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Undercover Survivor

By E. Dan Klepper

The scenario was imaginary but the survival was real.

Small shadows bloomed across the Hen Egg Mountain quadrangle of far West Texas as the fronds of Selaginella lepidophylla, the resurrection plant, began to unravel. Had you arrived in this spot the day before, the plant would have gone unnoticed, its desiccated bits crammed into crevices and up against rock of similar lackluster color. But after a quick, hard rain the fronds were startlingly green, unfolding like the feathers of some newly hatched prehistoric bird.

But it wouldn't last.

The desert would see to that. Events such as this are fleeting and indicative of the desert's whirlwind actions, short-lived and riven by purpose, that precede endless periods of dormancy. Life in this arid country is cryptic, a characteristic of desert dwellers that gives their vitality a terminal appearance yet, in truth, guarantees long-term survival.

I had arrived in this landscape, along with my four fellow desert survivalists, in short supply of every necessary thing - water, food, shelter. I then spent the day traversing scree slopes, canyons and flats with my partners to find a source of water to last our three-day stay. Thanks to the recent rain, we found water pooling in the desert tinajas and seeping up from muddy holes waiting to be purified by fire. After consuming a cup of bouillon, the day's meal, I proceeded to create a shallow burrow for myself as shelter against the elements. Then I spent the evening watching a thunderhead blow out its sides like an atomic bomb.

Hunkering down for the night in a desert wallow with little to eat and only a short-term supply of water to drink is considered routine for one of David Alloway's desert survival camps. Alloway, a Texas Parks and Wildlife veteran and author of Desert Survival Skills, runs a company that specializes in wilderness survival. Alloway imparts his 25 years of experience through workshops and survival camps such as the one I was attending. His clients have included U.S. Air Force and U.S. Customs Service pilots, National Park Service personnel, Outward Bound Instructors, and, well, me. None of my fellow participants were aware of my previous experience with David Alloway's Skills of Survival, SOS for short. You see, I was undercover - an SOS operative and a player in the survival scenario.

The survival scenario involved the crash landing of a chartered aircraft somewhere in the northern Chihuahuan Desert. The crew had died and we, the workshop participants including a stockbroker from New York City, an Austin paramedic and two aircraft rescue technicians from the Department of Defense, were the only survivors. To simulate this event, Alloway had blindfolded us, driven us into the desert and left us with minimal supplies. Our basics included a gallon of water each, a knife, an emergency blanket and a small survival kit that each workshop attendee is required to carry. In addition, we salvaged a few supplies from the crash site, including several more gallons of water and some parachute scraps. As survivors, we had to work out a survival strategy that included finding water, making fire, locating shelter and signaling to attract the attention of anyone who might happen to be looking for us. It was our charge, as a group, to survive until rescued.

However, Alloway had added one more challenge to the task by secretly instructing a survivor (me) to keep the group dynamics off balance. As the voice of dissension, my role was to disagree and cast doubt on group decisions. In survival situations, disagreements can be frequent. By ratcheting up the stress with a covert dissident, Alloway hoped to heighten the realism. I was happy to volunteer. However, not only was I a bad actor and a worse liar but my enthusiasm for outdoor fraternity (and survival gear) would be my undoing.

My first opportunity to cause trouble arrived during our search for water on day one. According to the remnants of our topo map, half-scorched and salvaged from the imaginary wreckage, a canyon that dropped several hundred feet below the desert flats called Steep Draw appeared to be the most likely source. The canyon's shadowed floor, at the lowest elevation in the landscape, was a candidate for seeps and pools of rainwater not yet evaporated by the 90-degree heat. During our investigation (an expedition comprised of the two Department of Defense guys and me), I tried to focus on some point of contention. But I found myself preoccupied instead with our water prospects. Some of the larger pools were turbid with wads of scum while others leeched rust-colored goo along their edges. We finally stumbled upon a gravely seep from which we could fill a cup repeatedly with scum-free water. The DoD boys suggested we set up our boiling operation at the seep and render the water potable.

I disagreed, recommending that we continue down the canyon in search of a better source of water. I secretly doubted that we would find one but it was my duty to argue. In reality, I was having too much fun scrambling through this shady canyon to begin survival chores. And when my companions didn't put up much of a fight I began to suspect that they were having a good time as well.

