Gone Missing

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It had all the signs of being a case of "coulda-shoulda-woulda" and "too little; too late." But then, this would have been a memorial rather than the good lesson that it might be. It turned out well and it might not have, but as with so many things in life where mistakes are made, there are lessons to be learned - and have been learned well already. And there are lessons to share.

Contents

A Simple Walk

One rarely thinks, when going for a short walk, that they are beginning a journey that might spell their own end. Such was the case, no doubt, when one such person began the walk from their village home to the new school building in Saint Michael. It was a stormy day in early March 2009. A blizzard was in progress with snow swirling in virtually impenetrable walls of whiteness. Visibility, if one could face the storm with unprotected eyes, was close to zero. Winds were being recorded at sustained strengths of 40, 50, and 60 miles per hour with gusts reaching even higher speeds - and it was snowing.

Waiting out the Storm

School was "out". Well, all the students had been released in a technical sense anyway, if a last bell ever has any meaning. But no one was allowed to leave. So, everyone stayed. Oh, there were a few brave parents who ventured out to try to retrieve their children. Mostly that simply added more to the numbers of caged souls though. Few who arrived wanted to leave again. So we all stayed. Impatiently.

And we waited. Wishfully. But every now and then someone would venture out to "look" just to prove once again that it was indeed as white as their mind knew, but refused to recall, that it could be.

"Surely it is getting better, isn't it?"

It wasn't, but that doesn't deny the power of positive thought. So, one hardy pair ventured forth to get prepared for what was to come -hopefully; the safe delivery of the hundred-plus young charges which the staff was responsible for.

A quick run home on the snowmachine, following the road, seemed like a safe enough attempt, and it was. The snowmachine returned its rider along with some fuel. The other half of the pair would return on foot.

Back at "camp" -well, school, (but it was beginning to look like a grand camping adventure....and not unwelcomed by some of those of lesser physical stature), things were still rolling along. Tension levels were still well-contained, but the uncertainty of what was yet to be was easily felt, and the smell of frozen pizza, baking, wafting through the halls gave testament to the fact that we really were stuck, at least for awhile.

And while some adults gave the appearance of patient indifference to the storm's fury, others had the almost palpable look of fear in their eyes, the knowing look of those who have experienced the task of sleeplessly guarding doors. The excitement of the storm was beginning to wear off. And in the waning light; perhaps in part because of the waning light, visibility began to improve.

Getting Home

It was time to move. And we did. Sleds, trucks, Hondas, and snowmachines; the process - not yet an easy one- was begun. But it was started, and in spite of snowy, frosty, icy facial adornments, it carried on, with new tactics being tried to keep things rolling. Come in, thaw out, plan a new delivery list, go again.

And finally it was over, some thirteen hours after the first bell of the day, all one-hundred plus students of every size had been returned to the safety of home.

And so the staff went as well. All but one. One whom all had seen, but one whom none had seen recently.

Has anyone seen him?

"Where did you last see him?" Dan, the principal's, voice querried through the phone.

"He was at school. I thought he was one of the two who was out getting a snowmachine going."

"He was, but no one knows where he is now."

Still in a state of disbelief (and denial) I asked, "Did you call ______?"

"Not yet. I'll give them a call and let you know."

Well, he's somewhere. How could so many people miss him for several hours without noticing? But then those girls were asking where he was in the evening. Hmm? Well, he's probably somewhere.

The phone rang ominously once more, "No, he isn't over there. No one knows where he is. He's missing."

"Alright, we'll go have a look."

It was hard to overcome the feeling of disbelief that anyone could be missing. It was hard enough to think that anyone would get lost in such a short distance. Then again, the short distance might be just the reason why a person might think it would make sense to try to walk a straight line. "There is the straight, hard-packed trail afterall. That might seem like the smartest way to go." Well, we can run some parallel paths across that area and hopefully won't find any snowy lumps. Thankfully the snow is crusted so any tracks might show in spite of the wind.

