By Karen Zautyk
On Sunday, New Jersey Search & Rescue (NJSAR) presented an informational program at the Meadowlands Environment Center, explaining how to survive — and get yourself found — if you ever get lost in the woods.
At one point, team member John Rovetto asked the audience of adults and children, “Where’s the best place to get water and food?”
And a small voice in the back piped up: “7-Eleven?”
(Smart kid. Although I was thinking White Castle.)
The correct answer is “from your pack.” If you’re going into the woods, you should have a small pack or pouch containing a snack and water. Just in case. You never know. Hikers and such don’t expect to get lost, but that’s why it’s called “lost.”
At minimum, the pack should also contain a head covering; a brightly-colored cloth that can mark your whereabouts; a metal signal mirror (you can make one out of cardboard and aluminum foil); a whistle (three blasts is the universal signal for “Help!”); and a large plastic trash bag (tear a hole in the top for your face and put the thing over your head; it can act as both a rain parka and a tent).
Wouldn’t a cell phone make all this moot? Not necessarily. You can now get a “Glympse” App with a GPS that can help searchers find you, but suppose you lose the phone, or the batteries die, or there’s no signal, or, or . . . ?
As the Boy Scouts say, “Be prepared.”
Even in our techno-savvy era, people are still getting lost.
During the 90-minute session at the MEC, which also featured NJSAR members Paula and Stu Mavros and two search/rescue K-9s, we learned many things about wilderness survival. For example, did you know that left to their own devices, most people tend to walk in large circles?
You could be tramping around for an hour, looking for a way out of the forest, and eventually you see footprints and think, “Yes! I’m nearing civilization.” Except, they’re your own footprints. Because you have walked in a circle.
Cotton may be “the fabric of our lives,” but did you know that “cotton kills”? In winter, anyway. When it gets wet, it holds the moisture and insulates you not at all. Which is why wearing jeans in the woods in winter is a no-no.
Did you know that, if you do get lost, the best thing to do is “hug a tree”? That’s the phrase NJSAR uses to remind children what to do. It means: Stay in one place rather than traipsing around. Pick a cozy place to wait and remain there. It’s easier to find someone who is not wandering about.
One of the most difficult things for people to do, Rovetto noted, is to accept the circumstances. “You have to ADMIT you’re lost,” he said.
“It’s the opposite of ‘Don’t just stand there, do something.’ In the woods, don’t do something. Just stand there. And think.”
The wisest thing is not to go into the woods alone in the first place. But if you do, at least let someone know where you’re going.
NJSAR also had some wise words for parents, who might be shepherding a group of children on an outing, or even just going on a family picnic. Despite precautions, children have been known to wander away.
If the unthinkable happens, you can help the tracking teams by providing a shoeprint from the child.
How? Before or at the start of the outing, have each child in the group stand on a separate sheet of aluminum foil placed over something soft, such as a folded towel. As demonstrated at the MEC, this results in a surprisingly welldetailed shoeprint. And it’s fun for the kids to try, too.
The canine visitors to the MEC were search-and-rescue dogs Archimedes (11 1/2 years old and now retired) and Exepnathos (9 months old and still in training). Both are German Shepherds and belong to Paula and Stu Mavros.
Stu Mavros is of Greek descent (hence the dogs’ names) and both K-9s “speak” Greek. Or rather, they understand it.
Mavros gives all their commands in Greek, the better to avoid confusion that could occur with English. Some human on a search could, for instance, shout “Hey!” and a dog might hear “Stay!” Greek words are clearer to the dogs.
Archimedes, Mavros noted, has a Greek “vocabulary” of 60 words and commands. (That’s more than some people I know.)
Both dogs also comprehend complete Greek sentences. When the pup, Exepnathos, started acting up, excited to be around so many young fans, Mavros said something (far more than a one-word command), and the dog sat back down. Turns out what he said was, “Where did I put you and how did I have you?” Meaning, over there and sitting down.
The retired Archimedes has an impressive rescue record.
Like other NJSAR K-9s, he is able to track humans not only on land, but in/under water. Apparently, a human being (or human corpse) emits a “scent cone,” even under water, and the trained dog can detect and mark its limits–either on a shoreline or from a boat— helping to restrict the area that needs to be searched.
The dogs also make distinct sounds depending on whether they find a human alive or dead. If the lost person is alive, the dog barks. If deceased, it lies down and howls.
Unfortunately, even with the best efforts of searchers, people are sometimes found deceased.
When help is needed to find a lost or missing person, NJSAR, based in Mahwah, is dispatched by the Bergen County Office of Emergency Management and works with the State Police and local law enforcement agencies.
In addition to searching for lost or disoriented hikers, hunters, etc., in forests and parklands, the NJSAR can help locate: missing children, Alzheimer’s patients, drowning victims, homicide and suicide victims, victims in collapsed structures and victims of natural disasters. They can also help in the collection of forensic evidence.
NJSAR is a totally volunteer organization, receives no government funding and does not charge for its services. It is completely dependent on donations.
To learn more about this organization and the amazing work it does, visit njsar.org.