Not So Mysterious Missing People

A view clipped from drone video at the FindSamSayersInfobox page on YouTube

Now I want to apologize for my attitude in this article and direct that apology personally to Mr. David Paulides, author of the Missing: 411 books. I’m in the process of expanding this article, and while I will leave what I said, as I posted it originally, I also want to explain the other side of this, the part that I usually don’t talk about. I’m torn between the two approaches lately so I’ll write this in a rather bipolar way, but from both viewpoints I can say that I feel an intense social responsibility for the missing people, for the ones who come home again and the ones who don’t, for those who vanish from cockiness and ignorance or for the mysterious nearly supernatural reasons. All of us have responsibility for those of us who get into that kind of trouble. Mr. Paulides is taking an unusual approach to this issue, and is doing far more good than I have ever done by bringing attention to not only the unusual disappearances but also the mundane ones. More eyes are watching, due to his work.

For the fun of this I’ll rewrite the piece as a conversation between Dr. Jekyll, the good cop; and Mr. Hyde, the bad cop. I’m both people. Hope to publish again shortly.

Mr. Hyde: First a little about me and why I feel I’m qualified to say something about this topic. In the 90’s, one evening I found myself discussing canoeing with a fellow I barely knew, and I mentioned that I’ve rolled canoes before. He was shocked. He was from Alaska, where you don’t roll canoes. If you do, you die in water that cold, so people only do that once. In the old days no one that far north ever bothered to learn to swim because your lifetime in the water is only a few minutes. He had never rolled a canoe and expected me to be impressed. I was not impressed. In Alaska I wouldn’t roll a canoe, because I know how to stay upright. Down South, even in the winter, I know how to roll a canoe and survive. I’m an expert at rolling canoes. I can recover.

So when we talk about being lost and about finding missing people, my expertise comes from the butt end of the stick. Yes, I’ve been involved in several missing people searches but never in charge. Several times I’ve been right about where to find people, even though experts were wrong. Once, and one time only, it mattered. I know a few things about being lost, because I’ve been lost myself at least a half dozen times and I got myself out of it. The only time anyone ever offered me rescue, I declined and went home on my own. That was a misunderstanding. Yes, I’ve been lost numerous times, and that’s the major part of my experience in dealing with the missing. I’ve gotten myself out of those situations. I would imagine that there are plenty of Search and Rescue people who have never been lost and don’t comprehend it.

Dr. Jekyll: Thank you, Mr. Hyde : ). As for myself, I’ve also spent a lifetime in the woods seeking that wilderness forever just out of reach, and I’ve had many experiences that go beyond the mundane problems. The mundane problems are exciting enough, but when they lead to something impossible and the impossible happens to you, you are forever changed. I came back from my first confrontation with the unknown so changed that I found it difficult to talk to people, and people who knew me told me I was a different person. I started carrying a magnesium firestarter block on my keychain and never went anywhere without a really good knife because I realized I might suddenly find myself somewhere else and need those things. I still carry those things but the mag block will rub holes in your pockets. Other things are better for your pants. I don’t worry so much about disappearing now. For all these unsolved disappearances the Missing 411 books describe, there are probably mundane explanations, and if not, history will invent some. But I know from personal experience that the mundane solution is not always the correct solution. It just makes us feel better. That personal experience is why I feel qualified to say my own piece here.

From a creek crossing below the treeline, photo by Kamal Ahmed at AllTrails.com. This is the type of terrain where drones don’t fly well and all you see from up above is treetops.

Mr. Hyde: Recently I had a couple of rainy days to sit around and ponder things and I got involved again in the hours and hours of radio YouTube shows featuring David Paulides, the author of Missing: 411. Although I’d like to believe that there’s some mysterious predator living in the woods or even in the sky, once again after listening and thinking and researching I have concluded that he’s wrong.

Dr. Jekyll: Hold on a minute! Isn’t what you really mean that you want to believe he’s wrong? and to put all the years of supporting experience aside, because it’s inconvenient to know these things? Technically, maybe the predator theory isn’t so mysterious to either of us, but would you honestly say the beings we know aren’t predatory? Have you even tried to discuss this with Paulides?

Mr. Hyde: I did write to him a couple of years ago suggesting that he look into the behaviours of autistic and hypothermic people, because in both cases there are reasons these types of victims would not cooperate with search and rescue efforts. Terminal hypothermia explains why deceased people are sometimes found naked with their clothing piled or folded beside them, or left as random pieces on the trails; an instinctive response called terminal burrowing explains why people in distress hide from rescuers. Autistic children sometimes hide for their own mysterious reasons and can’t be relied upon to cooperate with anyone. I’ve worked with autistic kids. In either case, people might hide from search parties and then emerge later to die alone, and be found mysteriously in the same zone searchers went over thoroughly.

