The Signal

NOTE: The telling of this event has been handed down among pilots and survival trainers over the years so some elements of time and place have been lost, but it’s the story’s lesson upon which we should focus and learn).

Thousands of square miles of stunted spruce, nameless twisting streams and countless ridges and valleys, are the only features on the face of the land throughout the vast, desolate landscape of Alaska north of the Yukon River. For many it congers up images of testing one’s self against the elements; on being one with the land, of finding one’s inner self or testing one’s mettle in the great outdoors. And for a very few that lure is so intense that its beckoning succeeds and that particular soul accepts the challenge.

So perhaps it was many years ago when a young man ventured north, his destination somewhere between the Yukon River and the Arctic Circle. He was dropped off by a bush pilot and thus began his personal survival ritual in The Last Frontier.

For whatever reasons, the adventurer had made no plans for pick-up at a later date. The pilot, too, had apparently failed to make any note, mental or otherwise, about a rendezvous time or place to return. The pilot soon left the air service that had flown the man in and subsequently lost track of any thoughts or concerns about the drop-off.

Many months later, someone remembered a story about a pilot leaving a cheechacko (someone new to Alaska) alone to fend for himself in the bush. The discussion ensued as to what had ever happened to him. Another was then reminded of a story about a bush pilot who, while flying over a remote section of country, had seen a sparse encampment inhabited by a rugged-looking individual. Upon circling the camp the man on the ground pumped his fist into the air and waved jubilantly at the passing plane.

Seeing this ground-to-air hand signal commonly known among pilots and survival enthusiasts as the gesture meaning: “I’m OK!”, the pilot rocked his wings in acknowledgement and flew off.

Watson's The Signal 10-14Because no one had ever heard what fate had finally befallen this adventurous eccentric, the coordinates of the sighting reported by the bush pilot were made known. Eventually a flight plan over the area enabled someone to finally check on this reclusive survivalist’s well-being.

The pilot flying over the site did not notice any movement in the wind-blown, ragged, and seemingly abandoned camp. He landed and approached the make-shift shelter in the center of the camp clearing. Sadly he found the partially decomposed body of the young man lying next to a fired shotgun.

In searching through his meager belongings, authorities found the young man’s journal. Entries included his thoughts, dreams and references to images and ponderings. Depression and loneliness overshadowed every line scribbled upon the diary-like pages. The last entry talked about his hopes being bolstered by a plane that had approached and waved its wings acknowledging the pilot had seen him. He wrote of his exuberance at the thought of being rescued – and how he had waved and thrusted his arm into the air towards the plane. Instead, the plane continued on, the drone of its engine fading like the speck it made against the sky.

The very last entry in the journal talked of his depression when, over time, rescuers failed to return. Sadly, all these events and circumstances ended in an act of ultimate desperation for the young man.

Post Script
Most survival manuals and many of the outdoor self-reliance books have illustrative examples of common/universal ground-to-air signals. If you are going out on a wilderness adventure, keep these references handy by copying them to a flap on your backpack or other gear surface. I have relevant signals drawn onto the panel of my life jacket – Always handy; never have to remember them.

Click to learn more about Signalling Techniques courtesy of the U.S. Army.

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