Two Alaskans have vanished into the wilderness this Summer. I am perplexed and saddened by the recent disappearances down toward the Kenai Peninsula. I have no more of a clue what happened than anyone else who reads or listens to the news.
Most intriguing is the case of missing Mt. Marathon runner, Michael LeMaitre (in his sixties), who absolutely vanished on or just before his return leg of the mountain race in Seward on July 4.
Did he become disoriented? Most likely and probably due to something like a stroke or heart attack. Or extreme exhaustion and/or hypothermia and/or dehydration. Or most of the above. It could even have been simple confusion---there is a tendency, when on a mountain top, to descend in the wrong direction.
Both exhaustion and hypothermia impair mental acuity and judgment---especially in tandem. If I had all my faculties intact I would find it difficult to misplace myself when the mountain I am on is right there next to a vast body of water such as Resurrection Bay.
Last seen near the top of the race course, no one knows if Mr. LeMaitre became lost, mentally-confused and/or disabled by a physical infirmity or sheer fatigue, and fell into some inaccessible crevice or was buried in a landslide. He has not been found but has been declared dead.
Some might think his obituary and memorial were premature. However, barring a deliberate act of disappearance, there is no chance he could have survived. He was dressed to run in hot weather---which means he was inadequately prepared to spend any time on or near that mountain for a number of cool, wet overnights. And he was surely hot, sweaty and tired just prior to his disappearance---great conditions for succumbing to hypothermia.
Of course the Mt. Marathon race should go on. But with a “trail sweeper” to corral the stragglers. Even then, the opportunity to simply get lost or misplaced is always there, even in a relatively short wilderness type race.
The disappearance of Valerie Sifsof after walking away from a campground on July 7 is almost as mysterious---complicated by the fact that she could have fallen into the hands of the most dangerous predator out there---fellow Humans. No doubt in my mind that Humans can be far more dangerous than grizzly bears---especially to a woman alone. [It seems unlikely that either of these two disappearances was caused by a bear---there would be signs that searchers could hardly have missed.]
No one knows what happened to Ms. Sifsof after she walked away from her boyfriend at Granite Creek campground following an argument. No one knows if she got lost in the woods, was swept away by a stream or got kidnapped along a roadway. She and her boyfriend had been drinking beer and Scotch whiskey. The weather turned wet and windy---and she was wearing a sweatshirt and sweatpants. Authorities have given up the search because they no longer know where to look. Family and volunteers are still searching.
I definitely fault the boyfriend for waiting more than three days and not immediately reporting her missing. I must assume his good will since the family does so. I suspect he was too embarrassed and apparently felt she was going to make her way back to Anchorage. In that scenario, the terrible possibility exists she was picked up along the highway and disappeared by that route.
I recall (with some embarrassment) that I often “disappeared” on my partners myself. Once, in a narrow canyon on the Little Colorado River, I simply got into the canoe (the only way out) and slipped away from the sand bar where my wife and I were camped. Without telling her! There had been no argument or dispute---she was asleep and I simply gave in to an urge to canoe around in the darkness to see the night-flowering Jimson weed (Datura) which was beautiful, blossoming in the moonlight and fragrant. This can be considered selfish and immature behavior at best---controlling and passive-aggressive at worst.
One time a girlfriend “disappeared” on me after an argument. Although she had vanished as some sort of act of psychological punishment against me, I swallowed my pride and began to search for her. But that disappearance took place in town and not the wilderness. Not very nice of her but she was physically safe and staying with an acquaintance.
I still can’t understand why Ms. Sifsof’s disappearance was not reported earlier. I have a personal philosophy whenever anyone, or even one my dogs, goes missing. I begin to search immediately, knowing all the things that could happen and all the distances that could be traveled while I am twiddling my thumbs waiting for them to turn up. When someone becomes lost or disoriented there is a tendency for them to keep getting more lost and getting into deeper trouble. Time is not on the side of searchers.
INDIRECT LESSONS -
While I don’t know what happened in these Alaska disappearances, the stories have stirred my imaginings. Other than the obvious lessons---such as staying on the race course; and not running off into the woods while inebriated---these tragedies make me think in general about my own survival. While it is unknown if my advice would have helped either Mr. LeMaitre or Ms. Sifsof, it does apply to the rest of us.
