Monday, April 27, 2009

Surviving the Sonoran Desert

April 27, 2009 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

Summer is almost here and temperatures will soon be soaring above 100*F and a review of some summer survival techniques might be appropriate at this time. Each summer we read or hear about a tragic death or deaths resulting from dehydration, exhaustion or sunstroke occurring during the hot summer months on the Sonoran Desert. These summer deaths could be easily prevented with the proper preparation and training.

Living in the Sonoran Desert for sixty years doesn’t make me an expert on the topic of desert survival. However, I would like to pass on a few things I have learned over the decades. Veterans of many desert sojourns in the summer months have died tragically because they took the desert for granted. The older we get sometimes the more careless we become. The most basic rule of desert survival is tell somebody where you are going and when you expect to return. This simple rule can save you or your family’s life.

Now, if you insist on going into the desert during the summer months when temperatures exceed 110 degrees on the ground, you need to consider some other basic rules of survival. For each adult in your group you will need a minimum of one gallon of water per day to prevent dehydration. Yes, you can survive on a quart of water per day under ideal conditions. This means you are in the shade, off of the hot ground and not exerting yourself. Even under these ideal conditions a quart of water per twenty-four hour period will not prevent the onset of dehydration. A rule of thumb is always one gallon of water per day per person on any desert outing in the summer time.

When a family or group of four go trekking into the desert with their four-wheeler, sand buggy, ATV’s or family car they need to carry sufficient water for any emergency. Remember, if you are planning a three day trip into the desert and there are three adults in the group you need a minimum of nine gallons of water. If you have a sufficient quantity of water your survival has been increased threefold.

Large quantities of water can be carried in a vehicle, but what about horsemen and hikers. A hiker or horseman must know the sources of permanent water along the route he or she has chosen. I would like to believe a reasonable hiker or horsemen wouldn’t find themselves in a remote desert setting during the summer months. However, that is not the case anymore. Each summer Search and Rescue pulls dehydrated hikers out of the Superstition Wilderness Area.
Some succumb to the elements of the summer heat.

The next thing one should consider is their method of travel under extreme desert conditions, whether it is by vehicle, horse back or afoot. Surface temperatures can reach 180 Degrees F. on a hot summer day. Temperatures three or four feet above the ground may be only 110 Degrees F. depending on the color and texture of the surface. Dark colored material can increase your body temperature by thirty to forty per cent on a hot day. The best clothing to wear is clothing that reflects the suns rays and heat. The best material is always white. If you are hiking you also must protect your feet from extreme ground temperatures. Few people will attempt hiking in the desert during the heat of the day (1 p.m. until 4 p.m.). If one must hike in the desert during the summer months it is best to hike in the early morning, late evening or at night. Hiking or walking at night does have its disadvantages. The desert is a host to a variety of poisonous reptiles, insects and even an occasional mine shaft.

Vehicle operators often go into the desert during the hot summer months not giving a second thought to the operating conditions for their vehicles. Tragedies can be cause by a flat tire, broken fuel line, dead battery, or a punctured oil pan in the summer time or just simply running out of fuel. A simple flat board might serve as a platform to jack up a stuck vehicle in the sand or to change a flat. Brush placed under a wheel to gain traction when stuck in sand can save your life. A vehicle will do better in sand if you lower the air pressure in the tires. Prior to the many deaths of illegal immigrants trying to cross the border between the United States and Mexico more than sixty per cent of the desert deaths resulted from vehicle becoming stuck in the sand or high centered on a rock. A large percentage of victims perished from the over extension of their physical capabilities.

Remember survival begins immediately, not ten hours after you have become stranded and you realize the consequences of your decisions. People have worked all day in the hot sun trying to free their vehicles suddenly realize they are in a hopeless situation. Once panic controls a person’s actions, survival is dramatically reduced.
No situation is hopeless if preplanning has been undertaken. As soon as you know that you are in a dangerous situation there are three basic rules for survival. One, don’t let yourself panic, Two, stay where you are, and Three, try to signal for help.

