As the off-grid profession continues to grow, it has become more common for off-grid experts to travel worldwide, either to install new equipment or inspect existing systems for proper operation. As many of these sites are located in remote, often hostile locations, it’s common sense to think about polar bear interaction when in the subarctic, and snakes or alligators in the Florida everglades.

What is more problematic, if not downright dangerous, is the complacency generated by a few decades of experience in traveling to new areas. You think you know what to expect – and that’s when the fun starts.

In 2002 I was asked to hike with a team to a temporary Sprint comms array set up for the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. As I was from Buffalo NY USA (an area known for abundant snow and cold) the tactical manager said, “Take this group of southerners out for some climate training,” and off we went. My thoughts were about keeping everyone safe from the winter cold, getting lost in a whiteout, or breaking an ankle on ice-covered roads and trails.

The team went on its way – working together and moving fast, as we all wanted to get back early and relax.  As we’d been there for a week or so and were familiar with the area, I expected an easy trek up the hill and back.  We saw a number of people hiking as we set off along the trail.  We noticed various and assorted small animals, along with some majestic looking black tail deer, each of which scattered when we approached too closely.

Admittedly a bit full of bravado, I hustled ahead as we neared the portable cell trailer (the turn back point), and looked over my shoulder to see the rest of the team stopped and standing perfectly still.  Before I could say a word, I heard the proximate grunt of a very angry, large creature.

One team member from Florida whispered, “This deer isn’t running away.”    

I softly replied “That’s because your deer is a moose!”

I slowly turned around and told everyone else to do the same.  “Small steps guys – slow, and do not look at it.”

I knew from previous travels in Canada that moose will charge if they feel overwhelmed – and if they charge: run!  No one in the grouped panicked, and we moved off slowly back down the trail, resembling nothing so much as a group of large geese.  The moose stood there calming itself.  I looked back every ten paces or so – as did everyone, but not all at the same time.  The moose still didn’t move.  A couple minutes later we were around the hill and could no longer see it.

About that time, a Sprint crew in a four-wheel drive came roaring up the snow-covered trail.

We hailed it and said “Look out! There’s a moose up there!”

They looked amused and said, “You guys aren’t from around here are you?” meaning we all seemed pretty concerned at the moment, and to the locals this was funny.

The Sprint crew was correct – we went up the hill with all the right gear, but we were not fully prepared.  I would have asked about moose sightings if in Ontario, Quebec or Alaska, but who knew there were moose in Utah?  The locals, that’s who.  We were all too busy, self-assured and distracted by the work to think “outside the task” and ask about possible trouble, as well as how best to avoid it.

I wish I could say I learned my lesson from this experience and was never taken by surprise again.  The only lesson learned, however, was that time and experience can lull professionals such as myself into a false sense of security.

Case in point:  flash forward 17 years later, and envision yourself flying to California for a one day job.  Head to a site accompanied by the client’s foreman, take photos and some measurements on the communications gear, look at the tower, then head back to the airport and fly to Washington State that night.

As I arrived at the office, the foreman asked his team member, “Hey, did you spray station 17?”

“Yep, double downed on it” was the reply.

It was an odd conversation, but I didn’t ask questions, as whatever they were talking about was apparently under control.  Twenty minutes later, we were creeping slowly up the side of a steep hill, hoping that the 4×4 we were driving wouldn’t roll over.  The vehicle suddenly leveled out at the base of a tower, and we’d arrived.

The grass around the tower was flat and brown.  It was then I realized that everything had been sprayed with weed killer to prevent snakes from hiding in it. Good and safe.

The foreman opened the bunker’s eight foot square roof / door hatch. We climbed down a six foot ladder bolted to the bunker wall (nicer stairs than most I have been in), and I started looking at the charging equipment in this nice clean and dry area.

“Impressive set up you have here,” I said. “It’s nice when companies take care of their sites.”

Right then I noticed a big black bug crawling on the ladder we had just descended. Before the foreman could reply, I pointed to it (as if it might hear us), and he said, “Black Widow,” as in the poisonous spider variety.  A moment later, another dropped from the metal strut above our heads, hit my shoe and rolled to the ground. The foreman crushed it with his boot. Looking up, we could see a half dozen or so additional spiders, all busily rearranging their world now that the roof/door hatch had exposed them to daylight.

I was wearing black sneakers, black socks, dark pants and a black shirt. If I’d been scheduled to do a site visit in Tennessee, I would never have worn such an outfit, as I know spiders love to hide in dark places.  Once again, I hadn’t thought to ask about possible local dangers, such as poisonous spiders, for this part of California.

As the foreman maintained watch and killed one agitated spider after another (including the one on the single entry/exit ladder), I quickly finished my photos, took a fast multimeter reading, and we exited the bunker.

In this case, the local guy knew the danger and thought he had taken steps to overcome it.

The “Hey, did you spray station 17?” question and the “Yep, double downed on it” reply were mismatched.

The foreman was actually asking “Hey did you spray the bunker for spiders?” while the assistant was answering, “Yep, I sprayed roundup all around the bunker to kill the weeds.”  Their miscommunication combined with my lack of knowledge of the area put us both in danger.

Work opportunities and travel to new places can be exciting, but planning and research should be a routine part of your preparations.  Global warming trends are resulting in potentially hazardous plants (poison oak & ivy for example), animals (snakes, alligators), and bugs (ticks, fire ants, etc.) being common in places they were never encountered a decade ago.  To protect yourself, get in the habit of doing a bit of research before you get to the location, and never be afraid to ask the locals outright, “Is there anything at the site I should watch out for?  I’m not from around here.”

Familiarizing yourself with potential local dangers allows you to properly prepare for your trip, and increases safety for both you and your entire team.  Stay safe out there!

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