Survival: Strategy is Better than a Miracle

I recently read the story of Adrian Knopps, who miraculously survived 7 days on the intertidal zone of the Chickamin River Delta in Southeast Alaska. Hailed as a hero who survived against incredible odds, Knopp appears to have survived despite a series of poor decisions.

According to Detroit News, Mr. Knopps is a resident of Michigan who traveled to Alaska for a ten day hunt with a friend, Garrett Hagen. They traveled to the Chickamin river mouth in Hagen’s 50 foot boat, anchored off the mouth of the river and traveled by skiff upstream, where they shot and quartered an 800 pound bear. They moved the bear’s meat downstream to the mouth of the river in a seven-foot skiff. When they reached the mouth of the river, Knopps stayed ashore while Hagen attempted to transport all of the bear in the seven-foot skiff to his boat, anchored a half-mile off. With the skiff overloaded, Hagen did not make it to his boat and his body was later found floating in the inlet 30 miles away.

Knopps was left ashore with no way to get to the boat. He had no food and was wearing only light clothing and a windbreaker. He had no means of communication. He had the ability to make a fire, and he had a rifle and a knife. His trip was supposed to last at least seven more days, so no one would know he was in trouble.

Knopps was in a wide intertidal zone that would be covered with water at high tide. He had a river on one side and mountains on the other. In front of him was the ocean and behind him the river valley snaked back into the mountains. He was in Southeast Alaska in the fall, but with a rifle, knife, and the ability to start  fire, he was still not in the worst position.

Map of the location where Mr. Knopps was stranded. Source: Detroit News.

Map of the location where Mr. Knopps was stranded. Source: Detroit News.

At this point, he began to make poor decisions.

Knopps looked around and chose the highest point in the tidal flats and moved to a position near a driftwood tree on the low knoll. He did not move to the foot of the mountain, because he had seen bear and wolf tracks there. The roots of the dead tree reached fifteen feet into the air, and he climbed up and clung to them during high tides, when the entire flats were covered and his feet were in the waves. He gathered wood for a fire, but high tide put his fire out and washed the wood away. The ground was wet even at low tide, so he did not sit or lay down. He lashed himself to the tree roots with his belt at times o keep himself upright as he tried to sleep. He estimated that he slept for a total of only 3 hours that week. Each morning at low tide, he walked to the foot of the mountain to drink fresh water.

It began to rain on the second day. By the fifth day winds had increased to seventy miles-per-hour. On the sixth day the boat began drifting away, and Knopps carved a goodbye message on the stock of his rifle and hung it by the sling on a driftwood tree.

On day seven, he lay in the beach grass and awaited high tide, convinced he could not survive any longer. Later that day, he heard a Coast Guard helicopter entering the river valley. Hagen’s boat had been spotted adrift and the Coast Guard was searching for the missing men. The crewmen did not see him when they entered the valley, but when they came back downstream, he waved his life jacket, and a crewman happened to see him as the chopper was leaving the area.

That Knopps survived those conditions for seven days is amazing. That he spent seven days in those conditions shows a lack of survival skills and knowledge.

Here are the mistakes he made:

He did not go ashore mentally prepared for survival.
Hi did not bring appropriate clothing.
He considered bears and wolves a greater threat than cold and wet.
He stayed on the tidal flats of the river delta – the most exposed position in the area, and a position covered by water at high tide.
He did not find or build any kind of shelter, and made only a poor attempt at a fire.
He did not find food.
He did not plan and build any signals for searching aircraft.

To be fair to Mr. Knopps, survival skills are something that must be learned, and Alaska is a totally different place from the woods of Michigan. Survival in Alaska take skills and knowledge that are not required in other parts of the country. People hunting in Alaska should be prepared to survive in Alaska, and Alaskans hosting hunters from outside should prepare their guests with basic survival skills.

I grew up in bush villages in Southeast Alaska. With travel in small float planes and boats in a sparsely populated region, survival and first aid training were an important part of our public school curriculum. With this background, I can offer some advice for anyone who may find themselves in a similar situation to Mr. Knopps.

