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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.

The “Bitterroots Trail” leads me to a confluence of streams where I must ford a fork. The least intimidating of these is six feet wide and deep enough to swamp my boots. The current flows fast over smooth rocks slick with algae. This proves the first of many laborious, barefoot crossings. By late afternoon, the trail has funneled me deeper into a vast drainage, and numerous feeder streams have swollen the original creek into a cascading roar of whitewater. In the lowlands, the trail snakes through dense brambles fed by the splash. At times, the vegetation grows so thick that the trail becomes a mere suggestion of itself, best recognized by not looking at it too directly. At other points, the stream and trail diverge, the latter ascending steeply up a flanking canyon. At the highest points, the trail takes a horseshoe turn and crosses the cleavage separating one ridge from the next, before descending to begin the rise and fall again.

It’s arduous going, made worse by the fact that in the Frank, the term “trail” is liberally applied. Case in point: Enormous ponderosas, black with fire scars and toppled over, block my passage with dispiriting regularity. Each time I encounter one of these giants, I’m forced to heave myself over or scramble around on crumbly scree. And that’s when things go smoothly. At one fallen leviathan, I’m clambering over a trunk the diameter of a manhole cover when my forward progress abruptly stops. A splintery branch had ensnared the back of my britches. The result is a sensation last experienced by me in junior high. Not content with merely disorienting, exhausting, and discouraging me, Mother Nature has decided to give me a wedgie, too. I have to de-pants myself to get loose.

Such indignities aside, it’s hard to understate how exhausting this can be, hour after hour. I’d like to say that at least I have the splendor of the wilderness to refresh my spirits. But the truth is, I’m spending 99 percent of my time looking at my feet. Pinecones, rocks, bones, the scat of predators and prey; such flotsam especially proliferates wherever the trail runs along cliffs, wherever a misstep could maim or kill me.

That night, I pitch my tent between two boulders and set the stove on one of them. As dinner boils, I spot more animal bones and climb down to take a look. Spots of red adorn the joints. I turn around and see a burrow’s entrance–directly below where I pitched my tent. Something, it seems, is living in my basement, but I’m much too exhausted to consider relocating. Whatever it is, he’s a good neighbor. The next morning, both my poorly hung bear bag and I remain intact. My body actually feels limber, as if it has begun to acclimate, even thrive, in the face of new demands.

But I’m still hopelessly lost.

At breakfast, I unfold the two large-scale maps. Each one is gridded in one-inch squares corresponding to a square mile of wilderness. Judging by the relatively short air time from McCall, I’ve been operating under the theory that I’m probably in the Frank’s southern half. Square by square, I scan the minutiae of the entire southeast quadrant before flipping it over and searching the southwest quadrant. Nothing looks familiar, just an indistinct collection of mountains and creeks and dotted trails meandering in every direction. Part of me already suspects what experts will later confirm conclusively: Without a landmark in the actual environment to serve as a reference point, maps are nearly useless to even the most experienced navigator.

I give up on the Frank’s south half and unfold the map for the northern section. Beginning with the northeast quadrant, my eyes again slowly sweep the top row of squares from left to right. Then I dip down a row and repeat the horizontal sweep. By the bottom of the page, I’ve found nothing helpful and am ready to quit. I pour a second cup of coffee, flip the map over to the northwest quadrant, and resume the final square-by-square search. At this point, I continue scrutinizing the map not in hope of finding myself–but to prove how impossible the task is.

Seventeen minutes later, compulsivity pays off in an utterly unexpected way. There, in section G-4 (grid name: Meadow of Doubt), I spy Stonebreaker Ranch written in tiny letters, an extra “e” added to the “braker” part. At last I’ve found myself–or at least where I was two days ago. The challenge now is to figure out where I’ve hiked since then. From the ranch, at least seven different trails radiate out like warped spokes. But which one I’ve been traveling on is not immediately clear. From occasional compass readings over the last couple of days, I can rule out the trails leading due west, southwest, due south, and southeast. That leaves three possibilities: north, northeast, and east.

For long stretches, I’ve traveled in each of these directions. The good news is that two of the three paths lead to exit points: the north trail to an airstrip near the Salmon River, and the east trail to something called the Root Ranch, which is not far from another backcountry landing strip. Only the northeast trail leads to a dead end: a mountaintop called Arctic Point Lookout. Whichever trail I’m on, I resolve to keep following it forward. The thought of heading backward is more than I can stand.

By early afternoon, the first cloud I’ve seen in Idaho floats across the sky. It seems inconsequential, but the once-dry air is growing humid. I record my observation: Weather coming in, looks like it’s from the south. A bad omen?

Distracted by the recorder, I take my eyes off of the trail, my boot catches something, and I nearly fall down a ravine. I had tripped over a skull, six inches long, with large orbital sockets and canines sharp enough to carve meat. Absent any actual knowledge, I decide it’s a wolverine: my college mascot at the University of Michigan and perfect talisman for the No Return. The Frank actually contains some of the last critical habitat for these endangered “ghosts of the woods,” which have been known to chase off grizzlies and wolves–then steal their prey. According to Inuit legend, a 1,000-pound polar bear once tried to crush a 35-pound wolverine to its chest, only to see its own heart torn out.

