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Learning first aid for the Newfoundland wilderness

Rene Ritter stands outside a tent perched on a hill in Pippy Park. From here, he offers first aid training with a focus on wilderness survival, so people can be safe outdoors this winter.
Rene Ritter stands outside a tent perched on a hill in Pippy Park. From here, he offers first aid training with a focus on wilderness survival, so people can be safe outdoors this winter. - Juanita Mercer

His friend could have died, now he helps others

Rene Ritter was four days into a trek on Baffin Island, Nunavut, when his friend became hypothermic.

Ritter and two friends were on a 10-day skiing trek. By Day 4, he noticed that his friend was more tired than usual. He also appeared exhausted and sweaty. Ritter was worried.

“We recognized it in him. He was kind of like, ‘I’m OK, I’m OK.’

“But he became hypothermic.”

Someone with hypothermia usually isn’t aware of the condition because the symptoms often begin gradually, and the confused thinking associated with hypothermia can prevent self-awareness.

“We knew it was time to get him to stop (skiing),” said Ritter. “We had a problem.”

Ritter says his friend’s clothes were soaked with sweat from the exertion of skiing, and the wet clothing was quickly transferring heat away from his body.

They were in the middle of nowhere and temperatures were below freezing. Had Ritter not been trained to know what to do in such a situation, things could have turned out much worse for his friend.

“Thankfully, we were able to warm him up and get him into shelter. But he had a really bad experience,” Ritter said.

“And I think that happens a lot. … People will sort of push through their limits or their boundaries, and that’s when bad things happen. Being able to recognize when there’s a problem is often the biggest thing, because sometimes people just pretend that there isn’t a problem.”

The skiing trip was last April. Today, Ritter is teaching others how to be prepared in similar situations through a course called Wilderness First Aid (Basic), an internationally recognized program he offers in partnership with the Canadian Red Cross.

On a cold and windy Sunday morning, eight people are bundled up inside a bright orange tent pitched on the side of a hill in Pippy Park.

Ritter’s hands are covered in what appears to be blood, but he quickly explains that it’s fake.

“We do some simulation in this course so that people can use the tools that they’ve learned in a practical setting. One of those things is dealing with severe blood loss, which obviously is a problem, and that’s where the fake blood comes in.”

One of the course participants, Hutson Myles, explains that they had to drag Ritter out of the woods earlier, bring him into the tent and warm him up — a situation very similar to the one Ritter found himself in last year with his friend on Baffin Island.

Participants say the course is quite valuable for them.

“I think it’s a really great course for anyone that does anything in the outdoors, especially in a place like Newfoundland where there’s lots of rural areas, where people are out fishing, hunting or on their ATVs,” Myles said.

“Especially, the weather changes so fast here, it can get dangerous quickly,” added another participant, Tina Rahimi.

Ritter says that when people get into trouble outdoors, they are too often unprepared to deal with it.

“This training is meant to help people kind of discover how to access the outdoors in a safe way, preventing injuries and just being prepared for worst-case scenario,” he said.

He offered a few of his most essential tips for people who plan to spend some time outdoors this winter.

“Leave a trip plan with somebody. Tell them where you’re going and when you expect to be back. Bring a first aid kit with you, and bring enough food and supplies to last for at least a day more than you expect to be out, just in case you get trapped with bad weather. Know your own personal limitations and don’t push past them.

“And get training. If you feel like you want to start accessing the wilderness, and … you feel uncomfortable doing that, get the training first, before you actually become in a situation where you actually are in trouble.”

Ritter’s next Wilderness First Aid (Basic) course will be offered on Feb. 10 and 11 in St. John’s.

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