However, I recognized that my eagerness to hike with like-minded outdoorsmen worked against my mission of contradiction and calamity. Temperance in fun and fellowship was the order of the day, I reminded myself. So I continued the search, and the hike, with discretion.

Which included taking special precautions to shield my Mark III Survival Kit from scrutiny whenever I needed to open it. Bob Cooper, who is an Australian survival master and occasional instructor for Alloway's workshops, created the Mark III and it is available from Alloway's company. The Mark III is one of the few items Alloway requires (or allows) civilians to carry on a three-day survival workshop, and it contains many items essential to desert survival, all stored in a plastic box the size of a soap dish. Since using my own Mark III for the first time several years ago when I first took an Alloway survival course, it has become my constant wilderness travel companion. I have customized the exterior with frog decals, bound it with black rubber strapping, and encased it in a fresh zip lock baggie. These modifications, at least from my hunger-skewed perspective, could have easily given me away as an SOS veteran.

My water-scouting partners, however, had far more interesting survival gear. Since they were government agents involved in aircraft rescue operations Alloway let them bring a backpack full of devices that they would actually have on hand if they ever survived a crash-landing. Their swag included:

  1. Chemical glow sticks for signaling your location at night.
  2. Several signal mirrors. Great for survival shaving if you can tolerate flint rash.
  3. The L-1 19 Signal Foliage Penetrator Flare, designed to shoot through thick canopy and top out at 1,300 feet in elevation. (Lots of sparks. Don't bother attaching a note.)
  4. MOT O MK13s. Orange smoke for day and a two-foot flame for night which, when put out, will continue to generate white smoke for 15 minutes or so.
  5. The Firefly. A multi-use strobe with an infrared flash guard for night-vision operations and a directional control for shooting a beam of light directly into the search helicopter. (Avoid eye contact.)

We eventually would try them all and, in doing so, would accomplish two important goals. The multitude of signaling techniques, from the most primitive (fire and smoke) to the slightly more advanced (chemical fire and colored smoke), increased the odds for our detection. They also provided a distraction from the persistent hunger and inactivity that accompany survival.

During my periods of rest (and there were many), I discovered a certain seduction inherent in desert survival, a peculiar lull that overcame consciousness once my physical and mental activities were reduced to basics. Resting in shade and consuming only water for hours, then days, brings on a kind of calm.

But by the afternoon of the second day, I wanted to tear into a thick steak, guzzle milkshakes, watch all my favorite kung-fu movies and do all the other things that were completely beyond my reach.

Listlessness soon followed this sense of deprivation and required a particularly long session of rest. I thought that this would help to emphasize an important personality trait of my secret squirrel identity (sloth) but then everyone else was listless and resting, too.

After a few hours, our moment of clarity occurred. Energy sprang from reserves and provided the group with the stamina needed to resume activities that were important for survival. I participated reluctantly, attempting to boil water and make signals so that anyone flying over or driving by or listening for us would respond and return me to the things I desired.

Once this rush of adrenaline passed, I entered a state of well-being. My world became a simple, knowable place. I knew how much I needed to tap from my water source each day. I understood how my shade moved through the day and how dark and long my nights. I recognized that I simply needed to rest, drink water, signal and utilize the skills of survival that I had learned and soon, with a little luck, I would surely be rescued.

But not before I compromised my "secret squirrel" identity later that night for a pair of V-1 goggles succinctly described as the "third-generation aviator night-vision imaging system." These technologically advanced military-issue goggles, produced from my DoD companions' black backpack, allowed me to see the night world as if lit by a million tiny suns. For every star I recognized in the clear West Texas sky, the goggles illuminated a thousand more just beyond it. I could see the rise and fall of cloud shadows as they detailed every canyon and cliff in the desert horizon. It was a revelation of a country I loved, of highlights and silhouettes that, until now, had no witness but the mountain and its night stalkers. At that moment it also became clear to me that I couldn't monopolize the goggles for the entire evening if I were to remain aloof and uncooperative. So I made friends. Did I reveal my true identity? No. Was I a gregarious helpmate who cheerfully loaded up the signal fire with wood while the rest of my companions rested? Did I appear agreeable to any and all ideas and even offer to share bits of my remaining gourmet bouillon? Yes to all. And, as a result, did I get to strap the V-1s to my forehead and stumble around the desert whenever I wanted? You bet.

