Tragedy in the Backcountry

When “experienced hiker” David DeCareaux and his two young sons, aged 8 and 10, ventured into the woods they intended only a pleasant walk in the woods to take advantage of an unseasonably warm day in mid January. A few hours later all three were dead. No wild beasts, crazy axe murderers, aliens, or zombies were involved. There was no foul play of any kind.  The tragedy was due to nothing more than the weather.  And poor planning on Mr. DeCareaux’s part.

It all seemed harmless enough when the a dad and his two sons set out into the Mark Twain National Forest near Black, Missouri on Jan 12 of this year for a short day hike. The weather was ideal.  Dad was dressed in a light jacket and his sons only slightly better: one in a sweater and in other in a “fleece” jacket. They had no rain gear or poncho-not even the cheap two dollar variety that will fit in the pocket. He carried only a flashlight, a cell phone and a snack. No map. When interviewed later, a park ranger said that because of poor  reception cell phones were of little use in that area. One good lightweight poncho (that all could have hovered under) and a whistle would probably have saved their lives.  In short, they weren’t prepared when the weather played a cruel trick on them.

Winter weather south of the Mason-Dixon line can be sneaky. I’m reminded now of the initial invasion of Tennessee by the army of U.S. Grant in February, 1862, early in the civil war.  On their march toward Fort Donelson, where the enemy awaited them (near the present Land-between the Lakes state park) the green, untested Union soldiers in the balmy warm weather  cast away their bulky overcoats. Now that they were in the “sunny South” , they were quite sure that they would have no need of them. Besides, many assumed, one big battle and the war would be over anyway. Huge mistake on both assumptions. Three days after their arrival in front of Fort DOnelson, the weather turned very nasty and thousands of Northern soldiers were very miserable indeed. And there were many more battles to go. They had underestimated both the Southerners and the Southern weather. Both could be deadly.

Many of the details about this recent tragedy we’ll never know. What we do know is this: A dad and his two young sons went out for an afternoon stroll in the woods, got lost, and died of “exposure” when the weather turned foul.  The initial search party had to be called off that evening due to the inclement weather, a cold, icy rain, plunging temperatures, and  very poor visibility in the deep forest. When the search resumed at daybreak a few hours later, they finally came upon a very sad sight, two shivering little boys, soaked to the skin, barely alive, lying close to their dead father.  The paramedics and doctors did what they could, but they were too late. Both boys died a few hours later at a nearby hospital. A family tragedy doesn’t get much sadder than this. Very tough indeed.

Another thing makes it even worse. Just before the weather turned bad, a park ranger passed them as they hiked along the road and offered them a lift to the ranger station. The dad refused the offer and they kept walking. I cannot help but wonder if the ranger forgot to mention the weather forecast. Maybe he didn’t know himself.

Somehow the trio took a wrong turn and literally got lost in the woods. This is very easy to do. In the deep forest trails are often poorly marked and the signs themselves can be a bit confusing, especially when three or more trails converge at an intersection.

Another aspect of life in the back country so often unappreciated by visitors from the city is the thick, deep darkness. Far away from ambient light, in cloudy weather or even during a “new moon” it is difficult to see your hand in front of your face after  the sun sets. It is much like being in a cave. For city or suburban dwellers this can be unnerving.  With a good flashlight finding your way on a trail at night is still difficult at best.  Camping in the forest, even when one is well prepared and has all needed supplies, can  still be downright scary. Wandering about lost in the deep woods, even in dry temperate weather, can be absolutely terrifying. To make matters even worse, this tragic trio was lost in the woods after dark in foul weather “not fit for man or beast.” And they were poorly prepared for it-a prescription for disaster.

