01 Feb I’m a Search and Rescue Officer for the US Forest Service 2
So I logged back on tonight and was blown away by the staggering amount of interest this seems to have generated. First off, I’ll address a few things that you guys have brought up:
There’s been an overwhelming amount of people mentioning the similarity between some of my stories and those of David Paulides. I assure you I’m not trying to rip him off in any way, I’ve got nothing but respect for the guy. He’s actually what inspired me to write this, because I can verify a lot of the things he talks about. We do have a lot of these strange missing persons cases, and most of the time they aren’t solved. Either that, or we find them in places they have no business being. I personally haven’t been on many calls like that, but I’ll share a few that I’ve seen, and a story my friend told me that relates to this.
There was a lot of feedback about the stairs, so I’ll touch on that briefly here, and I’ll also include a story. They come in a variety of shapes, sizes, styles, and conditions. Some are pretty dilapidated, just ruins, but others are brand new. I saw one set that looked like they came from a lighthouse: they were metal and spiral, almost old-fashioned. The stairs don’t go up infinitely, or farther than I can see, but some sets are taller than others. Like I said before, just imagine the stairs in your house, as if someone cut-and-pasted them in the middle of nowhere. I don’t have any pictures, it’s never really occurred to me to try again after the first time, and I don’t really feel like risking my job over it. I’ll try again in the future, but I can’t really promise anything.
A few people expressed confusion about the guy who ran into the man with no face. Just to clarify, when the climber ascended and reached the top of this peak, he saw another man in a parka and ski pants. This was the man with no face. Sorry about the confusing wording of that story, I’ll try to avoid that in the future. Alright, on to the new stories:
As far as missing persons go, I’d say about half the calls I get are related to that. The others are rescue calls; people who fall down cliffs and hurt themselves, get injured by fire (you wouldn’t believe how often this happens, mostly drunk kids), get bitten or stung by animals or insects. We’re a tight team, and we have veterans who are excellent at finding signs of lost people. That’s what makes these cases where we never find any trace of them so frustrating. One in particular was upsetting for all of us, because we did find a trace of them, but it just led to more questions than answers. An older man had been hiking alone on a well-established trail, but his wife called to say that he hadn’t come home when he should have. Apparently he had a history of seizures, and she was worried that he hadn’t taken his medication and had suffered one out on the trail. Before you ask, I have no idea why he thought it was okay to go out alone, or why she didn’t go with him. I don’t ask about that kind of thing because past a certain point, it really doesn’t matter. Someone is missing, and it’s my job to find them.
We went out in a standard search formation, and it wasn’t long before one of our vets found signs that the guy had gone off the trail. We grouped up and followed him, spreading out in a fan to make sure we were covering as much ground as possible. Suddenly, a call comes over the radio telling us to all head back to the vets location, and we come right away, because this usually means the missing person is injured, and we need a full team to help get them out safely. We meet back up, and the vet is just standing at the base of a tree with his hands on the sides of his head. I ask my buddy what’s going on, and he points up into the branches of this tree. I almost couldn’t believe what I was seeing, but there’s a walking stick dangling from a branch at least thirty feet off the ground. The little strap thing on the handle has been looped around the branch, and it’s just hanging there. There’s no way the guy could have tossed it up that far, and we don’t see any other signs that he’s still in the area. We call up into the tree, but it’s obvious no one’s in it. We’re all just sort of left scratching our heads.
We keep searching for the guy, but we never find him. We even bring our canines out, but they lose his scent long before this tree. Eventually, the search is called off, because there are other calls we have to attend to, and past a certain point there’s not much we can do. The guy’s wife called us every day for months, asking if we’d found her husband, and it was heartbreaking to hear her get more and more hopeless each time. I’m not sure why this call in particular was so upsetting, but I think it was just the sheer improbability of it. That and the questions that were raised. How the hell had this guy’s cane ended up there? Did someone kill him and toss that up there as some weird trophy? We did our best to find him, but it was almost like a taunt. We still talk about that one from time to time.