Dr. Jekyll: As I recall that correspondence you were being an emotionally driven jerk then, just as you are now. Paulides has said he knows about hypothermia and that isn’t what he means. He has trouble getting his point across. Do you happen to know anyone else like that? That old Russian saying comes to mind now, the one about us being so alike we are like two shoes that smell of the same foot. Terminal hypothermia explains some cases, but not all. Autistic children might be especially prone to this experience Paulides talks about because autistic children seek solitude and aren’t afraid of being alone in the wilderness. Autistic children might be more open to new experience and have less attachment to the world as other people know it. Autistic children might simply follow things other people would ignore and be led to places where these special experiences happen. Um, do you know anyone like that? Do you prefer those mindless repetitive tasks that autistic people do so well? I know of someone who just finished a knitted hat he doesn’t even really need. Who among us can fixate on a single concept either willfully or by happenstance for days? Ask the people who know you! Did we or did we not score one point short of having Asperger’s Syndrome? Might that have made us a better target? On the other end, Paulides says highly intelligent people vanish in a similar way. Know anyone who fits that? Some smart guy who goes wandering off into the boonies for reasons he can’t tell people? You didn’t go there to knit a hat.

Mr. Hyde: There are other reasons searchers don’t always find people. Often they look in the wrong places, especially when children are involved. People don’t think children can travel very far without help. My friends and I were traveling the backwoods of the Ozarks, without adults, as far as ten miles out, on day hikes, when we were only 9 or ten. When we were younger and smaller we could go five miles out in a day and we had the curiosity in us that kept pulling us farther and farther. Plus, when you are small you can go through country where big people can’t go. Grown-ups couldn’t keep up with us. Finding a little kid 15 miles away from where you thought they would be after just a few days of them being lost isn’t out of reason. Sometimes terrain prevents people from circling, because people tend to go to high points or to follow rivers and streams and that points them farther and farther away. The Ozarks are a hard place to get lost because the terrain funnels you out and then back again when you get tired. We hardly ever knew where we were, but we knew how to get home. We would also regularly climb steep bluffs by hanging onto grapevines that were not stout enough to hold up an adult, in places where adults need climbing gear and fear to fall. Don’t underestimate kids when it comes to travel. If we hadn’t come home one day, and people looked for us, they wouldn’t have come close to the end of our range and we’d have been past it.

Dr. Jekyll: You know we were an unusual child. We did more than wander. We took our lunch with us and sat on rocks for eight hours at a stretch seeking to not have thoughts and purely perceive the world. When we were eight! we were doing that. Left the house at breakfast, back just before dark. Aunt Lodema was shocked when she found out we did that, Mom and Dad laughed and said Oh! He does that all the time. No one knew where we went or how far we could go or they would have stopped us, and I do agree with you on this point. Children are capable of fast travel in tough places. Fifteen miles in three days, not at all impossible. Kids eat horrible things, and drink nasty water. Kids fit into small spaces, tiny ledges are open highways, vines are like ropes. I’ve visited places I did these things when I was little, and I can’t do those things now without gear.

Mr. Hyde: There are still intriguing parts to Paulides’ theories, including the occasional refusal of tracking dogs to take up a trail, but no one can ask the dogs why they won’t go to work on a particular day and get a clear answer. Maybe there is no trail because too many people have passed that way already. Maybe the missing person showered before they left home and didn’t leave enough scent. One of the reasons for doing sweat lodge in the old days was to eliminate body odor, in preparation for a hunt. Maybe hot showers do that for awhile and you just smell like Irish Spring bath soap, the same as a couple dozen other people in the search party. Maybe if you don’t start out with stinky clothes dogs have more trouble tracking you. Possibly we don’t know enough about dogs to understand why they will hunt and why they don’t. Dogs are not infallible.

Dr. Jekyll: Again, a sticky point. Usually the search area is thoroughly trampled before dogs or trackers come in, and don’t get me started on trackers right now. Today’s trackers can identify footprints or spot pools of blood. But are you telling me that you haven’t come across similar things as these dogs? Places where suddenly everything changes, there’s a humming in the air that wasn’t there before. You just know you shouldn’t be there, what you were looking for isn’t there at all, and how silly you were for wasting time on this, you should just go home. That’s a feeling you ought to know, and why wouldn’t a dog sense the same thing?