PANIC! IT’S A JUNGLE OUT THERE -
One constant in both these disappearances is very heavy brush on top of broken, steep and uneven ground. Granite Creek is surrounded by vegetation. And there is so much brush on parts of Mt. Marathon that a runner can’t even see the mountain he is on, never mind the direction of Resurrection Bay and the town of Seward. At least not without stopping to carefully listen, look around and consider the situation.
In dense woods and brush---where you cannot see very far---one can judge direction by listening for the differences in the sounds made when air masses cross the “open“ space made by a lake or a huge body of water such as a bay. It’s in the echoes and resonances carried by the wind. Wind sounds also echo off mountains---revealing their direction even in fog. But you must be composed to hear the subtle differences in the sounds.
I’ve been wandering around in heavy brush for years and I can say that my first tendency when getting misplaced there is panic. And panic usually begets thrashing around and running around aimlessly---guaranteed exhaustion and inevitable immobilization. Stopping to compose oneself does not always enter the mind. That’s “panic!”
Hypothermia is a very real danger for anyone outdoors in Alaska---even during the Summer. And especially when exhausted and sweaty and/or inebriated and inadequately dressed.
THE WETNESS OF RAIN AND FOG -
Ms. Sifsof, the lady who walked away from the Granite Creek campground, was wearing rubber boots. Ideally she should also have worn rain gear. Here are some suggestions on dealing with Summer rains.
Most wet weather outerwear works okay for short periods of time---which is about all most folks need. The problem comes during emergencies or “hard use“---extreme weather for longer periods of time and constant exposure to wet, heavy brush with wind and rain to complicate matters. All the conditions present at Granite Creek.
The so-called “breathable” parkas and pants often work real well---as long as they are new and clean. And as long as they are not rubbing against wet brush all day. And as long as the wearer does not panic.
You would be surprised how easy it is, when panic and desperation set in, to simply forget to close up the zippers, snaps and Velcro closures on wet weather garments. In wet, heavy brush conditions or strong winds, moisture can enter the sleeves, the hood (there must be a hood!) or the neck area, rendering Gore Tex and other waterproof garments less useful.
And don’t forget, in Summer even minimal wet weather gear can make the wearer feel mighty hot while on the move---thus giving an incentive to open or remove the garment(s) and get really wet. It can, however, rain a lot more than anyone can sweat.
Keeping all of the above in mind, here is a combination that works well enough for me:
For my primary wet weather protection I like an outer parka and outer pants that are less breathable or not breathable at all. A real ”raincoat” and real “rain pants.” If it is hot that is all I will wear. For shorter trips I do rely on a new Gore Tex parka. But not an older, worn parka because they become more “breathable“ and less waterproof. The main problem with “breathable,” all-purpose outer garments is that they become tattered, worn and lose their water-repellency because they are used full-time as “windbreaker” garments even when it is not wet. These all-purpose “breathable” garments never work as well as they do when brand-new. And wearing them full-time tends to reduce the water-repellency even further due to wear and abrasion.
“LAYERING” OUTER GARMENTS FOR RAIN -
In wet weather and when it becomes cooler in the late afternoon or evening, I wear the fully rain-proof garments over an additional parka and pants that are more “breathable.” That is, the rain gear goes over the “windbreaker” type of gear (which is never allowed to get wet!).
Put another way, when I get cold I “layer” my wet weather garments. The fully waterproof garment goes over the less waterproof “breathable” garment. This does allow the combination to breathe somewhat. Put all this over a polar fleece sweater and it’s pretty cozy. Considering weight and cost, two relatively light and less costly garments can provide more flexibility than one heavy, super-duper, do-it-all, “breathable” garment with the magic membrane.
And don’t neglect the rain pants---they are a must-have item! In wet grass or brush your pants can get soaked even when it is no longer raining. Rain pants are more important than waterproof boots because the legs comprise a large surface area of the body---about one-third. Sooner or later one will have to sit down and it would be best if the seat of the pants did not become wet.
One caution when buying outdoor clothing---the sizes are off. Unlike women’s fashions---where big clothes are given small sizes to flatter the more ample---outdoors clothing scrimps on expensive fabrics. So, a lot of X-large parkas and pants are now about medium-size.
