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Backpacker Magazine – May 2010

Lost in the Frank Church Wilderness: What Does It Really Mean to Be Utterly, Hopelessly, Truly, Lost?

We air-dropped a blindfolded Jim Thornton into the middle of a 2-million-acre wilderness to find out.

by: Jim Thornton

Illustrations by Edel Rodriguez
Illustrations by Edel Rodriguez
Illustrations by Edel Rodriguez
Illustrations by Edel Rodriguez

video icon LOST! THE VIDEO SERIES

Part 1:
On his first day lost in Idaho's Frank Church--River of No Return Wilderness, Thornton confronts dwindling water supplies and the daunting task of getting un-lost.

Part 2: On his second day lost in Idaho's Frank Church--River of No Return Wilderness, Thornton battles cold temperatures, conflicting routes, and the onset of genuine fear.

Part 3:
On his third day lost in Idaho's Frank Church--River of No Return Wilderness, Thornton finally finds a potential way home. But fear, exhaustion, and an incoming winter snowstorm threaten to derail his progress.
In order to reach her office job, the 43-year-old Canadian woman gets on the same bus every morning and rides it to a distinctive downtown square. She then exits the bus and walks 30 yards to the tall building in front of her. At day's end, she follows these simple directions in reverse to get home. Any change, and she will become hopelessly lost.

It's been like this her whole life. Despite normal cognitive development, friends or relatives led her to school every day throughout childhood. In adulthood, she needs a guide to go to the grocery store, movies, or anywhere besides work.

In the journal Neuropsychologia, cognitive neuroscientist Giuseppe Iaria, Ph.D., and his colleagues at the University of British Columbia, published a case study of the woman's affliction, dubbing it DTD, or “developmental topographical disorientation.” Certain forms of brain damage, including Alzheimer's, can rob adults of their ability to form mental maps. But this woman was the first published case of a person seemingly born lost.

“We published our paper in August,” says Iaria, “and since then, we have been contacted by 500 people with this same disorder. It's an extremely frustrating and anxiety-causing problem, and many of them are relieved to find that there's actually a name for their condition, that they're not stupid.”

Most of us take for granted the ability to form some type of mental map, even if the accuracy varies greatly. Some, like me, must constantly stop to ask for directions. Others seem blessed with preternatural homing abilities. “Australian Aborigines and the Puluwat Islanders of the South Pacific,” says Gonzales, “seem so inexplicably good at navigating that researchers once wondered if they had a magnetic sense.”

Though migratory birds have neurons that sense magnetic fields, no evidence exists that humans are equipped with such an internal compass. What we do have, however, is no less miraculous: an interplay of complex neurological systems that together allow us to navigate through the world.

For complex routes we habitually travel, for example, a brain region called the caudate nucleus encodes the directions. Neuroscientists have dubbed this “procedural memory,” and it lets us perform many well-practiced behaviors on autopilot. The advantage of route-by-rote navigation is that, once ingrained, it demands little conscious attention, freeing our brains to concentrate on other matters.

But there's a decided disadvantage, too, with habitual routes. “Well-meaning people sometimes trap nuisance squirrels and move them to the woods, believing this is a humane solution to a pest problem,” says Gonzales. “It's not. Once you take them out of their territory and they don't know where they are, they rarely survive.”

Fortunately, people are less reliant than squirrels on procedural memory alone. “Our brains can learn not only where different landmarks are, but where each one is relative to the others,” explains Iaria. “Thus we can form a mental map of the environment in our heads and visualize alternative pathways leading to the same destination.”

Creating and manipulating these cognitive maps requires distinct high-powered skills, from visual memory to the ability to mentally rotate objects in space. Though various brain regions play a role, the most important is the hippocampus. It contains specialized “place” cells that fire rapidly whenever we pass a familiar landmark. In recent work, Iaria and company found that a person's mental mapping ability depends largely on the structural integrity of the hippocampus. Victims of Alzheimer's and DTD alike, it now appears, can't find their way because of hippocampal impairment.