Missing kids are the most heart-breaking. Doesn’t matter what circumstances they go missing under, it’s never easy, and we always, always dread the ones we find deceased. It’s not common, but it does happen. David Paulides talks a lot about kids SAR teams find in places they shouldn’t be, or couldn’t be. I can honestly say I’ve heard about this kind of thing happening more than I’ve seen it, but I’ll share one of the ones that I think about a lot that I witnessed personally. A mother and her three kids were out for a picnic in an area of the park that has a small lake. One is six, one is five, and the other is about three. She’s watching them all really closely, and according to her, she never lets them out of her sight at any time. She never saw anyone else in the area either, which is important. She packs their stuff up and they start to head back to the parking area. Now, this lake is only about two miles into the woods, and it’s on a very clearly established trail.
It’s almost impossible to get lost getting from the parking area to it, unless you’re deliberately going off the path like an imbecile. Her kids are walking in front of her, when she hears what sounds like someone coming up the path behind her. She turns around, and in the four or so seconds she’s not looking, her five-year-old son vanishes. She figures he’s stepped off the trail to pee or something, and she asks her other two where he went. They both tell her that ‘a big man with a scary face’ came out of the woods next to them, took the kid’s hand, and led him into the trees. The two remaining kids don’t seem upset, in fact she says later that it seems like they’ve been drugged. They’re sort of spacey and fuzzy. So of course, she freaks out, starts looking frantically in the area for her kid. She’s screaming his name, and she says at one point she thinks she heard him answer her.
Now obviously she can’t go blindly running into the woods, she’s got the other two kids, so she calls the police and they send us out immediately. We respond, and we start the search for him. Over the course of this search, which spans miles, we never find a single trace of the kid. Canines can’t pick up any scent, we don’t find any clothing or broken bushes or literally anything that would signify a child being there. Of course there’s suspicion about the mother for a while, but it’s pretty clear that she’s completely destroyed by the whole thing. We looked for this kid for weeks, with a lot of volunteer help. But eventually, the search peters out, and we have to move on. The volunteers keep searching, though, and one day we get a call on the radio letting us know that a body has been found and needs to be recovered. They tell us the location, and none of us can believe it. We figure it has to be a different kid. But we go out there, about 15 miles from the site where he vanished, and sure enough, we find the body of the kid we’ve been looking for.
I have been trying to figure out how this kid got where he did ever since we found him, and I’ve never come up with an answer. A volunteer just happened to be in the area, because he figured he might as well look in places no one else would think to on the off chance the body had been dumped. He comes to the base of a tall, rocky slope, and half-way up, he sees something. He looks through his binoculars and sure enough, it’s the body of a little boy, stuffed in a little opening in the rock. He recognizes the color of the kid’s shirt, so he knows right away that it’s the missing boy. That’s when he calls it in, and we’re dispatched. It took us almost an hour to get his body down, and none of us could believe what we were seeing. Not only was this kid 15 miles from where he’d started, there was no possible way he could have gotten up there on his own. This slope is treacherous, and it’s hard even for us with our climbing gear. A five-year-old boy had no way of getting up there, of that I’m certain.
Not only that, but the kid doesn’t have a scratch on him. His shoes are gone, but his feet aren’t damaged or dirty. So it wasn’t as if an animal dragged him up there. And from what we can tell, he hasn’t been dead that long. He’d been out there over a month by that point, and it looked like he’d only been dead for, at most, a day or two. The whole thing was unbelievably strange, and was one of the most disconcerting calls I’ve ever been on. We found out later that the coroner determined the kid had died from exposure. He’d frozen to death, probably late at night two days before we found him. There were no suspects, and no answers. To date, it’s one of the weirdest things I’ve ever seen.
One of my first jobs as a trainee was a search op for a four-year-old kid that had gotten separated from his mom. This was one of those cases where we knew we were gonna find him because the dogs were on a strong scent trail, and we saw clear signs that he was in the area. We ended up finding him in a berry patch about half a mile from where he’d been last seen. Kid wasn’t even aware that he’d wandered that far. One of the vets brought him back, which I was glad for because I’m really not good with kids, and I find it hard to talk to them and keep them company. As my trainer and I are headed back, she decides to take me on a detour to show me one of the hot spots where we tend to find missing people. It’s a natural dip in the land near a popular trail, and people will usually move downhill because it’s easier. We hike out there, it’s a few miles away, and we get there in about an hour or so. As we’re walking around the area and she’s pointing out places she’s found people in the past, I see something in the distance. Now, this area we’re in is about eight miles from the main parking area, though there’s back roads you can take to get closer if you don’t want to hike that far.