DRY FEET -
Unlike in Winter---when wet feet could cause frostbite---dry feet in the Summer are more of a luxury and a psychological boost. When on the move in Summer, wet feet can remain reasonably warm.
Nevertheless, wet feet can definitely contribute to hypothermia. It’s tough to keep the extremities dry in wet weather---especially when moisture comes in over the tops of “waterproof” boots. So, I do carry gaiters in the summer to keep moisture from coming in over the tops of my boots---and to keep rain pants from getting ripped by brush.
NEOPRENE GLOVES -
Neoprene fisherman’s or diver’s gloves keep the hands warmer than nothing...but not dry. They do not stand up to rough use and I consider them highly useful but eventually disposable. The main purpose of Neoprene gloves is to replace regular gloves so they don’t get wet.
Dehydration can also cause mental confusion, so it’s always a good routine to drink lots of water---even when it is rainy and wet.
At some point, lack of proper clothing was probably a factor in the disappearance of Mr. LeMaitre. If he wasn’t killed outright in a fall, rock slide or by a stroke or heart attack---then he was surely finished off by hypothermia. Obviously, Mr. LeMaitre would not have been carrying extra gear because he was in a race and, presumably, since the race was short and his whereabouts were being monitored, he couldn‘t conceive of needing it.
Ms. Sifsof, however, could probably have benefited by wearing some sort of protection against the rains.
So, while we don’t know what happened in these disappearances, they should nevertheless serve to remind the rest of us to be prepared for what is out there in the wild lands just off our roadways.
FLIGHT PLAN -
Mr. LeMaitre had a flight plan---exactly the same as all the other Mt. Marathon racers. For some reason he deviated from the plan. It happens.
If Ms. Sifsof had stopped to think about leaving a flight plan she probably would have come to her senses and not taken flight at all. Of course, in her mind, part of her plan was probably to cause the boyfriend to worry and wonder.
So, for those of us who wander the wild lands, it is an act of love to tell those who would worry about us where we are going, how we plan to do so and when we will return. If not, a flight plan is a reasonable consideration for those who must search for us. My flight plans are my lifelines and provide searchers with a reasonable idea of where to search. [I will do a blog on flight plans one of these days.]
WATER HAZARDS -
We are drawn to water for many reasons. But water in all its forms presents survival challenges. Around June 2, a Wasilla man, dredging for gold, drowned in Willow Creek. Joshua Pool, age 28, was an experienced, well-trained, professional underwater diver. He and a companion were dredging for gold in a Willow Creek Canyon six miles upstream of the Parks Highway. From local sources I learned he had donned two fifty-pound sets of diving weights to keep his feet on the bottom in the fast-moving waters of the canyon. I was told that one fifty-pound set of diving weights was held by a quick-release set-up. But the second set of fifty-pound weights was more permanently affixed to his body and was, most likely, what caused him to be dragged down by the current, smacked against the rocks, and probably knocked unconscious and then killed by impacts or drowning. Due to the rugged shoreline, his companion was only able to pursue Mr. Pool for a short ways downstream before he gave up and notified authorities who recovered the body.
Mr. Pool was a diving professional who should have known better than to semi-permanently affix fifty-pounds of diving weights to his body. Had he been unencumbered he could well have turned his feet downstream and allowed the legs to take up the impact of boulders in the stream. He was also un-tethered---another fatal oversight for a professional. For what it’s worth, his employer, a respected commercial diving outfit, graciously footed many of the financial burdens that were placed upon the family.
I learned a lesson from this! I’ve always considered stream-crossings to be one of the more dangerous things I do. And I love to stand in or right at the edge of raging waters to get that special photograph. Falling into fast current is always a possibility. Most of the time, slipping on wet rocks and twisting a foot or ankle or banging a knee is the greatest danger. But I am usually carrying hefty backpacks when it is time to do stream crossings. That large weight on the back keeps my feet on the bottom when crossing rapidly-moving streams. However, while backpacks are more buoyant than lead weights, one can be thrashed around in the current after losing footing while being tied to such an encumbrance. So, I intend to fully loosen my straps and hip belt so I can quickly dump the thing---where my usual tendency is not to let go of my backpack for fear of losing it and the contents. So…my life or my backpack…
- Rudy Wittshirk