Spruce traps and yoga

Paul Smith
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What to do when you get that sinking feeling

Two weeks ago I wrote about beaver trapping and the wonderful hats that were crafted from their under fur. A friend and former co-worker emailed me with an interesting bit of information. Actually he was my immediate supervisor when I started working in the college system 25 years ago.

Alan Cass of Bristol’s Hope is an outdoorsman and very knowledgeable historian. We had many long and interesting discussions about wandering the woods, life in the old days, cod fishing, trouting, schooners, curing fish, fishing stages, and lots more Newfoundland cultural stuff.

Although he’s originally from England, Alan knows more about our province and former nation than anyone else I know. I certainly missed him when he retired.

Alan wrote that my account of trapping beaver reminded him of an 18th-century court case about possession of a beaver lodge. He captured my undivided attention at this point, having never heard of a legal battle over a beaver house.

The case was presented to Lt. John Cartwright, surrogate, in Harbour Grace in October of 1766, and was between Isaac Smith of Bread and Cheese Cove and William French of Bay Roberts.

French claimed he had taken possession of a beaver lodge in September 1765 by marking it with his name, but had been unable to return to it because of sickness until the next fall. Again healthy and back in the woods, he found Smith had taken possession of his beaver house.

French claimed the furriers’ code allowed him possession for a year and a day. Cartwright ruled in favour of Smith, and stated that possession should only be between October and March, for fear that fishing servants would waste their fall time cruising the woods.

I wrote Alan back to tell him that Isaac Smith was most likely one of my ancestors, a great-great and so on grandfather. Bread and Cheese Cove, now Bishops Cove, is where my father was born and grew up.

Alan wrote me a while back on another matter. He had read a column about my experience falling into a snow hole during the big snow winter of 2000–2001. He gave me some good advice on carrying a ski pole or some sort of device to help extract oneself from deep powder. Alan had suffered a similar experience with deep snow, a spruce tree and snowshoes. He managed to get himself out by using a walking stick to upright himself and get his racquets manoeuvred into a vertical orientation. Then he was able to roll back onto solid snowpack.

As I explained previously, evergreen trees, both spruce and fir, hold snow on their limbs and interfere with its normal packing and settling characteristics. If you happen to walk by a tree that’s barely sticking up out of the snow, there’s a very good chance that you might go right to your neck, even while wearing snowshoes, and those big shoes on your feet make it that much harder to extricate yourself. It’s happened to me a few times over the years, but no serious harm came of it. My buddy Robert enjoyed a fine laugh over one particular incident, and that’s the one I wrote about some weeks ago.

Head first

This past week while sipping morning coffee and reading the news I learned plenty more about snow hole dangers. I discovered an article on www.cbc.ca about a fellow by the name of Chris Johnson who had a very serious encounter with a deep snow sink hole, and he captured the whole thing on camera.

He was wearing one of those GoPro head cameras while backcountry skiing off trail in beautiful British Columbia. He tumbled head first into the hole after veering off trail just a short distance, but out of sight from his buddies. One second he’s happily skiing along and in an instant you see nothing but snow through his camera’s eye.

Chris is upside down in about nine feet of snow. Snow enters his lungs, but he remains calm and recalls a video he had watched about survival in a snow well (that’s the official name given to these traps I’ve  previously coined as winter sink holes. They are also referred to in ski country as spruce traps.)

Johnson keeps his cool, essential in any survival situation, and manages to reach down and release his ski bindings.  You’d never get yourself out with skis attached. Then he uprights himself by performing a rollover of sorts.

Can you imagine his predicament? Likely it was difficult to even differentiate up from down. I suppose he could see light towards the surface of the snow.

In any event, once he had his head pointed skyward, he poked a hole up through the snow and through the surface with his ski pole. Now he could breath easily once again. He regained composure and strength, and then climbed up the tree to Earth’s life-nurturing, oxygen-soaked atmosphere.

Wow, what a lucky man, and an amazing story of staying cool under pressure. You can see the video and read lots more by searching Chris Johnson falls in snow well on Google.

Statistically, Johnson defied the odds that were stacked against him. Before reading about this, I had no idea how dangerous and deadly these snow wells can be.

First off, 90 percent of people who fall into a snow well cannot get themselves out without assistance. It goes without saying that you will die in the snow if nobody comes to your rescue. There have been two deaths in Canada and three in the U.S. already this year.

Snow wells are estimated to account for 20 per cent of all skiing fatalities. The danger is statistically the same as that of avalanches, but typically gets less coverage by the media, until now, thanks to a very dramatic event captured digitally for us all to see up close and personal. Thanks, Chris, for contacting the CBC and getting the word and image out there.

Obviously, the threat and danger of spruce traps is far greater in the B.C. backcountry than here in Newfoundland. There’s far more skiing and lots more deep powder. We tend to move more slowly around the woods, and our snow gets packed down by rain and mild spells.

That said, those of us who love to travel the woods in winter should be aware of these natural booby traps. I’ve gone down several times and so has Alan Cass.

I’d love to hear about my readers’ experiences with these things, so please share.

The snow is actually getting pretty deep right now and shallower traps might be forming here and there. If we didn’t have that massive January thaw there would certainly be plenty of deep and potentially deadly spruce traps in our woods.

How do we protect ourselves?

First off, avoid walking near tops of smaller trees sticking up out of the snow. Also watch out for loose snow around the base of bigger trees. It’s the latter scenario that’s most common in B.C., but here in N.L. traps form more commonly around smaller and buried trees.

When you are travelling in deep snow, stay in sight of a buddy. This is critical because it is very difficult to get yourself out of trouble when you have skis, a snowboard or snowshoes attached to your feet. Carry a whistle on a lanyard around your neck; it’s essentially useless buried deep in your pack. If you choose not to travel in line of sight with your friends, use two-way radios and scheduled check-ins to stay safe. Wear bright clothes, not winter camouflage; you may want to be seen.

If you spend a lot of time in the outdoors, it pays to stay in good physical condition. Most importantly, you need to maintain your flexibility, which naturally deteriorates as you grow older.

Chris Johnson might not have gotten his skis detached without flexible hamstrings. If you have difficulty lacing your boots, you need to take action.

Consider a routine of regular stretching or yoga sort of exercises. It may some day save your life.

A measure of yoga might also ease the hurt if you perform the splits on slippery rocks, either salmon fishing or moose hunting.

Give some consideration to stretching those aging muscles.

Paul Smith, a native of Spaniard’s Bay, fishes and wanders the outdoors at every

opportunity. He can be contacted

at flyfishtherock@hotmail.com, or follow him on twitter @flyfishtherock

Organizations: Google, CBC

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Bristol, England British Columbia Canada U.S. N.L.

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