Smoke & Mirrors

Part way through a portage you come upon a group carrying a teenage girl on a stretcher. You determine that she has appendicitis and suggest that she be evacuated immediately. As you are talking, you spot a Forest Service float plane overhead. You whip out your Silva compass and aim the mirror at the airplane. Miraculously, sunlight catches the pilots eye. He flies the girl to Grand Marais, Minnesota where her appendix is removed and she lives happily ever after.

You're probably thinking, "Good story, Cliff", considering that you made it up. Nope, not one word.

It happened in 1967 on my first trip to the Boundary Waters (the full story is in my book, "Canoeing & Camping, Beyond the Basics").

It's smart to carry signal gear on any canoe trip, even one close to home. Here are some options:


The chance of reflecting sunlight onto a moving airplane with a standard mirror is almost zero. Yes, it worked once for me-maybe because God directed the beam. Better to get a genuine military heliograph mirror with a sighting hole in the center. With practice, a CD (compact disc) will also work.


Best bang for your buck is an "Olin Hand Orange Smoke Distress Signal". Every marina has them. They ignite like a railroad flare and pour out thick orange smoke for 50 seconds. It's hard to see canoes from the air, but you can't miss smoke! We've used orange smokes on two occasions-and both brought the airplane down!


An airplane you can see is probably close enough to be reached on a VHF aircraft transceiver. A VHF radio with a 15 mile range allows about five minutes of talk time at typical float plane speeds. As a courtesy, most bush pilots will circle and keep you in range until the conversation is done. But high flying jets won't change course, so you better talk fast.


If you charter a power boat on Hudson Bay or a big lake, you'll want a CB radio so you can communicate with the captain. Naturally, you must know the channel of operation before you call.


SPOT Communicator is a tiny, one-way (at this writing) satellite communication device. A button push will activate a global 911 network and initiate search-and rescue. Or, you can send two pre-written messages to your contacts via email. Recently, the unit was paired with the popular Delorme Earthmate PN-60 GPS which provides a type-and-send keyboard and GPS fix. SPOT is sure to evolve considerably by the time you read this. I've been using a SPOT device for the past year, and it earns high marks. Complaints about reception can usually be traced to topography or weather that block the view of satellites-same problems inherent to GPS units and satellite phones.


Globalstar and Iridium are the most popular brands. Iridium has world coverage; Globalstar has some blackout areas. Be advised that rental units see considerable service and batteries may be old and not hold a full charge. It's wise to bring a solar charger if you rent a sat. phone. Note: the little compact solar chargers that sell for under 100 dollars work only if you have bright sun and lots of time on your hands.


You may 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 bush-whacked trail and become confused. Pea-less type whistles like the Fox 40®, which work when flooded, are best.


Brightly-colored canoes, packs, tents and clothing are a recipe for getting found! Read more concerning colors in my article "Color Counts"

Cliff Jacobson is a professional canoe guide and outfitter for the Science Museum of Minnesota, a wilderness canoeing consultant, and the author of more than a dozen top-selling books on camping and canoeing.

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