Communication is important

Tell someone exactly where you are going, how you are getting there, and how long you will be there. Include any alternate locations you may decide to go to on the way. Leave a map, if possible. Don’t tell only the bush pilot or charter boat skipper who is dropping you off – he might not make it back, and your information will disappear with him.

Don’t count on cell phones. The news report made mention of the fact that Knopps’ cell phone was left on the boat. It is unlikely that the phone could have been used even if he had it. Visitors to Alaska must understand that there is very little wireless coverage in the state.

A satellite phone is very useful. They are also very expensive, and few people have them. Some companies rent satellite phones for short term use. Keep in mind that when using a satellite phone in Alaska, you may have difficulty getting good contact with a satellite, and depending on your latitude and terrain, you may need to gain elevation in order to communicate.

Use radios. Most boats in Alaska have VHF radios. You can make a phone call from a radio by using the marine operator. If you are out of range of the person you are trying to reach, you can still contact someone who can relay a message, and tying in to the next point, a lack of communication can be communication. A hand-held VHF may have allowed Knopps to contact a nearby vessel.

Have a communication plan. Establish a plan to contact someone at regular intervals. If you do not make contact, then this person will have reason to believe that you are in need of assistance. This should be set up in a reasonable way, so you are not raising false alarms by establishing intervals that you cannot reasonably meet. If Mr. Hagan had established a communication plan, a rescue may have been co-ordinated within a day or two, instead of seven days later.

Carry basic survival supplies.

Knopps mentioned that he was dressed lightly because the weather was warm when they were hunting. He should have carried some warmer clothing as well. A fleece is light and easy to carry. In Southeast Alaska, rain gear should always be carried. Had he carried a fleece and a set of rain gear, he would have been in much better shape. I always also carry extra socks.

Make sure you have a knife and a means to start fires. I have carried a knife and a lighter since I was five years old.

Some type of rope is always useful. You can carry a good amount of 550 cord (parachute cord) easily. It can even be made into a bracelet, key ring, or rifle sling. The “guts” of the 550 cord can be pulled out, supplying strong, small strings for many uses, like fishing or sewing.

Have a way to boil water. Just a small metal cup will work fine. There are now space-age foldable water containers that can be used to heat water and to cook in. Alternately, carry a purification filter. Water can be boiled in birch bark, if you know how. The last thing you need when trying to survive is a bad case of diarrhea.

Carry extra ammunition. Ammunition can be used for hunting, defense against predators, but most importantly, for signaling. A rifle shot can be heard from miles away when echoing off of the mountains. Signaling with a rifle can take a considerable amount of ammunition.

Carry a small .22 pistol. This can be the most useful firearm you have. You can use it to shoot squirrels, grouse, porcupines, seagulls, ducks, or any other small animals that can be eaten. You are much more likely to survive by eating small animals than trying to catch big ones.

Know how to signal for help.

Use whatever means that you have to signal for help. Mr. Knopps had a helicopter crew that was specifically searching for him fly past him twice, and the second time he was only seen on a chance as a crew member glanced back as the chopper left the area. He should have been finding ways to signal for help.

Signal method like flares and signal mirrors can be effective. Signal fires can be prepared and lit when a boat or aircraft is in the area. In Mr. Knopps’ case, arranging drift wood above the high tide lines would have likely alerted the chopper crew to his presence.

Move to the most advantageous position and find or build shelter.

The fact that Mr. Knopps stayed in the tidal flats for seven days is astonishing to me. At the foot of the nearby mountain he had fresh water and shelter available. In that part of the state, you can stay dry under the larger hemlock and spruce trees, even in the rain. The tree branches also provide material from which to build a shelter from rain, wind, and to build a comfortable bed. If you cannot find a way to stay warm and dry and get sleep, you will become less likely to make good decisions as your exhaustion increases. Your body will also lose its ability to warm itself.