You can build a signal fire from desert brush for immediate signaling with smoke. Automotive tires make the best smoke signal. The tires will give off a dense black cloud of smoke that can be seen for miles. You can use your car mirrors to signal aircraft with. One important rule is always to keep a signal fire ready to ignite if you see an aircraft in your vicinity. The international signal for distress is three shots, three fires, or three of anything that can be recognized as distress signals from the air or from a distance.

Many times an individual will not panic until the second or third day. The only control for panic is self-confidence in the fact that you know how to survive the situation. Staying with your vehicle is very important. It is much easier to spot a car than a human being on the desert from the air. Most searches are conducted from the air. If you decide to leave your vehicle it is important that you leave some kind of signal letting rescuers know what direction you are traveling away from your vehicle. Sticks and rocks can serve as excellent markers if properly arranged to indicate direction.

The above suggestions are not guaranteed to save your life, but they will increase your chances of survival. If you choose to walk out, try to walk during the cooler hours of the morning or late evening. Walking after dark would be the best, but there are many hazards on the desert if you don’t have proper lighting. Cactus spines, venomous animals, mine shafts, and pits are just a few of the hazards you could encounter while walking in the dark. The Superstition Wilderness Area, and other desert regions of Arizona have claimed hundreds of lives over the decades from dehydration, exhaustion, and sunstroke. Many illegal aliens die each summer trying to cross the border between the United States and Mexico. Often, summer deaths on the desert exceed one hundred human beings.

Yes, the desert can be extremely dangerous in the summer months. Please use care and preplanning before going off into the desert for a summer adventure.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Monday, April 13, 2009

We Will Never Forget

April 13, 2009 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

Where do you start a story when you are not sure where to begin? Recently I traveled back to Oklahoma City with one primary goal in mind and that was to show my wife and grandson the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. They had both heard my many stories about working on the old Barkley Ranch in the Superstition Mountains. They have often ridden in the mountains with me learning about cowboy life and the mountains. I wanted to show them what I thought was a premiere presentation of the American West at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.

Many years ago I was involved with the induction of the first honoree to receive the Chester A. Reynold’s Award. This involvement brought me in close contact with National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum therefore increasing my desire to show the museum to my family.

The furthest thing from our mind at the time was the Oklahoma Memorial. However, our grandson wanted to visit the site where the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building once stood. His insistence changed the whole meaning of our trip to Oklahoma City. He had studied in school about this cowardly act of domestic terrorism that had occurred in the “Heartland of America” at 9:02 a.m. on April 19, 1995. The bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building claimed one hundred and sixty eight lives and injured more than 800 people that morning.

As we toured the grounds of the memorial we found ourselves in a twilight zone between what we remembered happening on April 19, 1995 and actually walking these sacred grounds reminding us of this day of terror in America’s Heartland. We walked on the same ground that heroes of the moment saved lives, searched for the living, and risked all to pull the injured from the collapsed building.

There were all kinds of heroes that day, trained and untrained. This was not just an attack against innocent people in this federal building, but an attack against all Americans.

Our grandson, Wesley, guided us around the site as if he had been there before. He pointed out it was more than reasonable for us to take the time and visit this special place in the heart of Oklahoma City to reflect, to respect and to remember. We certainly agreed with him once we were on the grounds of the memorial. The reflection pond was once the street in back of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.

This street was where the bomb was placed before detonation. As we stood staring across the long reflection pool at the nine rows of bronze and glass chairs representing the lives of those who perished that day we soon realized how lucky we were to be alive and safe. We were all proud to be Americans. We were also proud of our fifteen year-old grandson who had been so impressed by the memorial and what it stood for.

On the morning of April 19, 1995, at 9:01 a.m., ordinary hard-working Americans were entering and exiting the lobby area of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building when a horrendous explosion brought down almost half of the nine story building, killing and injuring hundreds of people. The Oklahoma City Fire Department’s Emergency Response Team arrived on a scene of complete chaos and disaster.

The firemen said they were not the heroes they were just doing their job. The real heroes, they said, were the untrained ordinary citizens who were rescuing injured people from extremely dangerous environments immediately after the blast in the building. For the next twelve days rescuers and medical personnel worked around the clock to save lives.

Again, as we stood looking across the reflection pool and reminiscing we knew our lives had been changed forever. The most important message our family came away with was, “We will never forget.”