But we’re on state-protected land, which means there can’t be any kind of commercial or residential development out here. The most you’ll ever see is a fire tower or makeshift shelter that homeless people think they can get away with building. But I can see from here that whatever this thing is has straight edges, and if there’s one thing you learn quickly, it’s that nature rarely makes straight lines. I point it out, but she doesn’t say anything. She just hangs back and lets me wander over and check it out. I get within about twenty feet of it, and all the hair on the back of my neck stands up. It’s a staircase — in the middle of the fucking woods. In the proper context, it would literally be the most benign thing ever. It’s just a normal staircase, with beige carpet, and about ten steps tall. But instead of being in a house, where it obviously should be, it’s out here in the middle of the woods. The sides aren’t carpeted, obviously, and I can see the wood it’s made of.
It’s almost like a video game glitch, where the house has failed to load completely and the stairs are the only thing visible. I stand there, and it’s like my brain is working overtime to try and make sense of what I’m seeing. My trainer comes and stands next to me, and she just stands there casually, looking at it as if it’s the least interesting thing in the world. I ask her what the fuck this thing is doing here, and she just chuckles. ‘Get used to it, rookie. You’re gonna see a lot of them.’ I start to move closer, but she grabs my arm. Hard. ‘I wouldn’t do that,’ she said. Her voice is casual, but her grip is tight, and I just stand there looking at her. ‘You’re gonna see them all the time, but don’t go near them. Don’t touch them, don’t go up them. Just ignore them.’
I start to ask her about it, but something in the way she’s looking at me tells me that it’s best if I don’t. We end up moving on, and the subject doesn’t come up again for the rest of my training. She was right, though. I’d say about every fifth call I go on, I end up running across a set of stairs. Sometimes they’re relatively close to the path, maybe within two or three miles. Sometimes they’re twenty, thirty miles out, literally in the middle of nowhere, and I only find them during the broadest searches or training weekends. They’re usually in good condition, but sometimes it looks like they’ve been out there for miles. All different kinds, all different sizes. The biggest I ever saw looked like they came out of a turn-of-the-century mansion, and were at least ten feet wide, with steps leading up at least fifteen or twenty feet. I’ve tried talking about it with people, but they just give me the same response my trainer did. ‘It’s normal. Don’t worry about it, they’re not a big deal, but don’t go close to them or up them.’
When trainees ask me about it now, I give them the same response. I don’t really know what else to tell them. I’m really hoping someday I get a better answer, but it hasn’t happened yet.
This is another one that was less spooky and more sad. A young man went missing late in winter, when realistically no one should be going that far out onto the trails. We close a lot of them, but some remain open year round, unless there’s a shit-load of snow. We did an op for him, but we had about six feet of snow on the ground (it was an unusually heavy snow year), and we knew it wasn’t likely that we’d find him until spring when the thaw came. Sure enough, when the first big thaw came, a hiker reported a body a little ways off the main trail. We found him at the base of a tree, in a pile of melted snow. I knew right away what had happened, and it scared the living shit out of me. Most of you who ski or snowboard, or spend any amount of time on a mountain, will probably have guessed too. When snow falls, it doesn’t collect as thick in the areas beneath the branches. It happens most with fir trees, because they have a sort of closed umbrella shape.
So what you end up with is a space around the base of a tree that’s filled with a mixture of loose, powdery snow, air, and branches. They’re called tree wells, and they’re not immediately obvious if you don’t know what you’re looking for. We put up signs in the welcome center, big ones, letting people know how dangerous they are, but every year that we get an unusual amount of snow, at least one person doesn’t read them, or doesn’t take the warning seriously, and we find out about it in spring. My best guess is that this young man was hiking and got tired, or maybe a cramp from walking in the deep snow. He went to go sit at the base of the tree, not knowing that there was a tree well, and fell in. He got stuck with his feet up, and the surrounding snow caved in around him. Unable to free himself, he suffocated. It’s called snow immersion suffocation, and it doesn’t usually happen except in really deep snow. But if you get stuck in a weird position, like this guy did, even six feet of snow can be lethal. What scared me the most was imagining how he must have struggled. Upside down, in the freezing cold, he didn’t die quickly. The snow would have formed a dense, heavy pile on top of him, and it would have been literally impossible to get out. As it got harder to breathe, he would have known what was happening. I can’t even imagine what he was thinking in his last moments.
