Safety Signals

In June 1967, my friend John Orr and I made our annual pilgrimage to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area of Minnesota. Along a portage, we met a group of teenagers who were carrying a 15-year-old girl who had a “stomachache” on an improvised stretcher.


When John–a football coach–gently touched her abdomen, she shrieked in pain. He diagnosed appendicitis and suggested we evacuate her immediately.


Then, a miracle! As we were loading her into a canoe, a Forest Service fire plane appeared on the horizon (really!). I whipped out my Silva compass, and luckily the mirror flashed in the pilot’s eyes. He saw our frantic waves and settled onto the lake. Then he flew the girl to Grand Marais, where her appendix was removed without complication.


This was the only emergency signal I’ve made, but I have used signals for other reasons. Here’s what I carry in my kit:


Chemical Fire-Starters: We had completed a canoe trip on Ontario’s Pipestone River and were waiting for our bush plane to pick us up. Our campsite was partially obscured by trees, so we turned our five red canoes belly up near the water’s edge and rigged a huge multicolored tarp. The pilot circled twice but never saw us. Then, just before the third and final pass, I lit a smoky fire. It worked, and the plane dropped down. The wood was damp, but the flame took quickly–Mautz Fire Ribbon saved the day. When seconds count, chemical fire-starters are priceless!


Orange Smoke Distress Signals: These burn for 50 seconds or more and produce billows of thick orange smoke that, on a clear day, can be seen for miles. I have used orange smokes twice, and each time, they caught the pilot’s eye. Every marina has them.


Aerial Flares: Aerial flares zoom to impressive heights and explode into bright light that can last up to a minute or more. Flares can be useful on lightly overcast days when smoke is hard to see. I carry two 30-second flares but I’ve never used them.


Emergency Signaling Mirror (Heliograph): It is very difficult to precisely flash an object with a standard mirror like the one on an orienteering compass. I bring a military (ESM/1) signal mirror, which has an aiming cross in the center.


Whistle: You might not hear a whistle above the roar of rapids–that’s why you should know the official hand (safety) signals. But a whistle works if you wander off a bushwhacked portage trail and become confused. Pea-less type whistles like the Fox 40, which work when flooded, are best.


Color Counts!: Brightly colored canoes, packs, tents, and clothing signal more than safety to the eye. Read my column in the October 2002 Canoe & Kayak to find out why.

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