Surviving Custer, by R.S.

Let’s be honest, how many of you ever expect to find yourself in a survival situation? You’ve probably day dreamed about it, wondering how you’d fare. The fact is, we don’t walk out the door in the morning expecting to find ourselves in a predicament.

I certainly never expected to find myself in such a “survival” situation on a summer day in South Dakota’s Custer State Park. Yet, there I was facing such a situation just last summer. We had finally taken our long-awaited family vacation “out West”. We live in the suburbs outside a large Midwestern city. So the lure of loading up the RV and heading west on an adventure had been alive and well with us for some time. As any good tourist would, we planned the route that would take us through the Badlands and eventually to Mt. Rushmore. What could be more American, right?

Having grown up in Boy Scouts, being prepared is practically part of my DNA. In the last few years, I’ve ramped things up a bit and have been more diligent about keeping a go-bag in my car along with a variety of other things that would be useful in a pinch. I’ve done the same for the RV, since we occasionally find ourselves in some remote places. On this particular trip we chose to tow my car behind the RV so we would have it at our disposal for day trips.

One of those day trips took us just down the road from Mt. Rushmore to Custer State Park. If you’ve never been, the Black Hills of South Dakota are stunning, and Custer State Park is in the middle of it all. There is a beautiful lake there called Sylvan Lake, which might be most well-known for its appearance in the movie National Treasure: Book of Secrets. If you recall the scene where they are at Mt. Rushmore and they seemingly go behind the monument to look for the entrance to the cave while pouring water on the rocks, that’s actually filmed at Sylvan Lake.

In reality, the lake is some 14 miles from the monument and doubles as the trailhead for Harney Peak, which is the tallest mountain in North America east of the Rockies. It was that peak that we had come to conquer!

There were two families in our group. The guys decided to hike the Harney Peak trail, while the girls hiked around the lake. We initially thought the trail was 3.5 miles round trip. Only later did we realize that it was 3.5 miles to the top. Considering we were only planning to be out for a couple of hours, I only took a small Camelback backpack with me. I packed some trail food, a pocket knife, and the water in the bag, and we set off.

We had a great, if tiring, hike up. The views from the top were beautiful. Shortly into our descent my oldest son badly twisted his ankle, further aggravating a previous injury. He had difficulty putting any weight on it, which meant I had to assist him all the way down. As you can imagine, this slowed our descent significantly.

Learning Lesson

As prepared as you think you are, you never have everything you need. I had packed a small first aid kit, but not my larger kit that included an ACE bandage.

Prior to setting out on our hikes, we coordinated with the girls and set a time and place to meet after our hikes. One thing we quickly realized once we got into the hills around Mt. Rushmore was that cellular reception was essentially non-existent. In Custer State Park it was totally non-existent. Calling to update the girls on our status was not an option.

Seeing as we were moving so slowly, we knew we would not make the pre-determined rendezvous time. We decided to have my younger son and his cousin jog the trail to the bottom to inform the others that we were going to be late. It took us quite some time to finish the descent to meet the rest of the group. By the time we met up with them, half the group, including my younger son, had taken the second car and gone to dinner. The plan was for us to meet them at the restaurant.

My wife stayed behind to wait for us. She let us know what the plan was, and we headed to the car to meet up for dinner. As we approached the car, I asked my wife if she had gotten the car keys out of my bag, which my younger son had carried down the trail. This is where it all went wrong! He had taken the bag with him, not knowing that my keys were in it!

I realize this is a bit of a long story. However, it’s important to see how a relatively innocuous hike in a reasonably unthreatening environment can turn into a survival situation, even when nothing dramatic happens. It really can happen to anyone at any time.

So there we are at almost 6pm in the evening with the shadows starting to lengthen. We didn’t have any car keys, the parking lot only had a few cars remaining, and my son had a busted ankle.

On the other side of the lake was a lodge that serviced the park. We made our way to the lodge just before it closed at 6pm. At this time we were assuming that the people who were expecting us for dinner would begin to wonder where we were and that eventually they would come back for us. Seeing as our cell phones didn’t work, we used the landline to call our friends. No dice. Their phones still didn’t get any reception. The lodge was closing, so we headed back to the car. By the time we got back, the parking lot had cleared out, and there was no one else in sight.