Mr. Hyde: My theory about Paulides and his books is that it is very possible to build up statistical clusters of missing people around wilderness areas, if you look for cases involving uncooperative autistic children and hypothermia victims and extend your data base to cover missing people from as far back as records allow, even back to the 1800’s. Yosemite is a major cluster in these terms, and it has always been a wild and wildly popular destination for the unprepared adventurers among us. Beautiful wilderness draws people of that sort. Unprepared people get lost. It’s hard to find people who get lost, even in urban areas.

Dr. Jekyll: I can somewhat agree about the statistical clusters. You can certainly build up statistical clusters around cities, where masses of people live and lots of things happen. Plenty of missing people there, and those that would fit the “mysterious” category are rarely noticed. Wilderness areas are a little like cities, people in large numbers go there, so one would expect a larger number of missing people for all kinds of reasons. The unusual cases might not even exist in greater numbers there than in the cities, but they would possibly be easier to sort out from the rest. I’ve always thought these instances were rare, and out of the entire lot Paulides talks about I would personally select two or three as likely examples of what we know. But we may be wrong, and this may be a much more common event than we thought. It’s certainly possible that intelligent people can be drawn to specific wilderness places for very unusual reasons, and you know this because it happened. You could take a lie detector test on that and pass it easily, if the machine didn’t just constantly peg out. What you cannot say is that in a statistical cluster, any statistical cluster of this sort, there are not cases that fit your own criteria as well as the Paulides profile.

Mr. Hyde: Yesterday I spent several hours watching drone video of the search area where a young woman vanished this summer. Samantha Sayers, described as either an experienced hiker or an experienced day hiker, climbed the Vesper Peak Trail in Snoqualmie National Forest in Washington on August 1st 2018 and although she was seen on the trail and at the summit, she never returned to her car at the trailhead. Much of the search focused on the difficult terrain of the upper section of the trail and I did not see much drone footage of the lower woodland area although it’s likely this zone was also searched. Certainly it should have been. Ms. Sayers may have been experienced in some people’s terms, but was poorly equipped. She wore a sports bra, hoodie, workout pants and boots. She carried a day pack with food and water for one meal. She had a cell phone but did not call anyone. I can’t know for sure whether she carried anything else beyond collapsible hiking poles, but many people who hike for recreation go very light and skip what I think of as basic. I would include extra food and water, a compass and map, fire starter and a good knife. I’d also have at least a warm jacket and rain gear with me and I would never go into the mountains with just a sports bra underneath a hoodie, even on a Friday. You can always take off layers and stuff them into your pack. My basic kit gets pretty long. On those same Washington trails in the 70’s I’d take enough food to eke out over three days if I was going out for one, just in case. Once I got to the car I’d eat the extra two days of it, because the mountains make a person hungry. If I were going out for three days, I’d take enough food for a week. So, experienced hiker though she may have been, I am not impressed by Ms. Sayers’ actual expertise.

Dr. Jekyll: I’ve read that there’s a faction attributing Ms. Sayers’ disappearance to ET abduction and I personally see no reason to think this is true. If you go into the mountains on a nice day with such minimal gear as she did, you cannot expect to prosper when things go wrong. She was a fit and fast hiker having a good time. She was not an expert. Her family was leaving survival kits on the trail there weeks after she didn’t come home. Good indication that she didn’t take such basic things as firestarter, knife, map and compass.

Mr. Hyde: I will guess that when Ms. Sayers’ remains are eventually found, she will be within a mile of the trailhead in the lower woods. The most obvious concern was the peak area of the trail where a fall could be immediately disabling or fatal, and everyone searched that area thoroughly. On foot you can’t get everywhere in terrain like that, but drones and air surveillance craft can get a good look. It appears that she isn’t there.

A clip from a topo map provided by AllTrails.com, showing the main trail to Vesper Peak. On the peak itself there are several routes from which to choose.

I think she underestimated how long the trip would take and was in a hurry to get back to the car before dark. In the woods, she left the trail to find a private place to pee, and never found the trail again. Many modern experienced hikers have no experience at all with travel off trail and she certainly was not prepared for any heavy bushwhacking. Often when you leave a trail, even for a short distance, you turn around and find out that going back the same way isn’t so easy, so you change direction a little bit. I’ve been in such places, surrounded by river noise and dense forest and with the sound of cars passing by in the far distance, and by sight and sound alone found myself going in remarkably precise circles, convinced I was heading in a new direction each time. It was so confusing that when I periodically emerged from the forest and looked at the river, the river seemed to flow the wrong way, and I only found my way out again because of the map and compass I carried with me. I couldn’t even follow the occasional traffic noise because it bounced off the mountains, coming first from one way and then from another as the cars passed by in the distance. That was a good education for me. People would call me an expert woodsman if I vanished, but even an expert woodsman can get just plain lost.