If you’re ever in Oklahoma City we would highly recommend you visit the Oklahoma National Memorial. The experience is overwhelming and reminds you how important it is to be an American and to never forget. It is important that we, as Americans, never forget this cowardly act of domestic terrorism.

Editor’s note:

The Oklahoma City National Memorial is the largest memorial of its kind in the United States. It honors the victims, survivors, rescuers, and all who were changed by the Oklahoma City bombing on April 19, 1995. The memorial is located in downtown Oklahoma City on the former site of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, which was destroyed in the bombing. This building was located on NW 5th Street between N. Robinson Avenue and N. Harvey Avenue.

The National Memorial Museum and the Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism are the two components which are housed in the old Journal Record Building on the north side of the memorial grounds.

The memorial was formally dedicated on April 19, 2000 - the fifth anniversary of the bombing; the museum was dedicated the following year on February 19.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Rattlesnake Season!

April 6, 2009 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

Spring is here early this year. Reptiles, meaning most coldblooded animals, becom very active when temperatures soar. August and September are traditionally the most active months for rattlesnakes on the Sonoran Desert at elevations below 4,000 feet. In the spring reptiles come out of hibernation and begin their search for food. In late fall when temperatures drop below seventy-eight degrees reptiles begin to prepare for hibernation.

I have lived in the Sonoran Desert for the past sixty years and I have encountered hundreds of rattlesnakes. If the truth were known, most of us who walk or hike in the desert will pass by ten snakes for everyone we see. Under most conditions a rattlesnake is very difficult to spot unless it is disturbed and it moves. Rattlesnakes generally rattle before they move, but not always.

A rattlesnake can easily be identified by the triangular shape of its head and the rattle on its tail. A closer examination will reveal an elliptical shaped pupil in its eye. Believe me, I don’t usually get that close to look! This trait is common to poisonous snakes in the Sonoran Desert.

All rattlesnakes will have a pit organ near the nostril orifice. Rattlesnakes come in a variety of colors and patterns. Most rattlesnakes found in our area will have rings around their tails above the rattles. The color of these rings will alternate between black and white in various shades. The visibility of these rings will depend on the species. The Western Diamond Back rattler’s rings are very pronounced and stand out, where as the rings on an Arizona Black is not very visible because of the blending of the rings. Occasionally a rattlesnake will lose it rattlers; when this occurs, the difficulty of identification increases.

Rattlesnakes are ectothermic vertebrates (cold-blooded animals), meaning they lack an appropriate physiological mechanism for maintaining body temperature. All coldblooded animals are at the mercy of their environment. The air and ground temperatures will dramatically affects all reptiles in their environment. This condition directly affects their daily rhythm of activity in their habitat.

There are six species of rattlesnakes in our area. They include the Western Diamond Back (Crotalus atrox), Mohave (Crotalus scutulatus), Arizona Black (Crotalus vidiris), Black-Tailed (Crotalus molossos), Sidewinder (Crotalus cerastes), and the Tiger (Crotalus tigris). These animals have a very highly developed mechanism for injecting venom therefore making them very successful predators on the desert. A rattlesnake’s diet is composed of small rodents 82% to 85% of the time.

Reptiles, including rattlesnakes, like cool shady spots during the spring, summer and fall months. During the winter months rattlesnakes generally go underground and hibernate. They usually choose caves and old mine tunnels. Occasionally dens of rattlesnakes have been accidentally uncovered by construction equipment and hundreds of rattlesnakes are found at one time.

Rattlesnakes have been known to come out of hibernation if temperature warm up to 78 degrees Fahrenheit. The functioning temperature for a rattlesnake is 72 degrees to 78 degrees Fahrenheit and its effective temperature is 82 degrees to 96 degrees Fahrenheit. The effective temperature is the temperature at which the snake moves about and hunts for prey. Direct exposure to heat or sunlight will kill a rattlesnake in 10 to 15 minutes.

You might say rattlesnake season is twelve months a year in the lower Sonoran Desert if temperatures rise above 72 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter months. Rattlesnakes are most commonly sighted from the first of April until about the middle of October. These animals are primarily nocturnal and prefer the hours after sundown and before sunrise. Most victims bitten by rattlesnakes are generally bitten ½ hour before sundown and up to two hours after sundown. It is estimated 72% of all bites occur during this period.