At this point, you’re probably asking yourself why we didn’t ask any number of people for help. That’s a good question. As it was happening we didn’t really think that we were in a pickle. Even now, I’m not sure what we would have asked for. Placing a call wouldn’t have done us any good. Asking for a ride would have been problematic, as our friends could have left the restaurant and we don’t know how willing our ride would have been to drive us all over South Dakota.

We resolved to wait it out. What we didn’t know was that our friends were doing the same thing. They were thinking that if they left the restaurant then we wouldn’t know how to find them! It was classic, right?

When we got back to the car, I started thinking about how I was going to go about getting into my car should we be stuck for the night. I had a couple of blankets, my larger go-bag with many more supplies in it, not to mention the protection of the car itself, if we had to spend the night. I wasn’t yet desperate enough to bust out the window, so we decided to start a fire in one of the fixed camp grills nearby.

If you’ve ever watch Bear Grylls on TV and heard him talk about the psychological boost you get from starting a fire in a survival situation, he is 100% right. I wasn’t freaking out at all. In fact, I was kind of looking forward to roughing it for the night. Worst case, people would come in the morning. No one was going to die. However, we were looking at a cold night with no food, which my wife was not nearly as excited about.

I kept thinking about the car. I carry that go-bag with me everywhere, and the one time I needed it it was locked up tight in my car. I always lock my car. Most of the time the only reason I lock it is because that bag is in there with a bunch of stuff in it that, when summed up, cost me quite a bit of money.

Then I realized that I wasn’t the last one in my car. My wife had driven it and she has a bad habit of leaving it unlocked, trusting in the goodness of humanity. So I asked, “Honey, do you remember if you locked the car?” She wasn’t sure. I check the door handle. She hadn’t. For once in my life, I was thrilled that she hadn’t locked it.

At that point, our prospects improved dramatically. Sleeping in the car, while uncomfortable, would protect us from the elements. We had access to more food and the case of water I keep in the car. Also, if that failed I keep a LifeStraw in my go-bag. We now had a tarp, blankets, flashlights, solar charger, and much more.

So much of modern day prepping is centered on supplies. Don’t get me wrong; I love gear as much as the next guy (clearly), but the best gear in the world won’t do you a bit of good if you don’t know how to use it.

That Ferro rod isn’t going to do you any good if you haven’t had to go through the process of finding a tinder that will take the spark and then have enough dry wood to get your fire going. The emergency blanket will only keep one person at a time warm, unless you know to use it as a reflective shield to redirect the heat from your fire into your enclosed area.

Don’t fall into the trap of buying the next cool thing without taking the time to understand the basics of using the last cool thing. You have to practice. Use your LifeStraw before you have to.

Most importantly, think ahead and be prepared. You might expect cell service to be bad. You might expect to have a miscommunication with others in your group. You might expect someone to get injured. You might expect to misread the trail sign and have it take twice as long as expected. However, you never really anticipate all of those things happening.

As I now know, they do happen, sometimes all at once. Fortunately, I was ready. I didn’t do everything right. I didn’t have everything I needed. I did, however, have most of it and enough to get me through when I needed it.

Our friends were freaking out. My younger son and daughter were both wondering who they were going to go live with, since [they thought that] their parents were dead. They never considered that we were stuck without keys. They left the restaurant and had been driving every conceivable route from the restaurant to the park thinking that we had plunged to our death down the side of the mountain. The last place they thought to look was right where they left us!

Needless to say, we survived and learned some valuable lessons. I added a few things to my go-bag, and we always communicate now regarding who has the keys. Next time, I’ll call the restaurant from the land line. At the end, I am heartened to know that in the only survival situation I’ve faced in a long time I kept cool and made it through, even when everything seemed to go wrong.

I do believe a time is coming when our survival skills will be put to the test in a much more significant way. I’ll keep planning and practicing, and I hope you will, too.