Images| Volume 12, ISSUE 2, P129-133, June 2001

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Warnings in the wilderness

        What do these 2 images have in common (Figures 1 and 2)?
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        Figure 1“Badwater”: Lowest point in North America—282 feet (86 meters) below sea level. Death Valley National Park, California. Photo by Ken Zafren, MD.
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        Figure 2Warning sign. “Attention! No bathing in Shulamit Fall. Danger of falling rocks.” Wadi David National Park, Israel (Judean Desert). Photo by Ken Zafren, MD.


        Both of these photographs (Figures 1 and 2) were taken below sea level, show unpotable water, show warning signs, and represent an aspect of preventive search and rescue (PSAR).The best SAR [search and rescue] event never occurs—it is only heard as a story in the inn after an epic…that turned out fine, without injury.Tim Setnicka
        • Setnicka T.J.
        Wilderness Search and Rescue.

        Preventive search and rescue

        Just as our thinking about vehicular trauma has advanced by using the term motor vehicle crash in place of motor vehicle accident, so our understanding of search and rescue (SAR) is enhanced by the realization that most of our rescues were necessitated by mistakes rather than unavoidable problems. Setnicka, in his landmark book, Wilderness Search and Rescue, written in 1980, calls “preventative search and rescue” the “crucial fifth core element …[that] must emerge in our thinking and philosophy.” It should “really be introduced before the other 4 elements: locate, reach, treat, and evacuate.”
        • Setnicka T.J.
        Wilderness Search and Rescue.
        While much of the emphasis in PSAR has to do with knowledge and responsibilities of wilderness users, there are certain traps in the environment that wait for the uninitiated. From my own early rescue days, there are the memories of many hikers enticed into a spot near Boulder that was easy to climb, but very difficult to descend. We referred to this trap as “rescue spot A”. Another trap awaited skiers near Brainard Lake. This trap was in the form of a meadow where the obvious exit led not back to the parking lot, but rather to the church camp on the highway. We would sometimes collect the unwary there after their unexpectedly long ski descents.
        While part of the fun of wilderness activities is the inherent risk to be managed, there are many environments at the interface between the wilderness and wilderness novices that can be viewed as attractive nuisances. The Grand Canyon is one such place. Inexperienced hikers who have no meter stick to measure their own capabilities and little conception of the potential risks are inexorably drawn to its vastness. Fools rush in where experienced angels tread only with caution and plenty of water. In an effort to improve the odds for the hikers, the National Park Service has posted warning signs (Figure 3).
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        Figure 3Warning sign advising hikers to carry food and water. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona. Photo by Ken Zafren, MD.
        Dehydration and hyperthermia are not just problems of southwestern US deserts, but also of dry, hot places worldwide. Where once Jewish zealots defied the Roman legions, the National Parks Authority of Israel has taken a similar approach as the United States (Figure 4). The zealots were masters of wilderness survival who crossed the Roman lines to replenish their cisterns on the summit of Masada from distant springs. One of these springs was Ein Gedi, the source of Shulamit Falls (Figure 2) in Wadi David National Park, which is unfortunately no longer fit for drinking (Figure 5).
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        Figure 4Warning sign advising hikers to carry water. Masada, Israel (Judean Desert). Photo by Ken Zafren, MD.
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        Figure 5Warning sign. “By order of the Ministry of Health. Contaminated water—no bathing.” Wadi David National Park, Israel (Judean Desert). Photo by Ken Zafren, MD.
        For the initiated hikers who are willing to take the proper precautions, the wilderness is not an extremely hazardous environment. Some have even maintained that “it is far safer to wander in God's woods than to travel on black highways or stay at home.”
        • Muir J.
        Our National Parks.
        John Muir also wrote 100 years ago in his book, Our National Parks, that “No American wilderness that I know of is so dangerous as a city home with all the modern improvements. One should go to the woods for safety, if for nothing else.”
        • Muir J.
        Our National Parks.
        He points out that “Lewis and Clark, in their famous trip across the continent in 1804–1805, did not lose a single man …though all the West was then wild.”
        • Muir J.
        Our National Parks.
        Wild animals continue to represent a potential hazard for hikers, although it tends to be vastly overexaggerated. In over 25 years of the existence of Chugach State Park, adjacent to the city of Anchorage, AK, there have been only 2 fatalities due to bear attacks, and these were 2 runners who, unfortunately, surprised a bear feeding on a moose carcass. As John Muir said, “[b]ears are a peaceable people, and mind their own business, instead of going about like the devil seeking whom they may devour.”
        • Muir J.
        Our National Parks.
        However, in order to avoid the element of surprise for either side, the rangers in Chugach State Park frequently post notices of recent bear sightings (Figure 6). Attacks by bears are also known in the Old World. There are also other animals that can attack humans, especially if provoked. From mountain lions in the United States to lions in Africa, large cats represent a potential danger to people. The rules for minimizing the risk of leopard attacks in Israel (Figure 7) are representative of rules for avoiding encounters with predatory animals in many parts of the world.
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        Figure 6Warning sign. “Caution—recent bear sightings in area.” Not far from the author's home. Chugach State Park, Alaska. Photo by Ken Zafren, MD.
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        Figure 7Warning sign. “Attention! There are leopards on this reserve.” Wadi David National Park, Israel (Judean Desert).


        The author collects slides for “Warnings in the Wilderness.” The figures in this article are taken from this collection. Additional slides of such signs would be greatly appreciated.
        Figure 1, Figure 2, Figure 3, 5, and 7 were taken below sea level.


          • Setnicka T.J.
          Wilderness Search and Rescue.
          Appalachian Mountain Club, Boston, MA1980
          • Muir J.
          Our National Parks.
          Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, MA1901