Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Mystery Feature #4 - If you go out to the woods today...

Inverhuron, ON 2008 by me careful. Apparently, there's a lot of people disappearing in there. And that's the topic for this month's feature - mysterious disappearances...especially in the woods. This is a long post so you might want to get a beverage and your favourite snack if you decide to settle in.

Here's how I got to the topic. First, you should know that I have several google alerts on the go two of which are "mystery" and "mysterious disappearance." Second, you should know I found a site and fell down a rabbit hole.

Yep. I kinda got lost there for a bit.

Now, I've been browsing through the results of those weekly google alerts for several months. It's quite disturbing to read how many people disappear in our World. Some turn up alive and ok but others don't. Some are found dead under seemingly inexplicable circumstances (missing Michigan Man found in a pond, Alaskan family), or tragic circumstances (remains found in lake). Some end up having been victims of serial killers like Robert Durst, Clifford Olson or Robert Pickton. And then there are the number who are just never found. One moment they are there and the next..poof! They're not.
Ok, back to that rabbit hole.

Well, during all the googling I stumbled on a site called Missing - Canam Project. That was the edge of the hole. After I took a quick look round it seemed I'd found a site that documents The Secret Vanishings in America's National Parks. Whoa! What on earth...!?

I googled and read some more. I listened to several podcasts (here and here). I watched a 'documentary' on YouTube. I read more about Dave Paulides the researcher and author of the books documenting these disappearances (Missing 411). How have I not heard about this before?

Although Paulides himself says he doesn't like to speculate about what's going on he doesn't mind encouraging others to do so. And most of these other 'theories' seem to centre on wild men and bigfoot. (Or, how about aliens? The Strange Disappearance of Granger Taylor.)

In his most recent book, The Devil's in the Details, Mr. Paulides seems to have focussed his interest on in-the-woods missing cases that feature certain characteristics. These include:
  • people/remains found not far from where they went missing in an area previously searched...often near water or a boulder field
  • people/remains found but articles of clothing or shoes missing
  • people who disappear between 2 and 7 pm
  • people who disappear with dogs
  • extremely bad weather at time of disappearance and during search
  • disappearances while berry picking (he should add mushroom picking)
Nfld blueberries and partridge berries 2010
Ok, so that last characteristic is COMPLETELY familiar to me after having lived in Newfoundland for over a decade. There, from August to October, berry picking is a common outing for hundreds of people across the province. And almost every year someone goes missing (here, here and an interesting rescue here).

How did they end up lost?

In the not so distant past some Newfoundlanders put the blame squarely at the feet of the fairies.

I came across this belief myself years ago while a grad student. Rambling around Signal Hill National Historic Site late one September afternoon I noticed an older man picking partridge berries. I wandered over to have a chat. We talked a bit about this and that and then I asked him if he'd ever seen or heard of anything odd happening on the Hill. No, not really, he said.

But then he told me of the day he'd been berry picking at Signal Hill, an area he knew as well as the "back of me hand" but ended up lost -- completely disoriented. He explained that all of sudden there was a mist and he didn't recognize where he was. He'd been "fairy led."

Where I met my berry picker on Signal Hill
Being fairy led has been described as " awareness of a dreamlike, psychic presence which caused [berry] pickers to lose their sense of time and get lost by being "taken astray" or "led astray," "fairy-led" or being "in the fairies" (source and more).

This kindly gentle man explained to me how he almost always keeps a bit of bread or a stone in his pockets "for the fairies" -- a kind of toll payment -- but on the day in question he'd forgotten to do just that. He did manage to eventually get his bearings and find his way but for a while he'd been sure he was somewhere else completely.

Ok, full disclosure here, at the end of our conversation he did draw from his pocket a very small glass bottle and offer me a taste of his... 'medicine.' I don't know for sure what it was but after a quick sip (really!?) I felt sure alcohol was a key ingredient. Maybe that was for the fairies too.

Read more about  being fairy led here and here and about fairy paths here.

We pause now for some entertaining and somewhat related content...

Ok, so back to Paulides and his books.

When you look at the cases of missing persons Paulides describes it does feel quite eerie but there are several reasons for that. For example, he mostly lists cases in which people were never found or found dead. There's not much comparison to the cases in which people are found alive, well and who who admit they just got lost. I wonder how those numbers compare?

Further, there are lots of reasonable, scientific explanations for some of the characteristics Paulides lists. Like, well, when you're in unfamiliar territory it doesn't take much to get lost.