The most advantageous location might be the location from which you are most likely to be found. In other cases, it might be that in order to find shelter and fresh water, you have to move from an area where searchers will be looking. Be sure in any case to leave signals in any area where searchers may look or where they are likely to be seen from likely travel corridors. If they are close enough, you may travel from your sheltered location to the likely search location each day to be prepared to signal rescuers.

Shelter is very important. You can find food and build distress signals, and everything else you need to do if you can stay warm and dry. If you can’t stay warm, you will lose the ability to do everything else you need to do.

A fire is important to dry clothes and provide warmth. It can also be used to cook food and purify water. Signal fires can be used to produce smoke plumes and light to alert rescuers.

Find fresh water.

The great thing about Alaska is that there is water everywhere. Still, it is possible to get caught in a location where you cannot find drinkable water. Dirty or silty fresh water can be allowed to sit until contaminants settle out of it. Salt water can be evaporated and condensed into fresh water using a number of methods. Water can even be extracted from the ground or from vegetation. Rain water can be captured using skunk cabbage leaves, seaweed, or bark, or your raincoat or poncho. In any case, don’t drink salt water, no mater how thirsty you are, and purify any fresh water if possible.  If you have no way to purify water, then choose small, clear, fast-moving streams coming down steep mountains over larger, slower-moving streams. In other words, try to choose those creeks that are unlikely to have any animals spending any time in them.

Find food.

Knowing how to find food is an important skill. The skills required vary between regions.

First, try to carry enough food to keep you going initially, so you are not tempted to be looking for food when you should be worried about shelter and fire.

Second, think small. People think that survival means trying to take down a deer. Wolves feast on caribou when the herds come through, but they survive on voles and lemmings. Forget large animals unless the opportunity presents itself.

If you drop me on most beaches in the part of the world that Mr. Knopps was stranded in, with a way to make a fire, I can have an excellent meal prepared in little time, just by flipping over rocks. If I don’t have a fire, I will still eat the same things, I just won’t enjoy them as much. Mussels, limpets, chitons, snails and other mollusks are usually easily found. I have eaten some of these animals raw at times, but prefer to cook them. Gunnelheads, small crab, and an occasional small octopus may be found under rocks. Tidal pools have small fish. Even beaches that are somewhat barren will have mussels and barnacles. Seaweeds are always abundant. If I had the opportunity, I would always head for the beach. In that area, it is the easiest way to find rich food. In Knopps’ case, he would most likely have needed to move away from the river delta to find the most abundant beaches. In the muddier delta area, low tide would likely trap flounder and some types of crab in shallow pools, along with sea urchins and other edible sea creatures.

Every coastline in Alaska is alive with birds. Seagulls are still eaten by many native people. Geese and ducks are common in certain parts of the year, and some ducks stay all year round. Cormorants, murres, aucklets, and puffins can be eaten, as well as forest birds like grouse, ptarmigan, and even songbirds. Just be sure that anything you are catching is worth the effort – some of the smaller birds have little meat.

Fish are a great source of food and can be caught easily in many situations. Carry hooks and line with you. If you don’t have a hook, you can make them, but it is much easier and more effective to carry them in with you. A fish spear can be used for certain types of fish, and is easily made. They do take some practice to use.

Voles, marmots, parka squirrels, and other small animals can be snared with a bit of patience. You might have to use your boot laces, if you didn’t bring cord.

Seaweeds are a very valuable food source, waiting to be picked up. Beaches usually produce beach asparagus and goose tongue. And I will go out of my way to eat beach asparagus any time I find it. In the woods there are many edible plants. The leaves of berry bushes can be eaten, as can ferns. A tea can be made from hemlock or spruce needles. Certain trees have edible leaves and even inner bark. Reading up on edible plants in any area you will be is a good idea.

Never eat indian celery, unless you know exactly how to tell it from water hemlock. Avoid plants that you do not recognize if possible, and stay away from mushrooms unless you are an expert, and even then it might not be a good idea.

Make a careful plan.

