Betsy Marston: Tales of survival
Writers on the Range
Sajean Geer had just one goal in mind for her 71st birthday this July: She wanted to scatter the ashes of her late husband, Jack, in Washington’s Olympic National Park. He’d recently died of a heart attack after 34 years of marriage, and Obstruction Point in the park was one of his favorite places in the world. Walking and sometimes running along the trail, she found herself consumed with emotion, she told Seattle Times reporter Evan Bush. It was only after spreading her husband’s ashes that she realized she’d become hopelessly lost. But Geer possessed enough knowledge to behave intelligently during the six long nights she and her only companion, Yoda, a tiny Chihuahua mix, lived in an improvised shelter of logs and branches. She recalled books she’d devoured years ago that featured accounts of foraging and improvising a campsite. So while Geer knew her predicament was dire — not a soul knew where she’d gone — she recalled the basics of survival: Find water and shelter, avoid injury, and stay visible in case rescuers appear. A positive attitude also was key, she said.
“You have to have something in your head to keep you motivated and alive,” she said.
She thought about her family, who brought her to this country from China when she was a child, and she thought about her friends. When hunger pangs racked her on the fourth day, Geer ate currants, young pine needles and even ants, while Yoda, sitting on her lap, “would gulp flies right out of the air.” Luckily, Geer’s brother, Jack Eng, who lives in Seattle, launched a search, and her car was found on a dirt road in the park. Geer was rescued in remarkably fine shape, though somewhat “chewed up” by mosquitoes and dehydrated. Explaining how she’d come through her ordeal without panicking, Geer said her tough childhood, growing up in a hut in the back of her father’s laundry, helped. At school she suffered racial slurs and attacks, but they only helped her become a “feisty tomboy.” That self-reliant attitude served her well throughout the days she spent lost in the park. And during that lonely time, she “felt grateful for everything in my life” and also accepted that the time had come for her “to be on my own and move on in life.”
Lost hikers sometimes get lucky. On July 1, in Yosemite National Park just before sunset, a wilderness law enforcement ranger on a routine backcountry patrol in the Tuolumne Meadows came upon three separate groups — seven hikers altogether — and all confessed they were lost. It was just by chance that the ill-prepared hikers were found, said the park’s Search and Rescue Office, and it’s a good thing they were. The ranger said it took some serious route-finding though snow-covered terrain at night to bring everyone safely out of the park by 11 p.m. By then, one hiker was suffering from altitude sickness and another was asthmatic. Park officials urged all hikers equip themselves with topographical maps, a compass and perhaps a GPS — not to mention some “mastery of these items” — plus headlamps and extra batteries. Hikers also should be warned that cairns — stacked stone markers — are sometimes randomly placed and send people in the wrong direction.
We’ll never know how Mo, a mostly deaf 12-year-old Chesapeake Bay retriever, survived a hard winter in the wild between Horseshoe Bend and Placerville, some 30 miles from Boise. But survive she did, though when she was found nine months after disappearing, she’d lost about 50 percent of her body weight, and “it was clear that she spent the entire time on her own,” reports the Idaho Statesman. Hundreds of people searched for Mo, who went missing when her owners, Cindy and Darwin Cameron, were on a hunting trip last September. It was Cheri Glankler, who takes in rescue dogs, who told the Camerons that she might have found Mo. At first, the couple could not be sure the scrawny dog they met was Mo, for, as Glankler explained, a dog on its own for that long experiences considerable trauma — it might even have to dodge wolf packs — and so it goes into “survival mode.” But once the dog was home, the couple saw its familiar characteristics return. Glankler now has a nickname for Mo after what the old dog experienced: “The Legend.” Mo stole her heart, she said, “with her tenacity and bravery.”
A 19-year-old camp counselor in Colorado who’d chosen to sleep on the ground outside his tent woke up in the night to hear a strange “crunching sound,” reports The Week magazine. Then he realized what it was: A black bear had his head in its mouth. “The crunching noise, I guess, was the teeth scraping against (my) skull.” Thinking fast, the counselor, whose injuries were minor, punched the bear, which backed off and fled.
Betsy Marston is the editor of Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News (hcn.org). Tips and photos of Western oddities are appreciated and often shared, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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A faithful reader, known to his internet friends as “Ski Bum,” sent me the following quote after my last column. It seems fitting this week.