By Lucy Ahl
The sun was making its way across the expansive sky quicker than Steve expected, taking away not only the light of day but any warmth associated with it. Spending a month in the Alaskan bush to visit his sister, being an intermediate horseback rider and a novice big game hunter, he wasn’t sure if he was lost or just paranoid of getting lost. The stories the locals had told him were frightening. Coaxing his horse out of the trees, the small stream of water he had passed hours ago seemed larger than he remembered. Was he on the right path? Was this the direction he needed to go in order to get back to his sister’s cabin? He seemed disoriented. As he sat high up in the saddle, he looked to the east and then to the west. He knew he had to make a decision quick. He didn’t want to be stuck out here overnight when the temperatures would plummet to below zero, not good for him or his beloved horse.
He decided he needed to cross the stream and head south. Kicking his horses flank, he urged the animal closer to the stream’s edge. Hesitant, the horse stepped closer until his front hooves were touching the water. Suddenly, spooked, the horse reared up on its hind legs, dropping Steve into the stream. As the horse came back down on all fours, one landed on Steve’s left leg causing him to scream out in pain. The cold water shocked his system and from the pain in his leg, he found it hard to catch his breath.
“This is not good,” he thought to himself.
Unable to stand on his left leg, he used all the power he could muster to pull himself out of the freezing cold stream onto the snow bank. His teeth were already chattering from the extreme temperature. He was soaked from his head down to his boots. To top it off, his horse had taken off downstream, leaving him to fend for himself. His only hope was the horse would find its way home causing his sister to gather up a search party and be found before he froze to death. The odds of that happening weren’t looking very good at this point. His leg was pounding with each beat of his heart. He tried to remove his left boot but the swelling had already cemented it to his leg and foot. The coveralls he was wearing were insulated with a zipper and snaps to keep them closed. It took him a few minutes to get the frozen zipper down far enough to access the damage to his leg. Part of the tibia was exposed through torn skin however the wound wasn’t bleeding much, most likely because of the cold. He had nothing on him to tie a tourniquet or to support the leg so he could possibly hobble out. He couldn’t even build a fire as his waterproof matches were in his saddle bag that was long gone along with his horse, and every stitch of clothing he was wearing was starting to freeze stiff.
Steve knew he wasn’t long for this world. He drug himself over to a tree and hugged his right leg close to his chest. Not one to pray in dire situations, Steve asked God for help. He started making all types of promises, “Please let someone find me before it’s too late. I promise I’ll go to church every Sunday, I’ll be kinder to people, just, please, let me live. I’m too young to die out here all alone.” As hypothermia kicked in, he began to hallucinate. He thought he heard voices calling out his name, but he was too tired and weak to call back. As he closed his eyes, a radiant warmth came over him.
This story was told to me by my good friend Steve, who, in the winter of 1980, flew up to Alaska to visit his sister Pat. Pat had moved to Alaska as a big game hunting guide in 1975. Living conditions in “the bush” were extreme, and not like it is today with solar energy and wind turbines. All the cabins were built out of fallen trees. There was no electricity, no running water, no telephones, and no roads. Mail was flown in on a monthly basis as were food supplies. Heat came from fire wood and lights came from candles or kerosene lamps. Temperatures in the winter ranged from 20 to -40 degrees. Steve was lucky to have survived his ordeal in the Alaskan Bush. It just so happens, the horse did find its way back to the remote cabin which alerted his sister Pat, who in turn gathered up the five other hunters who were in camp and tracked the horses hoof prints in the snow to where Steve was found unconscious and close to death, under an alder tree. Frostbite took the tips of a few toes and one finger from his right hand and today, he walks with a limp because the bone in his left leg didn’t heal correctly. Yes, he is lucky to be alive but many are not so lucky.
In a series of books written by David Paulides, Missing 411: Unexplained Disappearances, David brings to life the mysterious vanishings of people while hiking, fishing or hunting in state and National forests. One disturbing fact is the National Park Service does not track people missing inside their system and claim they have no lists of missing, or so they say. However, the problem is vast and due to this reason, the NPS is afraid the list of missing people would be leaked to the public. Paulides concludes that if the park service is purposely concealing this issue, “then we have a governmental agency that is so grossly corrupt it screams of a congressional investigation” (Paulides xv).
Paulides, a retired police detective, gets his information by requesting a FIOA (Freedom of Information Act Request) of missing people in certain parks. By doing this, he is able to identify geographical clusters of missing people. In the six books he has written, he has broken down the missing that follow a certain criteria. He believes all these missing people did not disappear by mere chance. Some of the consistent elements present in the majority of cases are as follows:
Children disappear with canines.
People with disabilities disappear at a high rate.
After children disappear, they climb to incredible heights.
Trained bloodhounds can’t or won’t track.
Bad weather hits the region where the persons are lost.
There are clusters of missing people in unique geographical areas.
The decade 1950-1959 has more people documented missing than any other.
Berries play a role in the disappearances.
There are clusters of missing related to sheepherders, farmers, coeds and berry pickers.
The vast majority of disappearances occur in the late afternoon or early evening.
Clothing is removed from missing people under highly unusual circumstance.
Victims are often found unconscious or semiconscious.
Many of the missing are found in or very near swamps.
Missing people are often found in creek beds.
Searchers often find the missing in areas that have been previously searched many times.
What it boils down to is not a question of “is it smart to hike alone,” but of “what precautions should one take should they choose to hike alone?” Common sense goes a long way in the woods. Always leave a detailed plan of where you’re going and when you expect to return, and make sure someone knows your itinerary so that if something happens, they’ll know when and where to point a search party. Equip yourself with a cell phone and an extra battery pack or a satellite phone, keeping in mind there’s often weaker cell service on the trail (check out the GPS tracker with an SOS button). Bring extra food, water, and layers to stay hydrated and warm in the event of an accident. Stay alert by leaving your iPod at home, and trust your instincts, if you think you’re being followed, be prepared. Packing pepper spray and taking a few basic self-defense courses and wilderness-first-aid courses before you go hiking solo, and to make noise while hiking so you don’t startle a rattlesnake or bear (Gall 2013).
Steve did many things wrong that day when he left camp alone on that winter morning in 1980. Everything he needed, he packed into a saddle bag that his horse carried. He didn’t dress in layers, didn’t have a cell phone or a GPS tracker, which probably didn’t exist back then. His biggest mistake was going out into the wilderness alone and not telling anyone where he was going. Rather than being a statistic though, he lived to tell his story. He was one of the lucky ones, however, most people disappear without a trace. It is the mystery of the clusters of missing people, which makes me question, could there be some type of supernatural force at work taking these people? This seems like one mystery that will never be solved for unless dead men start to talk, we will never know what actually happened to these people.
Gall, Johnie. “Is it smart (or safe) for women to go hiking alone?” GrindTV. 2013. Web.
Paulides, David. Missing 411: North America and Beyond. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, South Carolina, 2012. Print.