, there is a track of a drag mark from the anchor digging through the leaf litter, and a bit of the chain’s bright orange flagging tape is tangled among some shrubbery up ahead. Then you see the animal you’ve been waiting for, a wolf laying low with his paw secured in the padded foothold trap.
Quickly, you and your small team of three others ground your gear and you prepare the telazol-xylazine mixture for the syringe at the end of the jabstick so the predator can be sedated. Sensing a threat, the wolf gets up to try to escape. A teammate distracts the wolf from one side so you can get close enough, about 6 feet, to stick the syringe into the muscle on the animal’s rear end. The wolf lunges for you and snaps at the jabstick. Heart pounding from the adrenaline rush, you manage to get the drug injected….at least most of it…
After several minutes, the wolf is snoozing. Your team sets to work tagging an ear, fastening a radio collar, taking various body measurements, weight, temperature, and drawing blood. You have maybe 10 minutes to complete the processing before the sedative wears off.
Suddenly it begins to downpour freezing rain. Hurried and focused on the task, it wasn’t noticed that the wolf was beginning to wake up early. Your teammate attempts to get an age estimate from the teeth when CRUNCH, the semi-conscious carnivore swiftly clamps down on his hand with 1400lbs per square inch of power! Screaming, your teammate manages to pull free from the now wobbly wolf as his hand gushes blood through open fractured bones…
The above scenario is not a true story from my own experiences, but is a situation that has happened in some similar manner to other field biologists. Fieldwork can be exciting and rewarding as species are studied in remote wilderness. However, the job does not come without risks. Other than possible injuries from handling a study species, you have the environment in general to contend with. Some environmental aspects to keep in mind are climate, terrain, and altitude. Working in a scorching desert is far different than working in frigid mountains.
Navigating through wetlands differs from navigating through dense forests or open plains. Stinging insects, and venomous spiders and snakes may also be a concern to look out for, as well as being in a territory where you are not at the top of the food chain. There is even the underestimated hazard of being infected by parasites, exotic viruses, or bacteria.
I have yet to meet a fellow field researcher who has not experienced any injury or illness of sorts from either of the issues mentioned. If there are those who have somehow avoided them, its only a matter of time before they too can share their #fieldworkfail stories with colleagues as a macabre badge of initiation. The environment you work in will determine how you prepare for your fieldwork and how you handle the unique challenges that are presented.
No matter how careful you may be, or how experienced you are in the wilderness, incidents can happen. Nature is unforgiving at the best conditions, let alone when we become complacent. How you deal with certain hazards or ailments could mean the difference between life or death. Hence why preventative measures should always be taken to minimize unfortunate events.
Wilderness First Aid
Anyone who spends time working or recreating in a remote environment should have training in wilderness first aid. “But I took a First Aid and CPR class at my local community center!” That’s great, but providing care in a rural setting is much different than in an urban setting.
1. Adverse conditions, climate and terrain, affects both the victim and rescuer. You should know how to provide protection from the elements, and how you will carry or drag someone out of a sketchy situation if that is what is needed.
2. Communication is limited or nonexistent. Satellite phones aren’t always reliable, and trained falcons are hard to come by. How are you going to send for, or find help? What if you are in a country where hardly anyone else speaks your language?
3. Lack of transportation. You’re in the middle of nowhere without a vehicle, or perhaps in a country with no helicopter rescue. All those tips from your first aid classes about providing supportive care then calling for an evac to pick you up are suddenly useless. You ARE the evac. If you’re lucky, you may have access to a local’s horse.
4. Conventional first aid supplies are limited. You should at the very least have a basic backpacker’s first aid kit. Otherwise, you should know how to improvise with what’s around you; rig bandages, slings, or splints using random pieces of gear, duct tape, paracord, or utilize things in nature. Out on the steppe where there are no branches to splint your teammate’s broken ankle after he fell in a marmot hole? Sure, that sun-bleached goat femur and your belts will do the trick!
5. More involved medical care. You may need to provide the level of supportive care that in an urban setting an EMS or paramedic would do. It could be hours or days before proper help is acquired.
One of the most valuable skills I have been able to transfer from my past military experience is situational awareness. It is the ability to pay attention to everything around you, including the environment, what is going on with your peers, and how you are doing as well. Take in the details and mentally note how they change or may change so that you can respond accordingly. Working in the wilderness requires that to be second nature. In the event that someone does need medical care or to be rescued, your own safety and being able to stay calm needs to also be prioritized. You will be no help if you are careless and become a victim too.
Returning to the earlier scenario:
- What factors are there that led up to the incident?
- What environmental obstacles did the field team have to deal with?
- How could the incident have been avoided?
- What gear or items from nature, are possibly available to stabilize the injury until that teammate can make it back to town?
- Pun aside; the victim is not out of the woods yet. What are some other issues he can have in response to the mangled hand, blood loss, stress of the situation, and the environment etc? How will you handle that?
- What should the rest of the team do to make sure the scene is safe? There is still a partially drugged wolf to monitor…
These are just a handful of questions that would need to be instantly answered to either prevent an incident, or to prevent an incident from getting worse.
I recently took an Advanced Wilderness Life Support (AWLS) course through Wild Med Adventures LLC in the Adirondacks to not only review some rusty skills, but to learn all new ones. The course was incredibly informative with lectures covering a wide range of wilderness related topics, skills workshops, and scenarios. The instructors are all passionate medical professionals with expertise in austere environments and the enthusiasm to teach. I highly recommend this type of training as an added skillset. You never know when it will come in handy, and certainly don’t want to find out the hard way!