Dr. Jekyll: Yeah, none of that has anything to do with the “unusual” sort of disappearance. This can be explained in tragically ordinary ways and I do think that will prove true. I’ve not been able to learn from researching articles what sort of hiking poles Ms. Sayers carried, but those are for balance and so you will look like you are a real hiker. Like carrying an ice axe when you aren’t anywhere near ice, or wearing leather shorts and suspenders. Collapsible hiking poles pack really nicely in car and suitcase, but they do just that, they get loose and collapse. They aren’t dependably load-bearing poles, so if you are coming down a jumble of boulders and relying on them for support they can fail at precisely the wrong time. Or if you are crossing a log, same thing. They are for balance. Lots of people are eventually found dead a hundred yards or even a hundred feet from a road or a trail, even after a thorough search, and not all of these cases are mysterious.

The most likely place on that entire map to be just plain lost is near the parking lot.

Mr. Hyde: So with respect to everyone involved in the Sayers search, from Sayers to her family to all the professionals and amateurs who worked on her behalf, I would say look in that section of low woods along the Stillaguamish River’s forks, to the north of the first part of the trail. If she took a jog off-trail in that direction, and she didn’t have a map or didn’t memorize one, she’d be thinking she could get back on track by crossing the river. Then she’d find the river again, and again, and if she kept going she’d find the river again. That would be enough to make anybody turn back and try to start over. All this could have happened before search and rescue teams even got there. That lowland woods is really hard to search, and there are lots of places an injured hypothermic person could do that terminal burrowing.

Although it’s exciting to think about, you don’t need space aliens or serial killers or giant thunderbirds or carnivorous bigfeet or even just plain ordinary mountain lions and bears to get lost in the woods. All you need to disappear forever and become a lasting mystery is to think you are above getting lost. I’ve been there more than once, and I never thought it would happen to me. Or, that it would happen again. Or again. Best to prepare for it, because it’s part of being a woodsman.

Dr. Jekyll: I would like to point out that I agree with the basic thought, that you don’t need those things to disappear people, I have no direct personal experience with either serial killers or Bigfoot, although I actually have been suspicious of my Uncle Walter. I have lots of faith in mountain lions and I think far more people vanish that way than we admit, but they are smaller people like children last in line. Bears leave a mess, it’s not hard to attribute vanishings to bears. I like to think there are thunderbirds out there, and I’ve read many Ozark tales of such. They were said to nest on the Balds there and the Balds are definitely spooky places. As yet I’ve not seen a Thunderbird except in my dreams.

What I am talking about in regards to the most unusual cases of disappearance is a natural process, a natural event we don’t understand. Compare it to our current use of electricity. Not long ago, everyone recognized electricity existed but no one knew how to use it. It was to us static electricity or lightning and neither one served any controllable purpose. Now we use it constantly but actually we don’t really know what it is. A flow of electrons is how we explain it, but as we dig deeper into that theory we just find more levels of unknown things. What I’ve witnessed and experienced is related to what I can best describe as a natural process, a natural force like electricity that in our daily lives is ever-present but at a level we do not notice. Certain types of natural formations focus this energy, and that can include formations of stone, trees or even plants; but excess amounts of that energy are not always present. In fact, there is seldom enough power involved to create more than a bad feeling that scares dogs. At regular intervals, maybe 50 years or a 100 and Paulides thinks 25, those cycles of energy peak, and then things happen. It’s like a different sort of rogue wave where all sorts of natural energy cycles combine and become something extraordinary. It doesn’t happen often, and it only happens in particular places. If lightning happened once every 50 years, in random places all over the planet, do you think we’d understand electricity well enough to use it? That’s where we are on this, it doesn’t happen enough that ordinary scientists, trapped in their buildings and labs and esoteric educational systems, can even encounter it and believe it is real.

But, Mr. Hyde, you remember and know this as well as I do. We’ve been there. We’ve done that. We’ll peg the graph on the fucking lie detector. We have information no one wants to know, and whether anyone pays attention totally depends upon whether we can do anything useful with it, ourselves.

Mr. Hyde: I wish you had never come back. I thought we agreed you would never talk about this again. All I wanted was a few quiet years and a garden.

Dr. Jekyll: Wimp.

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About JTHats

Avid backpacker and outdoorsman with old skills and interests in old ways of doing things; equally fascinated by electronics, from the days of Sputnik, to the Zilog Z80A, to the present day of black box circuitry. Sixty years of experience with growing my own food and living simply. Certified electronics technician, professional woodturner, woodcarver, and graduate of two military survival courses -- Arctic and Jungle.

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