I slip my new lucky charm inside my shirt and hope its spirit rubs off. By prearranged agreement the next morning, I use the satellite phone to check in with BACKPACKER for the first time. For five minutes, the handset’s screen blinks SEARCHING. I give up, climb 300 feet farther up the mountainside, and try again. This time, my editor answers on the second ring. The connection is pretty bad, but he sounds glad to find I’m still alive. I tell him I’m 80 percent sure I know where I am–on a trail following Chamberlain Creek or possibly another one following the McCalla. He says something that sounds a little like, “Turn around,” but I argue my reasons for forging onward. In response, I think he says my plan’s OK, but I’m not exactly sure. Then the call is dropped.

The wolverine skull, temporarily perched atop my walking stick, stares back at me approvingly. I soldier on. If I am correct about where I am, Chamberlain Creek will eventually join with the McCalla, at which point all I’ll need to do is head south to Whimstick Creek, then follow this to the presumably abandoned Root Ranch. It appears to be about 15 miles total. If I pick up the pace and avoid getting confused by unnamed streams shown on the map, I should make it by nightfall tomorrow.

All day, the temperature falls. By late afternoon, the sky has turned pewter, and the air is clammy with humidity. I get chilled at each rest stop. When the cold bothers me more than exhaustion, I tuck the wolverine back inside my shirt, tighten my pack straps to selective pain mode, and forge on. One canyon gives way to the next, then the next, then the next. But where is the long-anticipated confluence? Like the tease of false summits to a hypoxic climber, every bend beckons with illusory promise. And then, at quarter to five, with wind gusts pushing aspens half to the ground, I spy a footbridge spanning the creek. A sign proclaims this is the Chamberlain. Woo hoo! Must confirm this with the compass…but yes…Yes! The trail is heading south. I can’t believe it! I am most definitely found! I hike toward the Whimstick, which the map indicates is a short distance ahead. At first, I find myself stepping lively, the gait of a person who knows exactly where he is and where he’s going. But as the expected half-hour drags on to an hour and then more, new-won confidence erodes in the face of impatience, fatigue, and doubt.

Just as I’ve begun second-guessing myself, I reach the stream. Overhead, the scudding clouds start spritzing cold drops. I pitch the tent as it begins to pour.

Not everyone is terrified by the
prospect of getting lost in the woods. Daniel Boone reported becoming lost–or at least uncertain of his exact whereabouts–for weeks at a time. For him, “lost” had a different meaning than it does for modern trekkers. Boone may have had no clue about his precise location, but he didn’t feel threatened when cut off from civilization–he could literally live off of the land. Though I’m no Daniel Boone, during most of my time in the Frank the weather’s been great, my provisions adequate, and the satellite phone a reassuring safety net. Being lost has been disorienting, even disconcerting, but I have not yet succumbed to panic.

For most hikers, the transition from vague unease to full-blown meltdown is gradual. Gonzales says it begins when the internal map of where we are doesn’t fit our surroundings, a mismatch that triggers an unsettled feeling. At this point, many of us rationalize away discrepancies. We tell ourselves that a missing lake has dried up, or that a stream has subtly shifted its banks. In the sport of orienteering, says Gonzales, this wishful thinking is known as “bending the map.”

At some point, the bent map breaks. According to survival expert Kummerfeldt, “Reality breaks through the fuzziness and hits you. Adrenaline and cortisol and other stress hormones flood your body. If you don’t grab hold of this fight-or-flight mentality, the next step is full-fledged, screaming-through-the-woods panic.”

In such a state, you may easily injure yourself, or lose critical equipment, or get soaked from charging across a stream. With a series of mishaps like these, simply being temporarily lost can turn deadly. For many lost victims, the next stage is to construct a new mental map and begin to hike. With few exceptions, this is a mistake. As much as the brain demands action, the best strategy is to stay put. “Search and rescue,” says Kummerfeldt, “is one thing we do very, very well in this country.”

When the invented map inevitably fails, false hope gives way to an even deeper despair. At this point, says Gonzales, many hikers resign themselves to their plight. Death can come surprisingly quickly, often through no clearly identifiable cause. After four days, less than half of lost hikers are found alive.

Fortunately, the vast majority don’t remain lost this long. Speedy rescues are due in part to experts like Koester, who have applied mathematical algorithms to real-world behavioral data and developed surprisingly accurate profiles of how different groups of people–from hikers to snowmobilers, hunters to anglers–are likely to move in different environments.

“For example,” Koester explains, “when a hiker is lost in dry terrain in a mountainous environment, there’s a 75 percent chance he’ll be found within four miles of his last known location.”

The data has also helped to kibosh some well-entrenched myths–that lost people tend to move in the general direction of their dominant hand, or that they nearly always travel downhill, or that they rarely travel at night.

On the other hand, many other behaviors do repeat themselves with predictable consistency. For example, even though backtracking makes more rational sense, very few lost hikers attempt to do this. “It’s what I call the ‘just around the bend’ factor,” says Koester. “You convince yourself that if you just keep going forward, you’re going to find something good just around the next bend. You know how much work it’s taken to get where you are, and you don’t want to repeat that. Plus, ‘back there’ is where you got lost. Unconsciously, you’re thinking: ‘Why go back where a bad thing happened?’”

My own lost experience may have been conceived in artifice, but after four days in the wilderness, my meanderings have hewn to type–from the initial and inadvertent circling, to following so-called “linear features” like streams and trails, to real revulsion at the thought of turning around. Had the weather remained clement another day, it’s likely that these frequent hallmarks of lost person behavior would have been the extent of my experiment in wilderness immersion. But the weather deteriorated. And so did I.

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