S.O.S. – 3 shots – 3 fires – are they ignored???

Are the universal calls of distress being ignored or forgotten?  A recent tragedy in Golden BC where an SOS sign traced in the snow was not followed up on and my own ignored distress call that I made after getting lost for an evening 17 years ago, made me consider the above question. Along the […]

Written By Clayton Kessler

On March 2, 2009

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Are the universal calls of distress being ignored or forgotten?  A recent tragedy in Golden BC where an SOS sign traced in the snow was not followed up on and my own ignored distress call that I made after getting lost for an evening 17 years ago, made me consider the above question.

Along the KVR near Okanagan Mountain Provincial Park  at the South end of Chute Lake, you will find a forest recreation site and campground.

The first time I stumbled into this campground was not with the anticipation of a hot chocolate and marshmallows. No, my foray into the community of happy campers was with a sad dissapointment. Earlier that fall afternoon of 1993, I had been hunting along the ridges one or two km SW of Chute Lake.  As the light began to fade I headed back to meet my buddy at his Jeep, or so I thought. The ridge I made my decent on looked similiar to the ridge that I came up on but as dusk turned to dark, I knew I was lost! I decided to travel West and down a steep side hill and subsequently find the KVR and the way home. Knowing the KVR was near and getting to the KVR were two different things!

The steep terrain, rock outcroppings and black forest surrounding made for a slow cautious hike. In the hope that my buddy would be able to recognize my situation and to alert anyone else that may be near, I fired three quick shots from my 30-06 into the night sky.

 muzzle flare

After moving down the hillside farther I let another round of 3 shots fly like lightning from my gun barrel,  skirted a few more rock outcroppings and was surprised to find that Chute Lake was just below me.   As I moved along the shore of Chute Lake and closer to the campsite at the South end of the lake, I could see several groups of campers – but to my surprise, none of which made any recognition of my situation or movement to see what I was up to. I mean, if you were camped in a skinny little valley with the thunder of a 30-06 rolling accross your campsite, wouldn’t you either confront the individual as he approached your camp…or run and get the heck outta the way!It was just as well, I didn’t have to explain my stupidity and at about the same time I got to the campsite, I could hear the distinct roar of my buddies jeep approaching.  I caght up with my buddy on the KVR and arrived home safe and sound.  Why did not one of the several camping groups respond to my call of distress?

I have never really considered the lack of response to my universal call of distress untill last week when tragedy struck near Golden BC where a SOS found in the snow was seen but really… ignored for reasons that I cannot explain.

Fellow outdoors men and women, are you going to take it upon yourself to ensure that a call of distress in the wilderness is answered if you are the one to spot it or hear it, or will you make a quick cell phone call and HOPE someone else deals with the situation?  I (and the next person who sends out a universal call of distress) hope that you will not only call  911 but follow up as well and move mountains to ensure that action was taken to resolve the concern.           

   Here are examples of how to make universal distress calls,   

  1. Any series of three signals, three whistle blasts or three gunshots
  2. Three signal fires, making sure to keep them under control. Place them in triangular form (a known signal for help) and space them 50 feet apart so that a plane can distinguish the pattern from overhead.  Use green and wet wood to send up ample smoke during daylight; use dry material at night to make a strong, roaring blaze
  3. Spread out three sets of brightly colored equipment, a tent cloth, a tarp and a space blanket in an open space to signal your distress.  Again, put them in triangular form.
  4. Use brightly colored gear or dark brush or rocks to create three piles, or lay out an ‘SOS’ or a big ‘X’ on an open snowfield to signal aircraft rescuers in wintry conditions.
  5. On a sunny day, use a mirror to flash a sunlight signal over long distances if you see a plane or people in the distance.Finally, hope that the one who hears or views your destress call, acts upon it and follows up to ensure someone else has thoroughly investigated.


  1. Clayton Kessler

    Emotional apology by Golden RCMP officer

    Updated: Wed Mar. 11 2009 11:08:15


    A Golden RCMP officer made an emotional apology Tuesday night at a town council meeting in Golden.

    Staff Sergeant Marko Shehovac admitted an error in judgement delayed the search and rescue for a pair of missing Quebec skiers who went missing in the B.C. Rockies.

