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Don't Panic - A Survivor's Story

Tuesday, 20 May 2014 01:00 Written by  Donald Franck

You wake up with a blinding headache and blood running down the side of your face. Where are you and what happened? Or, you just shot a beautiful 10-point Buck during an out of town hunting trip, and you suddenly look up to see darkness is already falling and you are alone. Or, maybe your canoe overturns crossing some rapids, and you struggle to make your way towards shore while all your gear floats away.

In each of these scenarios, you are faced with a possible life or death situation, where what you do next may be the key to whether you survive or not in the hours and (possibly) days ahead. Some will think nothing is wrong and that they are sure that they can make their way back without trouble. Only later to find themselves completely lost. Some may actually panic at the thought that they are totally alone in the deep wilderness and that they could die. Many people will actually run hither and yawn into the wilds about them until they are really lost. And finally, there are those who carefully consider all options, plan a course of action, and then stick to the plan until help arrives or they self-rescues by their own hands. This last way can be seen on the news almost every night, as crews are rescued after weeks at sea, a man walks out of the frozen wilds to save his family, or the woman who lost her way on a hiking day trip survives for many days by finding available food in the waters and plants about her. All of these scenarios are based on true stories which took place within the last few months, and are noteworthy for that very fact; they all survived almost impossible odds.

Northern Woods of Minnesota (2009)

One story that didn't make the news, but is worthy of note, is of a man who in September of 2009, was camping far from civilization in the deep woods of Northern Minnesota. After several days of wonderful peace and restful sleep, the man woke up to find a cold, damp rain was falling and his campfire had consumed the last of his dry firewood. So, he picked up his chainsaw and walked a short distance down the trail to where he had seen a dry fallen tree that he could easily cut up and split for firewood. Seeing nothing to stop him but a deep mat of wet leaves, he faced the trail and started up the saw, goosed it a time or two to warm it up, and turned left and stepped forward to start the cut. Unbeknownst to him was a tree root that was hidden in the leaves, and as he stepped forward, his right foot tripped on it. Immediately the leg collapsed, and he started to fall, he instantly decided to throw the buzzing chainsaw away from him so as not to fall on it. But in doing so, his body turned, and he fell more towards his left side, which made it impossible to use his hands to break his fall. When his head was about 14 inches above the ground, the top of his head impacted the side of a tree, and he was shocked to hear bones snapping in his neck as his head was driven straight back towards his shoulders.

Deeply stunned by the impact, he laid for several moments until his thoughts cleared and then realized the full depth of the disaster in front of him. For one, he was deep into the woods that required a walk back to the campsite itself, then a four wheel ATV, and finally a four wheel drive truck to just reach the nearest road. All of this ran through his mind as he lay on the cold wet ground with the rain falling on the side of his face. Next he thought of what would be needed for someone to come and rescue him, and the number of minutes, hours, even days before anyone would realize he was out of touch and decided to check up on him. Reaching the bottom of that train of thought, he knew that he would die of exposure long before anyone would come looking for him. Next, he tried moving just his fingers and arms to see what he had available to him. They moved but with considerable pain that was only matched by the pain that with being created by the bones and muscles of his neck. Another check showed that he had movement in his legs as well! Thank God!

Slowly, moving only an inch at a time, he fought his way to a sitting position with his back to a tree. The unsupported side of his neck was terrible; even so, if he did not try to turn his head he could endure it. Gaining determination to survive, he thought about the phone in his pocket. Because he was so far from a cell tower, he knew that he would have to stand on his wooden deck and raise the phone above his head to call anyone. This was now impossible due to the damage in his neck, which did not allow him to reach up that high. Taking a minute, he could see a tree branch lying next to him on his left side (he could only look left) and reaching out, used it to turn off his chainsaw. Quiet quickly returned, as he thought through all the steps needed to call 911 on his cell and the time it would take for anyone to arrive to help him. This quickly turned to hours due to a number of factors, like wilderness travel, location coordinates being unknown, and the needs of the rescuers to enable them to reach him. If only he could reach the river nearby!

So after lying there for nearly an hour, the man used just his legs to push himself to a standing position and carefully walked back to his campsite where his dog, Maggie was happy to see him. Moving only his body, he tore open the dog food bag and got additional water for the water bowl;  he had realized that the dog could starve to death before another would find her. All of this movement and weight lifting was terrible but necessary for both of their peace of mind. The man then walked over to his ATV and bracing himself; he climbed aboard. Everything went black for several minutes before he could reach over and start the heavy machine. Then he began what he later described his “16-point turn” to get the ATV turned around and headed down the trail he had cut only yesterday. At one point in the trip back to his Ford truck, he had to stop, reach down and pull each leg up to rest on the wheel well in order to cross a largely flooded area. Again, a very painful event.

