Peter Passi column: Wilderness first aid course prepares Northland adventurers for adversity
Trip leaders, camp staff and outdoor enthusiasts find value in a course that deals with what to do when things go wrong in the field.
CLOQUET — If you're heading into the wilderness, where medical care may be far removed, it pays to think about how you might handle an unexpected illness, injury or medical mishap. In fact, camp staff, guides, backcountry firefighters and people whose jobs regularly take them into remote areas often are required to take a wilderness first aid course accompanied by cardiopulmonary resuscitation certification every couple years.
While my job requires no medical credentials whatsoever, our family spends about a week each summer paddling and portaging throughout the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Knock on wood: We've never experienced a true medical emergency in the wild — some scrapes and falls, cuts and twisted ankles, sure, but nothing that we couldn't handle.
Still, we know that can change in an instant with an awkward misstep, a glancing swing of the ax, a tipped stove pot or a water emergency.
So, when my wife suggested we take a weekend wilderness emergency first aid class a few weeks ago at the Cloquet Forestry Center, I said: Sign me up.
Our 26 classmates in the 16-hour course came from many walks of life.
Livi Goulet, 19, a resident of Angle Inlet, enrolled in the first aid class as requisite training for a summer job at Laketrails Base Camp on Lake of the Woods.
She has made her share of trips, but Goulet said this will be her first year in the capacity of a group leader.
“I’m really looking forward to it, and I’m learning a bunch,” she said.
Laura Reuling, works as a researcher for the University of Minnesota’s forestry program and said wilderness first aid skills are a must, given the remote conditions in which she and her colleagues routinely work.
“So much of it is in the field, and even if you’re not out for days, it can be hard to get yourself out of a situation,” she said.
Susie Meisner, 66 of Cloquet and formerly of Ely, has done plenty of canoe tripping and received wilderness first aid training several years ago but said she wanted to brush up and learn about any medical protocols that have changed, particularly as she plans to take her 14-year-old grandson to the Boundary Waters in the near future.
Meisner said she hopes future generations retain respect and reverence for the natural world and all it has to offer. It’s something she hopes to pass down along with a sense of self-assurance in the wild.
“I really want kids to get out and experience the wilderness,” she said.
Auste Eigirdas, a freshman at the University of Minnesota, also enrolled in the Cloquet wilderness first aid course, driving up from the Twin Cities campus to participate. She said the instruction will help give her greater peace of mind.
While she has not experienced a medical emergency in the field as of yet. Eigirdas said there have been close calls with disturbed wasp nests. And she also works in tracts of forest in the Mississippi River basin that have become more treacherous in recent years, as the emerald ash borer infestation has killed large numbers of trees.
“It’s just a graveyard of ash trees in some places. We can’t even work there sometimes when it’s windy,” she said. “It’s too easy for trees and branches to fall even when there’s not a wind. We call them widow-makers.”
The first aid course covered a lot of ground, including cuts and all matter of wounds; brain and spine injuries; respiratory distress; hypothermia; overheating disorders; lightning; allergies and anaphylaxis; shock; broken bones and joint injuries; and recovery from submersion among other medical issues that could unexpectedly confront you.
Katie Luthy, program manager for Longleaf Wilderness Medicine, stressed the importance of sizing up a situation, gathering pertinent information and above all, keeping yourself safe.
"We don't want to create more patients," she said.
Luthy's fellow instructor was Shawn Olesewski, outdoor pursuit coordinator for the College of St. Scholastica and a former member of the St. Louis County Search and Rescue Squad.
“Having the skill to respond is one thing, and having the knowledge to know when you’re getting over your head is another,” he said. “I think it’s also really important for people to know what they don’t know.”
Olesewski said the training encourages people to think about how things could go wrong and what a misstep could cost.
“It helps emphasize judgment and encourages risk mitigation,” he said. Maybe it causes you to think twice about jumping off a cliff into unfamiliar water.
“The rescue squad was called out regularly for things that were entirely preventable, when people put themselves in a position where they didn’t think things through or figure out how to help each other out ahead of time,” Oleseski said.
He said a wilderness first aid class can help make that decision-making process better, leading to less risky behavior and better outcomes even if things go awry.
If you want to learn more
The course I took was taught by Longleaf Wilderness Medicine, an outfit that will be offering similar instruction in the Northland in coming weeks.
Longleaf delivers nearly 100 training sessions per year in 24 states around the nation, and Program Manager Katie Luthy, said spring is the organization's busiest time of year, as people gear up for another season of outdoor activities.
Today, Longleaf is headquartered in Sandpoint, Idaho, but it originated on Alabama's Gulf Coast, where hurricanes and other weather emergencies occasionally cut off communities and left them to their own devices when medical issues arose.
"The city became the wilderness," Luthy said. "We needed to figure out: How do we solve problems with the resources we have at hand."
She said that task often involved figuring out how to improvise. The organization appropriately drew its name from the longleaf pine, a southern conifer known for its hurricane resiliency.
“We needed community resiliency. We needed people to be able to help one another, because 911 was not set up to be able to respond to everyone. We needed each other,” Luthy said.
Longleaf developed a training program that was soon recognized as excellent preparation for a wide range of circumstances, including remote wilderness response.
Future Classes in the area:
- Wilderness First Aid, June 11-12, Duluth
- Wilderness First Responder, June 4-8, Duluth
- Wilderness First Responder recertification June 11-12, Duluth
For more information, visit
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