Walking Satellites

Walking Satellites

Many years ago, Rickie Lee Jones did a song called Satellites. “So you keep talking in many languages, telling us the way you feel, don’t stop confiding in the road you’re on, don’t quit, you’re walking satellites. Walking satellites, she laughs satellites, a room filled with satellites, ah, walking satellites….Friends must stay together, code the world with the fugitive light.”

As I was walking today, I tested my ability to beam to a satellite. My friends– also avid fly fishers, hikers and general nature-loving outdoor enthusiasts who are also middle aged–and I have been exploring the use of satellite messengers when outside of cellular range…which is most everywhere here in the Smoky Mountains…Nantahala Gorge and other playgrounds in which we romp. She goes out a lot by herself, just as I do. And he has been really supportive of both of us getting connected to the starry sky.

After I did a lot of research, read articles, looked at monthly fees, and watched videos comparing top models, I had decided to not do it. It’s a bit of an investment plus who needs another monthly fee? And who would I put as my emergency contact? I have no family here and live rather isolated so…I mean, there are far worse ways to go out besides being in a beautiful place and dropping this mortal coil.

But one day I was fly fishing and was wading up a creek. It was amazing and beautiful and then I came to a rapid and deep pool and there were just a few options–scoot across a very slanted rock that would result in a dunking in waders in water over my head (not ever safe) if I slipped, go around under rhododendron (anyone familiar with this option understands the local’s term: rhododendron hell. Of course I could turn around but I couldn’t go up the bank because it had gone from a few feet to a very steep embankment. As I stood there calling on all my ‘smarts,’ I decided I needed to re-think the satellite messenger idea. And oddly enough, my friend got her boot stuck in the same creek area and that’s what prompted her to move forward with it. I also had another friend remind me that I might help someone else who is injured and needs help in a remote area. (For those curious individuals, I opted for the rhododendron hell and did okay).

We both ended up purchasing the Garmin inReach Mini. Today I tried it on a hike by sending pre-set messages to my friends to see how the unit worked. I don’t plan on using it for regular communications but it’s good to know how it works given the deep tree cover, gorges and other challenges a user of SM might experience. And I wanted to know now…in a non-emergency situation…rather than when I really need it to work for me or someone else.

For those interested in how the device functioned, read on.

I chose three locations to use the Garmin. It is unrelated to cell service and uses exclusively the iridium satellite network which provides worldwide coverage. The first area was down in a sort of bowl or small gorge at Indian Creek Falls in the Deep Creek area of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. There was open sky at an angle from me but after five minutes it had not sent the message. I walked up above the bowl of the falls area under a very small opening in the tree canopy and it sent and was received.

This was the original position in the waterfall area where I tried to send the message. There was open sky but not directly above me.

The above map is from the app on my iPhone that works with the SM unit. I did a screen shot of each location to get coordinates of exactly where the message sent and also did photos of the places to show open sky and general topography.

Moving up, out of the bowl, only 78 feet higher in elevation, and finding a small area of opening directly overhead created a better result in sending the message.

In the three preset messages, you can create whatever text you wish to use and choose your contacts in advance by setting this up on your computer desktop and then syncing the device to the app. When you send these preset messages you don’t have to chose a contact because it is preset. The cool thing with the Garmin is these preset messages are free and don’t count against your monthly plan allotment.

I thought seeing the open area in the tree canopy would be sufficient. But the SM needs a perpendicular path to be most effective in sending the message.

The second place I chose was a much smaller open area in the tree canopy. I stood on a bridge that had an opening; again, at a 45 degree angle to the unit. It didn’t send after 8 minutes so I walked a very short few steps and stood on the rock beach and as soon as I got to a more perpendicular angle to the mini, the message sent.

By moving a few feet from the bridge to the little beach, the message sent.
This is the open canopy area. I turned my phone to point directly overhead to see how much space the SM needed to send a message. Not much really…it sent the fastest of the three messages. This is message #3 site.

The final area I chose to test the SM was on a ridge that had tree cover but an even smaller open canopy. It sent the fastest. I think this was due to the direct, perpendicular position of the unit with the canopy opening. That was rather easy to figure out from the first two attempts.

The map that is linked to the preset message can be zoomed in by the friends you send it to.

All three messages were received. The SM used 5% of its battery sending those with the biggest drain coming from the two attempts when it took longer to find the satellite connection. There’s no doubt that being out of a gorge is helpful as is having a direct, overhead area of open sky; but, it doesn’t have to be a large opening (this surprised me). Garmin is very specific about these two issues with sending satellite messages and I was surprised it worked as well as it did given the thick canopy of green that we are so lucky to have here in the Smoky Mountains.

This is what the text looks like that is sent. Recipients can click on the link to see a map that can be zoomed closer. Plus it gives the coordinates just in case further contact isn’t forthcoming. These can be used by rescue personnel. However, Garmin is very clear that SOS messages are not to be sent to contacts with the preset messages. The SOS dedicated button on the SM unit is dedicated for emergency/rescues.

Overall, I’m very pleased with the inReach Mini and will continue to educate myself on its use. Garmin provides great support and even offers online classes on how to use it for emergencies. There are also many videos on YouTube that are helpful. I hope I never have to use it for myself or anyone else; but, if emergency rescue is needed I am glad I have a little tool that might make the difference for someone.

Although contemplating this brought up issues of being alone or without family here, I realized I do have many people who love and support me right here who wouldn’t be okay with me leaving this Earth plane because I didn’t have a way to call for assistance when I am out roaming the back country. “Walking satellites…Friends must stay together, code the world with the fugitive light.” I am grateful for my friends…we really are walking satellites for each other.

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