    The couple skied out of bounds from the Kicking Horse Mountain Resort on February 15th.

    Gilles Blackburn was rescued on February 24th. His wife Marie-Josee Fortin died two days earlier.

    They spent nine days in the backcountry, despite the fact SOS signals were spotted at least three different times, and a search was never launched.

    Staff Sgt. Marko Shehovac told the town council in Golden that he made a mistake and should’ve probed more.

    Shehovac says he never launched an official search on February 21st, when RCMP was made aware of the distress signs, because information he received led him to believe that after the ski hill initiated its missing skier protocol, the matter had been dealt with.

    Here is the statement Shehovac made Tuesday night:

    Members of council are well aware of the tragic event regarding Mr. Blackburn and his wife Marie Fortin exploring the back country behind Kicking Horse Mountain Resort and the resulting conclusion.

    During the Feb. 26th press release, some information was provided that I feel needs to be corrected, however it will not change the fact that I agree mistakes were made that the RCMP have admitted to that occurred on Feb. 21st.

    During the press conference it was reported that the RCMP when first notified of the SOS markings in the snow, had reported this finding to the Ski Hill. This information was not correct. The Cst. who received the report of the SOS sighting had contacted Search and Rescue at the time and reported the observations made by Purcell Heli Ski. As a result of speaking to a Search and Rescue manager and one other Search and Rescue volunteer, who also is employed by the Ski Hill, the officer was made aware that Search and Rescue members and the Ski Hill were already aware of the report and had conducted their missing skier protocol. As a result of the conversation with both Search and Rescue volunteers, the Officer was of the opinion no further action was deemed necessary.

    The Officer reported this incident to myself and as a result of the information provided, I was also left with the impression that the information was already reported and dealt with.

    It was also reported on Feb. 26th during the media conference and reported later in the media, that the person who originally reported this incident to the Ski Hill on Feb. 17th was advised that he was to report this to the police. This was found to be incorrect and there is compelling inference that one party may have made the tragic presumption that the other party was going to call the police.

    It was reported during the media release Feb. 26th that the Ski Hill had initiated their missing skier protocol with their staff and contacted Golden Search and Rescue. Although aware of the incident, Search and Rescue was of the opinion the police would be contacted and once contacted they would be advised of the situation. The police call would not be forthcoming as no report was made to the police until Feb. 21st.

    On Feb 24th, Purcell Heli Ski reported sighting a male in the Canyon Creek area waving at the helicopter at which time Mr. Blackburn was rescued and we learned of the death of his wife.

    Even though I stand by my decision on Feb. 21st on the basis of the information provided at the time, I have to take full responsibility for my actions with respect to this tragedy.

    Having had the advantage of 20/20 hindsight and investigating further into this for the last week, I have come to the realization I had put blind faith in the information that was provided and that I failed to ask probing questions to satisfy myself that the matter was adequately addressed. Had I done so, a search of the area would have been initiated on the 21st.

    For this I am truly sorry to Mr. Blackburn, his family and friends.

    I am accountable for this error in judgement on Feb. 21st and will accept the consequences.

    This investigation is continuing and an Independent Officer Review has been initiated and will be completed to determine how this tragedy came about, and more important as Mr. Blackburn has stated, how such a breakdown in communication can be avoided in the future so that this can never happen again.

    On a personal note, I felt compelled to provide this report to council to set some facts straight on behalf of my officers who have take unjust criticism. It has given me an opportunity to set some facts straight.

    As Mr. Blackburn has admitted to his mistake in public, as part of my own healing process I take ownership of my mistake.

    I also want to share with the community that I am aware of the criticism that is also being borne by our Search and Rescue team. I have worked with this team for the last 13 years and they are the most dedicated volunteers that I have had the pleasure to work with.

  2. Rod Reynolds

    What is the proper number of shots to be given in reponds to any series of three whistle blasts or three gunshots? To let that person know he was heard and that I will be responding to his SOS.

    • Clayton

      Hello Rod. I have never heard of a “proper” response to an SOS call and I have never seen designated steps to take for an SOS call. I believe, the only proper response is to respond in a way that will help. I think that trying to respond with a rifle may cause confusion and possible death to the party in question…:-)


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