Take the time to think through your situation. Make a plan for finding shelter and staying warm. Make a plan for finding food and water and for signaling for help. If you or others are injured, make a plan for the best long-term treatment of the injuries. Prioritize work and distribute responsibilities.

Take stock of your assets. What did you bring in with you and how can it all be best used? What environmental assets do you have available to you?

Make a list of short term goals necessary for your immediate survival. Then begin planning for long-term survival in case it become a necessity.

Decide whether it is best to await rescue or if you will need to extract yourself. Weigh the possibilities and risks very carefully.If you need to extract yourself, plan travel routs and methods carefully. Be careful about deciding to travel to safety on your own. If people know where you are, and you become overdue, you are much more likely to be rescued by remaining close to the area that will be searched.

Recognize the greatest threats.

Mr. Knopps stayed in the tidal flats without any shelter, even during high tide when the flats were covered, and in the rain and winds up to 70 mph. He had shelter available at the nearby foot of the mountain, along with fresh water, but he stayed in the most exposed location for seven days because he was afraid of bears and wolves.

In reality, bears and wolves are a much smaller threat than cold and starvation. He was no safer from predators on the tidal flats. The position he chose was, in fact, one of the worst he could have chosen. Having personally come close to being trapped in just such a position by an advancing tides on several occasions, I am horrified at the thought of being in such a position.

Take advantage of any resource that presents itself.

I was amazed to read that Mr. Knopps saw a bear walking past, and hid by his log until the bear passed by without seeing him. The bear could have been food, shelter, and warmth for him if he had shot it. The meat could have fed him, and the hide would have kept him both warm and dry.

Be ready to take advantage of any resource that suddenly presents itself. Be ready to eat anything, to sleep under a raw bear hide, to signal a passing aircraft at any moment.

Above all, develop the knowledge you need to stay alive in any location that you find yourself.

Don’t stay alive by a miracle; stay alive by skill and intelligence.

I will follow this article up with a step-by-step plan detailing what I would likely do in the same situation.

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5 Responses to “Survival: Strategy is Better than a Miracle”

  1. Excellent advice! The council you provide in your review of this survival scenario…if followed will save a life.
    Many mistakes were made by Knopp and Hagen. If they would have thought of slowing down and using some simple common sense I feel strongly that we wouldn’t be hearing or seeing this story and Mr. Hagen would likely still be alive. We all have made foolish mistakes
    in life unfortunately Knopps and Hagens mistakes cost Hagen his life!
    My recommendation to all that read your review and advice is to follow every word and maybe all will go well with your next adventure!

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  2. amazing. one exceptionally high tide and even that tree would have been under water. suburbanites in the wild. I wonder if he’s the kind of guy that would walk into traffic while his nose was buried in his cell phone.
    I think his poor choices began even before he began the ordeal on the beach as evidenced by the demise of his friend; overloading the boat, his only means of maritime travel.
    I guess he never heard of the 10 essentials? (Even on “day” hikes in the lower 48, those are always with me.)

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  3. This article was fantastic! I was considering that it would not be immediately necessary because giardia usually takes a weak or two to affect the body and then can be treated after a regiment of antibiotics. (Healthline.com)This would help conserve energy and resources when a solution is sought in the given time constraints. The back country of Alaska could nullify such a hasty resort but if I’m looking longer than a weak my brain says build a house and fill your perverbial fridge to help keep you warm. It also keeps your mind busy and positive. I’ve been hanging out on overnighters in the winter and we never got cold because we were building shelter staying busy. The right clothes are critical and always remember “Cotton kills” in cold and wet scenarios!

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  4. You’ve stated that one should carry a small .22. What models do you suggest?

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    • There are a number of great .22 pistols, and also compact rifles. A great choice is the Ruger Bearcat; high quality, very compact. That is the way I would lean.

      A full-size pistol is heavier and larger, but smaller than a rifle, and can be a good choice if you are not as concerned with size and weight.

      If you have room for a rifle in your pack, then something like a Savage Rascal is very small, or one of several folding or takedown rifles, like Henry’s survival rifle could work well.

      Like

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