Of course, we're all doomed to some deterioration. In one recent study comparing volunteers in their 20s with those in their mid-50s, researchers found that the older we get, the longer it takes us to form cognitive maps--and the more error-prone we become when using them.

But don't lose hope. A simple technique can help virtually everyone consolidate new directional data into long-term memory: Get a good night's sleep after exposure to new geography. Whether you've spent the day hiking through unfamiliar woods, or scrutinizing topographical maps to plan an alpine crossing, sleep will help fix new bearings into your cognitive map. Veteran hikers can also take satisfaction in another research finding: When it comes to navigational acumen, practice makes perfect. One study of longtime London taxi drivers found that years of exercising their mental mapping skills led to a physical increase in hippocampal volume. Adrift in the Frank, I can't help but wonder which description fits me better: London hack in training or transplanted nuisance squirrel?




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Reader Rating: -

READERS COMMENTS

Star
oooooo
May 25, 2013

The following are facts about the area where this story takes place, which might give the reader a better perspective of the article:

He was dropped off at Stone Breaker Ranch. It is an old homestead, now owned and managed by the Idaho Fish and Game. Next to the airstrip there are several nice log buildings with solar power, generator power, water systems and a big sign that says STONE BREAKER RANCH IDAHO FISH AND GAME. Most years there are caretakers there. About 150 feet from the edge of the airstrip is a very visible creek, the West Fork of Chamberlain. Other creeks: Ranch Cr, Flossie Cr, Game Cr, Dog Cr, Pup Cr and Chamberlain Cr (more of a river) a person will run into by walking no more than 5-15 minutes in any direction. To the south about 1/2 mile is Chamberlain Forest Service Station, which consists of 6 log buildings, signboards, maps, 2 airstrips and is staffed by a Wilderness Ranger and a trail crew. The airstrip gets an average of 3-4 landings a day in September and is visible from nearly every ridge or knoll from miles around.

From the description he gave about his route to Root Ranch he would have crossed 5 maintained Forest Service trails which have signage at most junctions and are marked on the map he was using. The entire Chamberlain Basin he was in the middle of is criss-crossed by multiple creeks.

The "Fir" trees he saw from the plane are Lodgepole and Ponderosa Pine.

Making it a couple miles to Root Ranch is no-where even close to making it out of the Wilderness (on foot). He would have to go 3-4 times as far to make it to a trailhead, if you ignore the 5 or more highly used airstrips.

From the perspective of a person who knows the area this article is slightly offensive and highly comical. I am surprised backpacker would print an article about such a highly fabricated experience. If the author actually did not fake this I am very surprised at how moronic he must be. At any rate, he and the magazine should be ashamed for printing such non-sense.

rufus k
Sep 17, 2012

From the description, he was dropped at either Chamberlain or Stonebraker airstrip, about 1 mile apart, and walked down the creek east to root ranch. But he did not make it out of the wilderness, just a few miles east to another strip, but still in the middle of the wilderness.

KR
Jun 13, 2012

buildings are old forest service buildings, totally in the wilderness.. he had maps of many places, not just a map of where he was,, he had to first figure out which map to use...I belive he was dropped at the moose creek ranger station/airstip

Karl
Jul 30, 2011

I like the article. Is there a way to find out what gear he was given, including the brand, etc.?

James
Jun 02, 2011

This is so bogus, he was not 'lost', just play acting

idaho native
Mar 31, 2011

Making it to Root Ranch is NOT the same as hiking out of the Frank under your own power. He would still need a plane ride, horseback packout, or long hike to civilization.

As for a means to similate genuine panic over being lost, that's as good of place as any. Besides being scores of miles across, the entire place is cut by the second deepest canyon in North America (the MF Salmon). The lower end, to east of his lcoation, is known as "Impassable Canyon" for a reason. The only way in or out of Impassable is by boat, and even then it's Class IV whitewater!