Tracks

No one wants to hear nor believe that a person, so much alive one moment, might be gone so quickly. The recent fury of the now-waning storm, however, left but one probable conclusion; for a person minimally protected, survival would be unlikely.

So it was that the search, already begun, was joined.

We'll make a few passes, we'll do a thorough sweeping search, check all the nearby beach lines. We won't find anything. He'll pop up somewhere. Everyone will go home and enjoy some much-desired relaxation. That's how things are supposed to be. It's what we expect and take for granted.

But tracks there were, right on the first sweep, and heading straight away from school.

Too simple; can't be his. Wrong heading anyway....completely wrong.

Well, lets' see how they look when we make another pass.

There they are the second time by. Hmmm? Sure enough, they're not in a straight line either. And they're rather close together.

No one spends any time walking aimlessly in this winter-time-featureless expanse. Those who do walk across here- and they are few- do it with purpose; striding with direction. These tracks spell confusion.

He must really be out here somewhere!

Tracks must be obeyed, and obey we did. We followed, and where they led was neither surprising nor especially reassuring. The tracks found and followed a hard packed trail. Then they disappeared. So, of course, there was only one thing to do and that was to follow the trail. But following this trail meant two things: whoever was following it was heading away from safety - and right toward or past the resting place where lie the remains of many of the local departed: the grave yard. The irony was hard to avoid, but the possibilities were too horrible to contemplate for long.

The fact that the trail led uphill would seem logically not to make sense, not to one who hasn't known the directionless confusion of white-out conditions anyway. But anyone who has "been there" will understand the meaning of the confusion which is real in a blinding storm. Simply being confused doesn't prove you have "been there", but being there does guarantee some awareness of the confusion. There is no sense of direction, every direction is the same; up is down and down is up; one can as easily be "falling" as standing still as near as one's senses can detect. It is deception, distortion, and confusion of reality. Pilots know and trust their instruments- or follow their erroneous perceptions to disaster.

And so we followed the tracks which led away from safety, and uphill. The only sense of reality their maker had was probably the hardness of the well-packed trail- little realizing that the trail was climbing, a clue that would have been helpful. But, of course, staying on the trail that could only be felt with the soles of the feet would mean occasional deviation from it. And the tracks did deviate, appearing at times to the side, sometimes wandering quite a ways off the trail. And then there were the meandering tracks pointing back along the trail, the rather obvious sign that their maker had been looking for something familiar, a way that might lead to some place safe. And finally the tracks, both going and coming, led to an ending, a point where they simply circled in a meaningless confusion as they met up with the heavy drifts of a road they cut across. But the reality was sinking in fast, and it was a hard reality. There was work to do, very urgent work.

Back-tracking might not seem helpful, but maybe there would be clues about the certain identity of maker. In another twist of irony, the tracks, followed backwards, led back nearly to the school, right to (from) the snow heaps piled along the access road by the building. So who would leave the safety of the school and walk away in a storm? Or who might get so close, yet miss it? But the school building itself was creating its own "weather space." The building, like any big obstacle to the wind, caused the air to be turned and twisted, creating eddies and whirlwinds, both causing the blowing snow to settle into drifts and to be lifted into greater blinding whiteness.

Perhaps one who was using the wind as a guide might become confused because of the very object which offered safe shelter? If they were his tracks, he probably had no clue how close he had come...

Fearing the Worst

Dead ends. It seemed like only dead ends. But one cannot accept dead ends when searching without also accepting an almost inevitable unacceptable outcome. There had to be something we had missed. As any tracker knows, it is easy to miss details. So, like any hunter might, we circled around, both in the hope that some sign had been missed, or that perhaps our victim - it was hard not to be thinking in those terms now- had missed comfort, but found safety anyway, that somehow one of the outlying structures had been encountered. So, recalling how difficult it was at times during the height of the storm to see, we circled the school and looked for signs around the nearby places of shelter, but with no results.

