Coast Guard trainees forage for seaweed, shiver in cold

Posted: Sunday, February 01, 2009

Cold-weather survival training conducted by U.S. Coast Guard members stationed in Alaska is legendary, and also somewhat feared by rookies.

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Kate Golden / Juneau Empire
Kate Golden / Juneau Empire

After a few days of classes, service members took their newfound skills to West Douglas Island for three days, eating sashimi and seaweed off the beach and fending largely for themselves. They are allowed three layers of clothing, a coffee can for each team of five or six, a JetBoil stove, and whatever each person can fit inside one sandwich-size Ziploc bag.

Team Moose coordinated its packing list so that each person brought some essentials for the group, such as saws or fuel canisters. The contents of Robert Mosteller's bag, for example, contained rope, plastic, grits (he's from Georgia) and a deck of cards to pass the time.

The cards are a nod to Mosteller's classroom training. Dug Jensen and Jim Michener, Sitka-based instructors of Educational Training Co., like military and outdoor instructors everywhere, are fond of lists, gimmicks or mnemonics, whatever will help their near-hypothermic trainees remember the important bits. They have drummed the "Seven Elements of Survival" into these students, which are: Recognition, inventory, shelter, signal, water, food and play (where the deck of cards fits in).

Mosteller's teammates learned the importance of play the first night. The weather had warmed up, but it was still wet and miserable. They were not allowed fire and had spent eight hours building their Moose Lodge out of logs and spruce branches, with a box spring of spruce and a mattress of hemlock, and a plastic liner tacked in.

From the outside, it looks like a hobbit's hovel. From the inside, it's puzzling how six people are supposed to fit. Each took in a hot-water bottle that night, at the urging of teammate Salomee Fisher. As they snuggled for warmth, one teammate came up with a "shiver cadence."

"The jokes kept us warm," Fisher said.

"We've got play down pat," Mostelle added.

"The shelter is a little iffy, though," said teammate Megan Archer.

Fisher, a newly commissioned officer, was told she had to pass or leave Alaska. She has poor circulation in her hands and feet, and her job as a vessel inspector requires travel in float planes. Float planes go down frequently enough that the Coast Guard wants to make extra sure Archer and her cold hands can deal with Alaska's elements.

Lessons in cooking

That morning Team Moose was peckish. Dinner had been limited to tea. Robert and Scott Lerum poked around on the mussel-encrusted beach. They knew not to eat the mussels, though the full and horrifying lesson on PSP, or paralytic shellfish poison, was yet to come. They foraged for seaweed, intertidal critters and clamshell soup spoons.

Back at camp, Lerum cooked up a seaweed-rice-bouillon stew dubbed "wild jambalaya." A fire, allowed from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m., dried out a clothesline of jackets and a plank of orange gloves. Knives, line and other supplies adorned another bench. They were getting used to the cold and were in high spirits as they settled in back at camp.

"Grab a shell and dig in," said Lerum when the stew was finished.

A colleague tried it, and then advised Lerum to postpone opening a restaurant just yet.

"Beggars can't be choosers," Lerum replied.

"Mom's going to yell at us for eating in bed," said a voice from inside the Moose Lodge.

The anonymous voice was referring to Fisher, the team's lone officer, who also had been dubbed team mom by her fellow trainees. Mom indeed, as Fisher wasn't too keen on crumbs in the shelter.

Instructors Jensen and Michener came by to critique the group's fire. They left a brick of life raft rations for the hungry group, which came with a warning attached that it causes diarrhea to the dehydrated, which they all were. But they reported it was delicious, like a coconut cookie.

Food is high on the list, but it's not the top priority for survival, said Michener. The class is designed to teach people who are used to three meals a day that it's possible to live on less.

Food was reserved as a reward. The instructors surprised the group with one hot dog each on the second day, just to make sure they didn't pass out, but extras went to the team that built the best shelter.

The Moose Lodge didn't take any awards, as the group learned on a tour of all the shelters. The Lodge was dinky in comparison to the other spruce manses, though it had its good points, too.

"What I'm hearing is that you were pretty warm last night," said Michener to Team Moose. "That is the beauty of a small, tight shelter."

"I still like it," said Fisher, ever positive.