There are some interesting facts about rattlesnakes. The oldest known rattlesnake in captivity was 30 years and 7 months. This snake was a Western Diamond Back (Crotalus atrox). The largest rattlesnake officially recorded was an Eastern Diamond Back (Crotalus adamatus) at 7 feet 4 inches. The largest Western Diamondback was measured live at 6 feet 8 inches. There have been many wild claims about ten to fifteen-foot rattlesnakes, but usually these are snakes that were measured after death and their skin had been stretched. The average distance a rattlesnake can strike and effectively inject venom is approximately onethird of its body length.

Some eighty per cent of all rattlesnake bites are the results of carelessness or the handling of rattlesnakes by older juveniles or young adults. It is now estimated some 20% of rattlesnake bites are accidental or legitimate. About 15% of rattlesnake bites are dry socket-bites, meaning no venom was injected into the victim. The Arizona Poison Control Center and other medical resources reported some one hundred and twenty- one Crotalus envenomizations for the year 1991. This statistics quadrupled in 2003. Again statistics have almost quadrupled for 2005. These numbers continue to increase each year as our population continues to grow and more people head for the outdoors.

How do you know a rattlesnake has actually bitten you and if the reptile injected venom? There are several signs and symptoms of envenomization. First there will be fang marks. These fang marks can be singular, dual or even a scratch.

Fang marks are generally a very small puncture wound. A burning sensation usually follows the injection of venom by the reptile. A metallic or rubbery taste in the mouth often follows a bite, but not always. The tingling of the tongue or numbness can also occur. If a rattlesnake has injected venom into its victim, local swelling will occur within ten minutes. The amount of venom injected is generally indicated by the severity of edema or swelling at fang puncture site. Nausea and weakness is often associated with snakebite. Black or blue discoloration will generally appear near the site of the puncture wounds caused by the snake’s fangs after three to six hours. Every snake bite victim should be treated for shock. Shock is a greater threat to the victim’s survival then the actual venom of the snake.

The following is the recommended first aid for a rattlesnake bite. Call 911 immediately, snakebite is a medical emergency. If medical help is several hours away the following treatment is recommended. Calm and reassure the victim, decrease the movement of the limb. Identify the snake if it is possible without further risk of another bite. It is not recommended to use a constricting band or tourniquet unless you are a medical professional. Many snakebite victims have come into emergency rooms with a constricting band, such as shoelace, completely obliterated by edema or swelling. It is extremely important to move the victim to a medical facility without delay.

The following are some things we can do to prevent rattlesnake bite. When walking in the desert or in any area known for reptile habitation, always look where you step, or place your foot, or feet (caution should always be used at night, late evening, and early morning). Always look where you are placing your hands or fingers. Use extreme caution before placing your hands where you can not see what you are touching.

Always look before sitting down, especially around or near boulders or brush. Think before defecating or urinating in the outdoors. I have observed a variety of bites during the past fifty years that resulted from total lack of common sense. Small children must be closely supervised at all times in areas of possible snake infestation or inhabitation.

If you and your family observe these basic rules you should be safe from snakebite. Again, watch where you put your hands, feet and where you sit. As urbanization continues at the desert edge in Arizona the threat if snakebite is always a reality. Small children have become the tragic victims of snakebite in recent years because of little or no supervision.

I have tried to be as thorough as I can with accurate information about rattlesnakes in Arizona. It is important to take note, the better understanding we have of reptiles, the better chance we have of not becoming a victim of snakebite.

I would like to thank Jude McNally, and his staff, Arizona Poison Control Center, University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona, and Dr. Findlay E. Russell and his enormously valuable resource Snake Venom Poisoning printed by Scholium International, Inc., Great Neck, New York 11021. This book is a physician’s desk reference for snake venom poisoning.

For information call Arizona Poison Control System 1-800-362-0101. (The state legislature may not be funding the Arizona Poison Control Center because of budget cuts this year.) For snake removal in Apache Junction call Apache Junction Fire District at 982-4440.

Tom Kollenborn directed the Snake Alert program for the Apache Junction Unified School District for seventeen years. He attended workshops and worked closely with the University of Arizona Poison Control Center and Medical Center.