Jones Gap State Park and the Mountain Bridge Wilderness area have some of the best marked trails you'll find anywhere, with plenty of blazes helping keep you on the right path and well-designed trails that are very hard to get off course of. The problem that blazes and proper trail engineering can't fix though is human stupidity. My wife and I were out for a leisurely hike to Jones Gap Falls along the aptly named Jones Gap Trail; a 2 mile hike marked by blue blazes that is fairly flat and easy going. However, about 3/4s of a mile in, the Jones Gap Trail takes a sharp left turn and the path straight ahead is the Rainbow Falls trail; a much more difficult hike that I wouldn't advise taking small children on unless you are of strong of limb and stout of heart. Several groups of hikers ahead of us either underestimated the trail to Rainbow Falls (no water, wearing only flip-flops, etc.) or paid zero attention to the new red blazes they were following and simply went down the wrong trail.
I had another few miles ahead of me for some quiet thinking and I thought about how you don’t have to think near as much anymore. It wasn't a family road trip growing up unless the giant highway map was pulled out at least once to figure out exactly where we were and how we needed to get to our destination. Now with GPS and smart phones, you are almost unthinking about the direction you're going unless you're singing "Don't Stop Believing" at the top of your lungs and miss your exit. Even then, the GPS automatically recalculates and pushes you in the right direction. Most questions on how things should be done are answered with “Just Google It”, and while it certainly lessens the learning curve it cheapens the knowledge you gain at times.
Don't mistake this for some kind of hipster/Luddite rant that technology is evil, penicillin was a horrible idea, and that we'd be better off if the internet stopped working tomorrow. The point is technology is meant to help and increase our abilities, not eliminate the need for simple skills needed to think and live; it is a crutch to help you and it’s quickly becoming a problem that, without the crutch, many people are unable to stand on their own. If you never stray far away from a Wi-Fi hotspot it probably won’t be a problem but if you like going into the woods where the people are as scarce as cell service, how about making a resolution that 2015 is the year you get some sweet skills (insert Napoleon Dynamite joke here).
No skill set is more valuable in a time of crisis than first aid, and nothing scarier than when you break your leg and start screaming into your cell phone “SIRI! HOW DO I MAKE A AGGGGGHHH SPLINT?” and getting “Did you mean, “How do I make a Master Splinter?””. There are first aid classes specifically designed for the outdoors, with different levels of training: Wilderness First Aid (WFA), Wilderness Advanced First Aid (WAFA), Wilderness First Responder (WFR), and Wilderness Emergency Medical Technician (WEMT). WFA is more than enough for most things you’ll run into and you can find those classes held by a variety of people, from the Red Cross, to REI, to the US National Whitewater Center. The City of Rock Hill is actually holding one on the weekend of March 7th that I’ll be attending because I’m long overdue of getting certified myself. Most guiding companies require at least a WFA, and typically a WFR, so I need some kind of backup plan if my day job fails.
A favorite childhood hobby was to figure out how I would survive on a deserted island, and as the Discovery channel started picking up TV shows I was excited to see people put all the things I had read and practiced put to the test for real. Let me get this out of the way: Bear Grylls is a dangerous man to listen to. His advice is horrible, his situations not realistic, and the exciting things you see him do on TV will get you killed in reality. If you don’t believe me, take a Wilderness Survival course, offered by a trusted instructor and program. The ones I’ve taken show you that it’s nearly impossible for things that look so easy in the movies, like starting a fire with only flint and tinder, to happen without a lot of practice. Mental strategy is the biggest component to a survival situation though, and that’s the aspect that will be covered in-depth to prepare you on how to survive. The USNWC offers a 2 day course and the NOC (Nantahala Outdoor Center) offers a longer 5 day class to help hone your skills in fire building, shelter making, and stripping away the romanticism of Robinson Crusoe.
After a couple of close calls, a swift water rescue course is at the top of my list along with a more advanced kayaking guiding class. I’ve taken basic river rescue classes in the past, but 2015 is the year I get back into whitewater kayaking and I want to make sure that, even if I’m doing everything right, I can help someone else out on the river that runs into trouble. There’s the above mentioned options to take the class, which offer certified classes which are a bit more expensive, but if you want just the knowledge and aren’t planning on needing the certifications for a career in the outdoors Backcountry Institute held in May in Brevard is a great place to start. With everything from Rock Climbing to Fencing, they offer a more affordable way to get the skills you need (as long as you don’t need an “official” certification from a national governing body).
If all of these classes make your wallet scream in terror, there’s always the old school way of simply reading a ton of books and trying things out on your own. A newer school way of doing things too is to find a group of people with the same skill set you want (Facebook groups, web forums, etc.) and start asking questions and reading a lot of web pages. While not outdoor related, I’m currently working on a 1970s Chevy truck and I found a Facebook group dedicated to helping people work on old trucks; parts that I thought were good quality they recommended better alternatives and cut down on the stupid mistakes I would have made without them.
There is no replacement for good instruction and practicing to perfect a skill set. While the people who took the wrong trail probably weren’t idiots, they definitely learned a lesson in properly reading a map that would have definitely been easier in a classroom setting. So, in 2015, my resolution is to sharpen my skills and learn something new; hopefully that will last longer than that diet I dropped 10 days ago.
Amish in the sense that, at one point, my family helped others raise barns.
Now I build websites to help others build their businesses.