The Moose team would have time that afternoon to build an addition to their small, spruce abode. And they'd need it, with forecasts of sleet and high winds on the way. They would be allowed a fire that night, but it wouldn't fit in their current flat.

First, though, they had more lessons to learn.

Instructors Michener and Jensen are naturally perky. And they had slept in tents near the students, though not spruce shelters, and had gotten about three-times the sleep of their students.

The whole idea of experiential education is that students learn what works and what doesn't - in a visceral way. Being scared a bit is good, because the trainees will take steps to prevent feeling that way again.

Lessons from a bunny

Vividness is key to the lectures as well. Sometimes when Jensen talks, his eyes bug out a little. He's loud and asks questions constantly to keep students engaged. Michener plays the straight man to Jensen's buffoon.

On Thursday the two instructors explained y the dangers of eating bivalves. Michener detailed the woes of the Russians, who brought the Tlingits along as camp chefs on an otter hunt not long after their battle and truce in Sitka centuries ago. The Tlingits cooked up some mussels from a place now called Poison Cove, where dozens of Russian bodies were found on the beach.

Meanwhile, Jensen illustrated the effects of the poison by exuberantly killing a fuzzy rabbit puppet with imaginary PSP. Later, the reanimated bunny taught them how to fashion a snare, too.

The group learned how to read a tidebook, clean and eat sea urchins, where to find licorice fern, how to get drinking water from a line hung on a tarp, and that a tarp and dry tent is lighter to carry than a wet tent by itself. Those were just a few lessons learned.

As it happened, Team Moose's remodeling went poorly. Wind and weight collapsed a rotten beam. The team started to come apart as good humor morphed into anxiety. Three people, including Fisher, hiked up to the next camp; the other three stayed behind.

"That struck home. It's a controlled environment, but it can still be dangerous," Fisher said. "We were devastated."

Lessons in empathy

They all reconvened on the path the next morning, each sharing horror stories from the previous night. One again their bond was restored.

And they had a special enthusiasm for their next challenge. The team that made the best signal in an open clearing Friday morning would walk out of the forest before the others.

Team Moose turned everything they'd brought into a distress signal: Coals, tarp, aluminum foil, shouting and whistling. It was enough to win the donuts and an early exit from the forest around 6:35 a.m. Fisher encouraged her team to soothe their smoke-scorched faces with aloe vera.

Fisher's instructors knew of her particular need to pass. But they described her as one of the stars of the class, a natural leader. "Not an issue," Michener said he'd report back about Fisher's circulation issues.

Fisher dislikes slimy things, and is unlikely to eat urchins unless she absolutely must. She learned the techniques of building shelter and conserving energy in the woods. But for her, the takeaway lesson was this:

"(The training) teaches us empathy for the people we're saving. I think that's really important," she said. "We don't want anyone to suffer like that."

Final lesson

In a warm, well-lighted conference room, the bleary-eyed students took their last training class that morning: Debrief and analysis. What worked and what didn't? They called out their ideas, with Michener writing each down on a poster.

But what did they wish they had known? Smoke plus steam equals stinging rain inside a shelter. There's never enough wood, and never enough bedding. LEDs are superior to incandescent bulbs. Take time; don't rush. Stay moving. Get the Yak-Tracks with Velcro, not the stretchy ones.

The walls were festooned with the posters from a dozen past classes. Each brief entry told a vivid story: "If shelter catches fire, do you have your boots on to get out?"

The debriefing featured an ambassador from the dangers for which the students had trained.

Coast Guard member Eric Hunter returned this week from a three-hour tour that had morphed into a 23-hour adventure.

Hunter was in a University of Alaska Southeast backcountry class with two instructors and six students. Two had never snowshoed before. They were headed from Spaulding Meadows back to UAS. Hunter said the instructor, a high-mountain guide, was taking inverse readings from his compass. But it was four hours before anyone thought to question him.

"I began to think that the leader didn't know where he was," Hunter said.

Fatigue led to more bad decisions. They didn't have enough calories or clothing to stay warm. But they kept moving, stayed positive, and eventually heard the distinct sound of the Auke Bay generators.

For a three-hour hike, Hunter had taken a survival pack that included a stove and a day's worth of food. He made a space-blanket poncho for one girl to wear under her clothes; something he learned from the cold-weather survival class.

• Contact Kate Golden at 523-2276 or

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