The nagging fear of the frozen sea was a gnawing question mark though. Built on the memories of those whose lives had previously been claimed locally, and unthinkable though it was, it was a question that needed to be answered. So the beach needed to be examined. But doing so had its own perils even for searchers as the strong south winds had created exceptionally high tides. And it became clear that anyone unfortunate enough to have ventured blindly into the slushy expanse of overflow extending well up onto the beach, would have been in certain trouble in minutes as feeling and then mobility would have been lost.

But thankfully, the beach was free of any evidence. So a circling path was cut to include the road on which the tracks had ended, to verify, one way or another, the possibility that the road had somehow been followed even farther from safety. It seemed like a long shot, but it needed to be considered since it was one of the few tactilly available paths which had been encountered in the blinding whiteness. Upon our approach, the snow berms left by the plow were evident so we slowed, but not before teetering across the top of the near side and sliding into the drift pocked groove between two berms, more closely spaced than expected. We were now stuck. But it was also evident, in the headlight of the machine, that we had discovered a mine-field of tracks.


Snow Caves Save Lives!

Things were looking up. Little did we realize how much, and for whom. I had no more than spoken the word "tracks" when we heard "Hey" as an arm erupted from the drifts scarcely six feet away. And in another very brief moment, the subject of our search burst out of the snowy hole and was up, very much alive and seemingly hearty, more than happy to accept a less than luxurious sled ride, for the mile or so it was back to warmth and safety.

Photo Gallery

Tracks C.jpg

In some places the tracks backtracked, a possible indication of a confused person. The length of the strides is also tentative, not the kind of strides a person might normally take if they were walking to get somewhere.

Trail.jpg

This is the road which was the apparent guiding path. It seems likely, judging from the meandering tracks, that sense of direction was probably not very good.

Drift cave.jpg

Whether through accident or intent, the drift which was chosen was large and solid, perfect for a cave under the circumstances.

Snow cave.jpg

The cave hollowed into the drift was adequate in size, without being too large, to retain some body heat.

Thoughts

This situation really happened. And while it may be difficult to remember or even imagine exactly what the conditions were like, it is a simple fact that they were conditions no different than those which have claimed many lives. One has only to consider the numbers of people who have been lost over the years across the prairies and plains of the United States when they tried to go from the farmhouse to the barn to take care of animals to realize how easily one can get lost in blizzard conditions. And coastal Alaskan weather is certainly no better. In fact, quite probably often a lot worse.

As with many cold weather survival situations though, getting past the idea that one is close to safety and can "figure it out" is a big hurdle. The "victim" in this mishap, in spite of the initial mistake(s), did the right thing by not trying to keep looking. Had he continued to followed the road he was on, he may have found and fallen over a 60 foot bluff. Too, there was the potential for getting into the wind caused tidal overflow, something which had flooded the area where the sea ice meets the beach. The snow slopes along the beach had close to a foot of water soaking them beneath the drifts. Stepping into and becoming wet in such stuff might easily have been fatal as sensation and mobility would have been lost very quickly. But he recognized the problem he had and began to deal with his situation.

He followed the classic steps taught by AMSEA in their cold water survival courses.*

1. Recognize - He realized his limitations and stopped wandering blindly.

2. Inventory - He had little to use - he was simply walking back to school- but he used what he had to burrow into a snow bank.

3. Shelter - The snow cave or tunnel was small, just large enough to crawl into, and with a small hole exposed to the elements. While obviously none too comfortable, it was perfectly constructed as a means to survive, with not a lot of extra air space to rob body heat.

4. Signal -

5. Food

6. Water

7. Play

* AMSEA- the Alaska Marine Safety Education Association, provides instruction for educators as well as support for schools in the instruction of boating safety, cold water, and outdoor survival skills, especially as they relate to Alaska. There are many useful survival adaptations one can make from cold water to cold weather survival.

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