Recent ‘Lost Hiker’ Stories Have Happy Endings
Recently, a man went missing in the wilderness of Arkansas. You might have heard about it; it made national headlines, as “Lost Hiker” stories often do.
It’s odd that the media has such an appetite for lost hiker stories. On average about 600,000 people go ‘missing’ in the US every year, yet you hardly hear a word about any of them. But there’s something about a person lost in the wilderness that strikes a cord in the imagination…perhaps because the thought of getting lost in the wild is something that for many people constitutes a true primal fear.
At any rate, this story had a good ending. The man, whose name is Joshua McClatchy, 38 years old from Fort Worth Texas, was discovered by rescuers after being lost for six days in the wilderness of Arkansas. They found him after a helicopter spotted his light in the darkness, but it took another five hours to fetch him out. He was dehydrated but otherwise unharmed.
Some details of the story are still somewhat confused…such as how Mr. McClatchy got so turned around that he ended up hopelessly lost in bad terrain for nearly a week. Reports put him at least four miles from the trail when rescued.
Many articles referred the trail he was hiking the “Buckeye Trail.” This should not be confused with the more notable namesake trail of the state of Ohio (THE Ohio State Buckeye…Trail.) That Buckeye Trail meanders for some 1400 miles through the great rectangular flatness that is the Buckeye State, nearly three quarters of the distance of the Appalachian Trail. Needless to say, there isn’t quite as much up and down on the Buckeye Trail as on the AT. But it nonetheless endeavors to be the finest footpath it can, and we’re happy for it.
Rather, McClatchy appears to have gotten lost on the Buckeye Trail/Caney Creek Trail, which is located in the 14,000+ acre Caney Creek Wilderness of Southwest Arkansas. This area is part of the Ouachita Mountains, which lie somewhat to the south of — but are part of the same general range as — the Ozark Mountains.
The trail description looks interesting, and one can easily see how it is possible to get post here. This is a very remote and rugged area with many deep valleys, dead-end hollows and steep ridges that restrict visibility. You could spend days walking in circles there. We have hiked in Arkansas and can attest that while the mountains may be small, the terrain is quite challenging.
Several points about this story bear mentioning. Among them: once upon a time, this almost could have been Brian. Site editor Brian, like Mr. McClatchy, once lived in the DFW area. Like McClatchy, Brian also ventured on up to Arkansas a time or three in order to hike (there are few options for it in the vast flatness of North Texas.) In fact, Brian was about the same age as McClatchy is when he ventured forth into the Buffalo River area of Arkansas.
Of course, Brian’s experience was a bit different. While he did get ‘misplaced’ a few times and can attest that the trail in Arkansas can be quite confusing, he did not become seriously lost. He is either a smarter hiker or a luckier one.
Another interesting fact is that technology ultimately saved McClatchy. Not only was it his light (and a helicopter) that led rescuers back to him, but the reason the search got going in the first place was that McClatchy was able to use his mobile phone to send a message out to his family that he was lost. As sometimes is the case, he didn’t have a strong enough signal to make a call, but he was able to send a text. After this he lost contact, but the one warning was enough to alert the authorities to start searching.
The story is also reminiscent of that of another recent lost hiker, Amanda Eller, who become lost in a woodland preserve on the island of Maui a few weeks back and ended up spending an astonishing 17 days in the wild, living of stream water and berries. Eller, who had gone out for a short walk, was not prepared for even a short hike, let alone the ordeal ahead of her; she claimed she followed inner “voices” down a path until she was completely lost. After that, she somehow managed to fracture her leg falling down into a ravine where she would remain, too injured to climb out, for more than two weeks.
Apart from Eller’s stubborn will to survive, it was the persistence of the rescue crews more than anything else that made the difference. Like McClatchy she was discovered by a helicopter, but this time it was more a lucky break; Eller had carried no phone with her. A copter just happened to see her sitting out in the open; before that, Eller reported that helicopter had flown overhead at least twenty times without being able to see her.
This brings up an important point about rescue. Rescuers cannot rescue what they can’t find, and they can’t find what they can’t see. An aircraft, even one flying low and with a crew actively searching for someone on the ground, cannot easily spot a person in rough terrain or through trees – even if the person is jumping up and down, waving and screaming for help. A lost person must do everything possible to increase the odds rescuers will find them.
Another point is that likely the only reason Eller survived is she was lost in a tropical paradise, where food and water are available, the climate is mild, and there is little dangerous wildlife (wild boars excepted.) There are not many places on Earth where an unprepared, injured person can make it through seventeen days on their own in the wild and still be alive at the end. You probably would not get away with that in the Appalachians, let alone the Rockies.
Not that hiking on the Isles of Hawaii is without serious challenges. Sylvia and I have hiked on Maui and while it may be a tropical paradise, the island’s rugged and rainy nature make for steep, muddy, badly eroded trails. You have to be aware of the situation at all times here; forgiving the climate may be, but a serious injury will not be as forgiving. It’s certainly no place to be caught unprepared, without good maps or means of calling rescue, etc.
The cases of McClatchy and Eller remind us of a few basic points that every hiker should remember…
- ALWAYS carry plenty of water, it’s the one basic survival gear that is required in ALL situations
- If you get lost, remain calm; don’t panic or start walking blindly. Think before you act and perhaps walk yourself into a worse situation
- Carry a flashlight or headlamp on ALL hikes including day hikes.
- Always carry a detailed and accurate map and compass
- Leave an itinerary with others
- A mobile device can be your most useful instrument for a survival situation; just don’t become dependent on it
- If lost, do as much as possible to help rescuers find you
- And finally, don’t follow voices into the woods
We encourage you to hike…but hike smart and hike safe!