Our big beautiful complicated brains are constantly monitoring our location in space and using specific cells that help us pinpoint our location at any given time but we don't think about this ability very much...

"Because we take it for granted.  It's only a problem when it goes wrong. But when it goes wrong it can be quite distressing and it can be lethal. I mean if you're really lost and you're in some some wilderness or something like that, it can be really bad. " - You are Here (CBC's Ideas). 

The cerebellum and, maybe more importantly, the hippocampus are key bits of your brain that help you find your way (source). And the more you use your brain to do just that the better it is for that bit of your brain.

GPS? Well, it might help you get to where you're going but it does not help develop that bit of your brain. So, when you don't have that GPS you may not have any sense of where you are. Also some people are just better at navigation than others. Read more about this fascinating area of research...
So, after losing your way the other big danger out there is hypothermia. Which, I'm willing to bet, is THE reason for most of those disappearances listed by Paulides.

Getting damp and cold is a real danger when you're out in the woods. When our inner core temperature drops it affects our brain which obviously affects how we know where we are, so it's not much of a stretch to see how people suffering from even mild hypothermia get disoriented.

Ok, so what about the really weird characteristic listed by Paulides--missing articles of clothing and footwear? Well, removing our clothing, shoes, and sometimes even 'burrowing' is a symptom of extreme hypothermia. In fact, 'terminal burrowing behavior' seems to be a last ditch effort by some ancient bit of our brain to get ourselves warm by finding a small enclosed a burrow or den. This might be the reason some people are found curled up and/or under things.

Inverhuron, ON 2008 by me
Click here and here for some horrific and amazing survival stories. And if you haven't already read or seen Touching the Void you might want to check out that mind blowing doc too.

The issue of missing persons is a complicated one. As human beings many of us like to 'solve' problems. That's how we got that big brain. But sometimes, despite not having all the pieces, we try and bring together the few we do have to form a picture or story that makes some sort of sense. Even if it's nonsense.

The missing are also an emotional issue. I can't imagine what it would be like to discover someone I knew and loved had disappeared. Not knowing whether they were alive or dead? Sleepless nights imagining the worst case scenario. Desperately searching for a reason why and a gradual fading away of hope that they will return.

We now find ourselves in the digital era--an era of surveillance and technology. Some of that technology involves the science and research of DNA sequencing which assists with the identification of remains (remains under parking lot found to be Richard III). While giving us enormous amounts of information that can be shared to help solve some of these cases, some of that technology can also be used to harness the manpower to do it. Or to confuse the issues.

Which relates to something I did recently. You see, according to Dave many National Parks (at least in the States) have not or do not keep records of people who have gone missing within their boundaries. Doesn't that seem kind of shocking? Wrong even?

If it's true.

Which, I now believe, it's not. Click herehere and here.

So, yes I'll admit it. I got lost and before I'd found my sense of direction again I signed the Petition to the Department of the Interior (USA) accountable for persons missing in National Parks and Forests started by a Paulides' reader. One of those impulsive acts made so easy in our digital age.

I now understand that I let myself be led astray. (Read a post by another Paulides skeptic here and a more critical review of Dave and his books here.) And so this is my trail of breadcrumbs for those of you out there who may have also lost your way. 

Sure, this blog is mostly about that fun suspension of disbelief we entertain ourselves with around Halloween but I don't think missing people belong in the same category as vampires, werewolves, ghosts, or even aliens. Why? Because the one fact that can not be disputed is that many missing people are still just that...missing. And that's sad and scary. In a real way. So let's stop wasting people's time and resources, Mr. Paulides, by blaming Bigfoot.

Newfoundland Woods 2003 by me
One last note.

We'll be returning to The Rock (Newfoundland) sometime in 2016. Much of the province is still wild and uninhabited. And the weather, sheesh! Especially on the Avalon Peninsula, where we'll be, of course. There the weather forecast, more often than not, calls for "rain, drizzle and fog." So you can see how easy it might be to end up hypothermic, disoriented. lost, missing, or even dead.

If I've taken anything good away from Paulides and his books (and all that subsequent googling) it's the understanding that getting lost is easy and maybe I should look into getting myself a personal transponder. Cause when we are back on the Rock and I finally do get to stretch my legs out there in the woods (cause it's practically the FIRST thing on my list of things-to-do) I'll be sure to have one with me (

Especially when berry picking.

And, uh, ok, I might just pop a bit of bread into a pocket or two...for the fairies.