Mr. DeCareaux was found wearing only a light jacket. Regrettable but understandable. Ours is an “indoor” culture. Americans habitually dress for the indoors, regardless of the outside weather. Time and again I see people running from a car to a building doing their Christmas shopping or simply going about daily routines in the cold weather months clad in short pants and tee-shirts as if it were July. I’ve heard men brag about never putting on a coat or sweater the entire Winter. Really. A friend of mine never wears long-sleeved shirts and wears cotton jeans year round. His closet is a colorful mass of short-sleeved shirts. He works indoors, of course, and never, to my knowledge, goes camping. Nowadays with ever present heated spaces in buildings and vehicles it is possible to ignore the outdoor temp  and never develop an appreciation for even moderately cold weather. As to weather people nowadays are far more concerned about driving conditions than dress. Spend some quality time out in the cold night air here in Tennessee in January and you’ll understand why our homeless friends go about 24-7 dressed like Eskimos. The habit of wearing light clothing in the winter is a modern habit, made possible only by ever present indoor heated space, something our grandparents didn’t experience,something our homeless friends even now cannot experience.

I don’t recall hearing the word “hypothermia” as a boy scout. The word “exposure” was, and still is, I suspect, more commonly used. Technically hypothermia is the gradual lowering of the temperature in the body core. Ordinarily our body temp is around 98.6. If conditions pull that down even one degree we start shivering. Two degrees and were in trouble. Three to four degrees and we are looking the grim reaper full in the face. Deaths from hypothermia, interestingly enough, rarely occur in extreme cold conditions. They almost always occur when the temperature suddenly changes from pleasant to cold-but not extreme cold. Add precipitation to the cold and it becomes much worse. This tragic trio perished in textbook “hypothermia” conditions. When they set out, all seemed well. But conditions deteriorated quickly. They didn’t exactly “freeze to death.” It wasn’t that cold. But, it was cold and wet enough to pull down their “core” body temp over the course of a few hours to kill them.

Another thing. When the body temp goes down, the mind is affected and poor decisions result. When a man is shivering uncontrollably, worried to death about the two sons at his side also scared and shivering, it really doesn’t matter about training and experience. The mental faculties are impaired. I suspect that instead of stopping in his tracks and finding or building shelter as soon as the cold rain hit, Mr. DeCareaux  kept moving. Big mistake. When lost, and I remember this from the old Boy Scout Handbook, it is imperative to STOP.  DO what you can to build a fire or somehow warm up. Construct a shelter, however crude. If you have a whistle, blow on it as much as possible while you work. Conserve energy and resources and wait as patiently as you can for rescue.  When a person keeps moving the resulting fatigue and stress is likely to lower body temp even more.

The deep woods nearby seem very friendly and inviting while standing in the parking lot of a state park on a sunny day.  But don’t be fooled.  As adult boy scout leaders* we continually impress upon our boys the need for preparation in the back country. We teach that when venturing off into the woods, never go it alone-always take a “buddy”, always take raingear and proper clothing, check the weather forecast, take a map and compass(even if you’re reasonably familiar with the area), a whistle, matches, a water bottle (especially in warm or hot weather), a flashlight, and a good dose of common sense. Understand how conditions can change quickly and become dangerous in the late Fall and Winter. It is very easy to get lost out there. And you sure don’t want to be lost in bad weather. It can be deadly.

*Mr. DeCareaux was, it seems, a cub scout leader. In the photo accompanying a recent article he and his two sons are dressed in CUB scout uniforms.  In cub scouting (ages 7-10) “tailgate” or “car” camping with youth accompanied by parents is the norm.  As a matter of official (BSA) policy concerning cub scout packs, forays into the back country far away from vehicles and shelter is discouraged.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Tragedy in the Backcountry

  1. dave.lavell@gmail.com

    Interesting post, Jim. It reminds me of the chapter on hypothermia in Bill Bryson’s “Walk in the Woods”.

    I clearly remember being taught about hypothermia as a Scout- on many occasions. Mr Meyering, one of our leaders, had a phrase he repeated often- “hypothermia is a killer!”

    Tragic story.

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