Throughout the next 24 hours as a survivalist, I continued to be a cooperative operative and, as a result, participated in a community that shared responsibilities and insights, each member maintaining a degree of authority but able to secede to the will, and best interest, of the group. In the process, I realized that disparate individuals thrown together by misfortune had a far greater chance of surviving, both independently and as a group, by communicating and working together as opposed to operating silently and apart.

On the final afternoon, Alloway returned our flashing mirror signals and whistles with flashes and whistles of his own. An hour or so later he arrived on foot. Then we all hiked back to the original drop-off site where Alloway reviewed our survival skill failures and successes. According to the survival meister, our group demonstrated a lack of proper signal deployment while on the move. My DoD companions and I had left a messy crosshatch of footprints up and down Steep Draw without indicating our final direction.

"When you're back-tracking," Alloway explained, "be sure to provide evidence for search personnel regarding your ultimate destination. Position arrows made of rocks or branches or place written notes conspicuously along your route."

On the other hand, our group scored big with the visual signals we set up around our camp. By hanging crash-scavenged CDs that would spin in the slightest breeze in ocotillo branches, we created a kaleidoscope of flashes that could be seen for miles. In addition, we salvaged an orange parachute scrap and positioned it along the rim of the canyon to indicate our location so that it could easily be detected from the air. But our most successful action was, simply put, that we survived.

"You all came back alive, every member of your group," Alloway concluded, "and that, in the end, says everything."

Alloway then revealed to the group my role in the survival scenario. No one seemed very surprised. I apologized by way of explaining that I intended to write a story about the experience. I even offered to use my "influence" (another obvious deception) to make sure that photographs featuring my DoD companions made it into the article if, in exchange, I could keep the pair of V1 goggles. Not a chance, they replied.

As we wrapped up the survival camp and I made my way home, my calorie-deprived attention wandered across the desert expanse. Even though I reside in the Big Bend country, I never tire of its ceaseless landscape and attendant light. As I traveled through the late day toward dusk, the light seemed particularly transcendent, embedded with storm clouds that focused the sun's rays as if to reveal secrets. I paused to savor the light and, in doing so, entered that familiar state of well-being once again. I recalled my survival experience and my desire for the many earthly pleasures that seemed at the time so important and so far from my reach. Then I scanned the landscape once again, clear-headed and content, unable to imagine ever desiring anything more satisfying than this.

The Mark III Survival Kit

The multi-purpose contents of the Mark III are designed to help save your skin in a survival scenario (provided you keep a clear head). They include but are not limited to the following:

  1. Cotton wool pad (for signal fire tinder or bandaging wounds).
  2. Knife (a beautiful little blade forged from a single piece of steel for cutting, piercing, or simply whittling away the hours).
  3. Hacksaw blade (for anything that needs sawing into pieces).
  4. Fishhook (in the desert you can use a fishhook to catch fish - there are often fish in desert pools - as well as birds, reptiles or rodents).
  5. Length of cord (for binding and tying).
  6. Glucose tablets (fire-making and survival candy - sort of like an ignitable M&M without any of the crunchy sugar coating, chocolately center, or pretty new purple coloring).
  7. Tea bag (my preference is Earl Grey; good for strong repeat cups and, hey, sunburns!).
  8. Plastic bag (water-collecting and weather-proofing avoid thorns).
  9. A small vial of Condy's Crystals (potassium permanganate) - great for sterilizing water, as an antiseptic, and for starting fires when combined with the glucose tablets.

The Mark lll has served me well, especially with the small additions I have made. These include a goopy chunk of chicken bouillon wrapped in foil (I threw out the hard little nugget of dehydrogenated animal fat that comes with the kit and replaced it with a bouillon cube that is, well, gourmet), self-adhesive Velcro tabs for any emergency binding job, and strike-anywhere matches.


For More Information

Crash-land into your own survival scenario: visit David Alloway's Skills of Survival Web site at www.skillsofsurvival.com to learn more about the courses offered. Many of the workshops take place in Big Bend country, some at Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's Big Bend Ranch State Park. Then, check out accommodations in Big Bend at www.visitbigbend.com to find a bed and a hot shower after you've been rescued. You'll need it.

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