Jim H
Oct 15, 2010

Now I have an idea for my next vacation. Pay some fellow with a Cessna to drop me off in the middle of nowhere. For at least the first couple days, I would love it. The main concern, in this seemingly very dry and arid place (i.e., bitteroots are an arid/dry-existing plant) would be to locate a water source. Next, I would be so happy to be away from the junk of civilization (noisy neighbors, loud thumping bass systems in car stereos, the sound of the freeway that never goes away). I'd sleep like a baby every night, I'm sure. Personally, I wouldn't be too anxious to find my way out. Instead, I'd be considering staying a few extra days. (Minus loud bass systems in car stereos and the neighbor's screaming bratty kids...) Water... more than finding my way out, I would be looking for water. Because is just a few days, you can go without food, but without water you're done for. And if any of the maps he was given were USGS Topographical maps, jeesh, might as well paint my way back home. Once you gained the bearing on the Topos, its pretty hard to stay lost, once yiu find key locations on the Topos, and you have a good compass.

Let's go, I'm game. So, how much for my story after the fact... I can just submit it to Backpacker "on spec" and if they approve for publication, we can negotiate the terms later.

:-)
.
.

Jim H
Oct 15, 2010

Now I have an idea for my next vacation. Pay some fellow with a Cessna to drop me off in the middle of nowhere. For at least the first couple days, I would love it. The main concern, in this seemingly very dry and arid place (i.e., bitteroots are an arid/dry-existing plant) would be to locate a water source. Next, I would be so happy to be away from the junk of civilization (noisy neighbors, loud thumping bass systems in car stereos, the sound of the freeway that never goes away). I'd sleep like a baby every night, I'm sure. Personally, I wouldn't be too anxious to find my way out. Instead, I'd be considering staying a few extra days. (Minus loud bass systems in car stereos and the neighbor's screaming bratty kids...) Water... more than finding my way out, I would be looking for water. Because is just a few days, you can go without food, but without water you're done for. And if any of the maps he was given were USGS Topographical maps, jeesh, might as well paint my way back home. Once you gained the bearing on the Topos, its pretty hard to stay lost, once yiu find key locations on the Topos, and you have a good compass.

Let's go, I'm game. So, how much for my story after the fact... I can just submit it to Backpacker "on spec" and if they approve for publication, we can negotiate the terms later.

:-)
.
.

Taylor
Oct 15, 2010

If you think Charlie made a good point, first make sure you know what the definition of 'simulation' is.

Fun interesting article! I like that there's video to go along with it.

Charlie
Oct 15, 2010

This did not simulate being lost...he knew that people were aware of his location, that he was not really in danger. Being really lost means no one else knows where you are either...not just you. Good luck getting any lawyers to approve simulating that.

steve quinne
Jul 14, 2010

the same as above , before that plane was off the ground , my maps would have been out and locating that before I moved an inch !!! how hard is that ?
ive been in worse and made it just fine

northsister
Jun 08, 2010

Why are you guys assuming there are buildings?? This is the wilderness! Have you ever seen wilderness?

Seth
May 28, 2010

There's no mention of buildings. It's a remote airstrip, just a flat stretch without trees. No buildings I think.

Shane
May 27, 2010

This kinda reminds me of Man vs. Wild, and Survivorman. Both of which I highly, no, Astronomically recommend to watch, for the casual "outdoorist" and the serious survivalist.

scott r
May 27, 2010

lost 4 days in bitterroots - would add, daily crying jags that would end with a laugh and me talking out loud "might as well lay down and die". The biochemical dump had me so wound up that I could not eat and survived on a jar of honey that I would force myself to eat knowing that I needed to eat. Checked the compass (after deciding that I was going to move southwest)every 5 minutes, had the common sense to back track when path was too steep and lastly, I was so tired at the end of the day I stopped imagining bear and cougar.

Mike
May 27, 2010

When I read this article my first thoughts were, "You're at a known, named location with buildings. You have maps. Sit down, pull out the maps, search for buildings." But perhaps there was a rule against doing this on the first day?

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