A lot of my less outdoorsy friends want to know if I’ve ever seen the Goatman while I’ve been out on calls. Unfortunately, or I guess fortunately, I’ve never had anything quite like that happen. I guess the closest was the whole ‘black-eyed man’ thing, but I didn’t see anything. However, there was one call where I had something kind of similar happen, but I’m not sure I’m willing to chalk it up to the Goatman. We’d gotten a report that an older woman had fainted along one of the trails, and needed assistance getting back down to the main area. We hike up to where she’s at, and her husband is just beside himself. He runs, well, I guess more jogs, to us, and tells us that he was a little ways off the trail looking at something when his wife starts screaming behind him. He runs back to her and she’s passed out on the trail. We get her on a backboard, and as we’re getting her down to the welcome center, she comes to and starts screaming again. I calm her down and ask her what happened.
I can’t remember verbatim what she said, but essentially, what happened was this:
She’d been waiting for her husband when she started hearing this really strange sound. She said it sounded sort of like a cat, but it was off somehow, and she couldn’t quite figure out why. She went a little ahead to try and hear it better, and it sounded like it was coming closer. She said the closer it got, the more uneasy she was, until she finally figured out what was wrong. I do remember this next part, because it was so weird that I don’t think I could forget it if I tried. “It wasn’t a cat. It was a man, saying the word ‘meow’ over and over. Just ‘meow, meow, meow’. But it wasn’t a man, it couldn’t have been, because I’ve never heard a man make his voice buzz like that. I thought my hearing aid was going out, but it wasn’t, I adjusted it and it still sounded all buzzy. It was awful.
He was coming closer, but I couldn’t see him. And the closer he got the more scared I was, and the last thing I remember was a shape coming out of the trees. I guess that’s when I fainted.” Now, obviously I’m a little perplexed as to why a guy would be out in the fucking woods chanting ‘meow, meow’ at people. So once we get down the mountain, I tell my superior that I’m gonna go search the area to see if I can find anything. He gives me the go ahead, and I grab a radio and hike back to where she fainted. I don’t see anyone, so I keep going about a mile more, and I when I head back I go off the trail, to see if I can figure out where she saw him coming from. It’s almost sunset by this point, and I don’t have any desire to be out at night alone, so I just sort of write it off and make a mental note to check it out again tomorrow. But as I’m headed back, I start to hear something in the distance. I stop, and I call out for anyone in the immediate area to identify themselves. The sound didn’t come closer or get louder, but it sounded exactly like a man saying ‘meow, meow’ in this really odd monotone.
As comical as it makes it sound, it was almost like that guy on South Park with the electrolarynx, Ned. I go off the trail in the direction I think it’s coming from, but I never seem to get closer. It’s almost like it’s coming from all directions. Eventually, it just sort of fades out, and I ended up going back to the welcome center. I didn’t get any further reports like that, and even though I went back to that area, I never heard that exact sound again. I suppose it could have been some stupid kid out there fucking with people, but even I have to admit it was weird. So this kind of turned into a massive wall of text, and for that I apologize. I wanted to get to the stories my friend told me, and he does have some good ones, so I’ll post those tomorrow evening. I also have a few more of my own I think you guys will like. I’m sorry to keep you all in suspense again, hopefully the stories here make up for it and help you get through the next 24 hours until I can post again!
EDIT: Since it seems like all of you would like to hear more, tomorrow I’ll write up as many stories as I can and do a massive post. I’ll include my friend’s stories, and I’ll see if I can’t get ahold of a few more people who might have interesting things to talk about. I just wasn’t sure how people felt about big huge walls of text, but if you’re all okay with it, I’ll post lots of stories!