Reaching his truck, he parked the ATV and started up the truck in order to reach the road still more than two miles away. Again he performed a 16-point turn (normal is 3!) and made his way through the woods until he stopped by the two lane blacktop road about 30 miles east of Baudette, Minnesota. Finally, he could make a call for help but to whom?! Again he figured time, distance, and need for rescue. Deciding to call his wife over 450 miles away (you never know!) he told her of his accident and asked what he should do. Stay there or go? 

The nearest EMT was 30 miles away and could take well over than an hour to response if they were busy already. Or he could drive carefully to Baudette himself, limiting his speed and movement to what was totally in his control. Here, a normal person would have waited until help appeared, but he had already rescued himself against impossible odds, and his physical condition was changing for the worse.

The man could already feel the muscles in his shoulders and neck swelling, making it harder to breathe, and he could no longer swallow as his throat was swelling shut, as well. So he was drooling slightly down the side of his face. He might not have that hour to wait! Telling his wife to call 911 in Baudette to have the ambulance there to meet him at the grocery store in town; he put on his truck emergency flashers and pulled slowly onto the highway. Never going over 30 mph, he drove to the local food store and parked with his flasher still on. After almost twenty minutes, he heard them drive up, to the front of the store! This was too much! Getting out, he walked up to the ambulance and told them he was the pickup.

“My God, he’s walking!!” someone shouted out. Later the man could only say high praise for the crew as they stayed with him through the ER, aided in positioning him for the CT-Scan, and helped to cut off his clothes when needed.

“My God, look at that! He tore every muscle in his neck! He should be dead!” Were the comments both during the CT-Scan and later by the local doctor. As the man had broken the C-2 Sinuous Process bones on the right side of his neck, chipped the C-3 vertebrae in front (which made his throat swell ), and crashed every disc in his neck. The C-2 vertebra, located in the neck, is the same one Christopher Reeves broke, and it sits right at the base of the head and supports the heavy skull above it. A large percentage of C-2 fractures are fatal. Today, this man is still alive because he took to time to STOP, SIT, and THINK about his survival. He didn't panic! And even when he had reached a rescue point, he made another life or death decision; which was later credited in saving his life as the doctor stated that he would have died because of the swelling in his throat if he had waited.

The time taken to drop to one knee, clear your mind, and think slowly of every possible option you may have, is worth every kiss from a loved one once you get safely home again. Rushing into the darkness can leave you more miles from safety than when you started. And, trying to swim after your gear as it floats away will expose you to hypothermia, drowning and death. But, what about the man who was found walking out of the wilderness for help? Well that man had stayed and aided his family when their car overturned during a sledding trip. To keep warm, they burned a tire for heat overnight and shared body warmth. This family was lucky, as just like the man in the story, they had not left word where they were going, when they would be back, and exact instructions on how to find them in case of an emergency.

This is not about Bug-Out-Bags and what you should carry with you at all times. It is about a mental process by which to aid in surviving a disaster, while it is happening, and what steps you should do to come out alive on the other side. Stop doing anything, sit down or kneel until you need to move again, and after taking a few deep breaths, think about everything you passed reaching that point. Think about passing that strange rock or tree; remember your steps as you walked along a pretty part of the trail. Think about how to get back the last place you remember clearly. Then think about where to go next. Was the Sun on the right or the left; was the trail open or steep? And so on. An excellent example of this can be found in Will Smith’s movie, “After Earth (2013)”, in which he instructs his son to calm down, “take a knee” and think about his situation. Later, on his own, Will’s son uses this technique to solve a problem during a life or death scenario to save them.

For the wet traveler, forget the gear and think about getting warm and dry! Take everything off and do push-ups or jumping jacks until you feel a little warmer. Ring out your clothes as best you can, beating them against the rock, if necessary, to remove the water, and lay them out to dry. While everything is drying, try your best to start a fire! Here I would carry a lighter on a cord around your neck to aid in doing so. Flint and steel are fun, but you could die before you get a spark going.

All these steps can save your life if you don’t panic! How do I know? I was the guy that broke his neck in the Northern Woods of Minnesota in 2009. Having said that, I hope you can learn how to survive with a little luck and to learn not to panic.

About the Author

I have been a number of things in my life to include USAF Security Police Officer, Photo Intelligence Specialist, Nuclear Weapons Targeteer as a member of the Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff (JCS/JSTPS) in the Regan years, and Amateur Radio Emergency Services (ARES) Section Emergency Coordinator (SEC) State of Minnesota, American Red Cross Disaster Services Instructor/Mass Care Specialist, NRA Firearms Instructor, and BCA Minnesota Permit to Carry Instructor to name just a few. But through all of this I have been a survivalist and a prepper, and I have used my skill sets to actually survive a number of life challenging situations where my only hope of survival was saving me. 

I currently live with my wife and too many cats and dogs off grid in Mountain View, MO. I can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. My Facebook page at DonaldFranckBooks. And on Twitter at @dfranck1.

Author of A Private War, Darkness Reigns, and Go the Distance.

Last modified on Monday, 12 May 2014 23:45
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