Friday, February 19, 2016

Day 146: Tragedy on the Trail

July 31: Almost exactly two years earlier, in July 2013, a thru-hiker stopped for the night at the Popular Ridge Lean-to. She woke up, put on her pack and headed out. Then was never seen again.

The six of us at the shelter today probably did a lot of the same things she did. Joke with the other hikers, eat breakfast, brush our teeth, lace up our boots and slung on our packs. But we had all heard about the missing hiker: Inchworm.

The Popular Ridge Shelter was the last place that Inchworm was seen before she went missing.

Her husband was expecting to meet her at a road crossing the next day, and after she didn't show, he reported her missing on July 24th. Extensive searches were made for her, but no sign or trace had ever been found.

One of the other hikers had told me that he had heard rumors that maybe she "skipped town" and flew off to some South American country where she wouldn't be found, and he seemed to think that maybe there was some truth to it. With the technology we have today, he was sure, she should have been found already.

I thought the conspiracy theory was absurd. From everything I had heard, she had no reason to go "off the grid." The cops weren't after her for a crime. The IRS wasn't chasing her for tax evasion. She had a good relationship with her husband. (How could she not when he was supportive of her thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail!?) Why would she just suddenly ditch everyone and everything she loved so unexpectedly? And seriously, how could anyone spend months thru-hiking a trail just to voluntarily quit it less than 200 miles from the end?

And unlike the young man who seemed to think that nobody could get lost in this day and age and not have their body found, I wasn't so confident that technology would find her. It took time for someone to realize she was missing before it could be reported, and the terrain was rugged and thick with trees. Helicopters flying around might be able to see areas above treeline, but if she were in the trees, that wouldn't help. Thermal cameras that might be able to see warm bodies at night might not work if she'd already died and her body was cold as the ground where she died. Dogs trying to trace her scent might not work if it had rained soon after she disappeared. Many areas don't have cell phone coverage--assuming she carried a cell phone. (I don't know.)

And, somewhat surprisingly, people go missing all of the time. I remembered reading about that billionaire who went missing after going for a flight. They searched extensively for where his plane presumably crashed but never found it. They did, however, find several plane crashes that they weren't looking for and had no idea were there! Then what about that entire airplane from Maylasia with more than a hundred people on board that mysteriously disappeared? Yeah, I didn't have much faith in technology finding her. It could, but it's certainly no guarantee of anything.

I figured the most likely scenario was that she got turned around, lost and died well off the trail. Perhaps someday a hunter or someone will find her remains, but so far, that hasn't happened. Adding to that belief was a guy I met in Virginia (Shoelace) who said he was actually hiking the trail in Maine when she went missing and was questioned by authorities at a trailhead. Not that they suspected him of being involved, but asking if he had seen her, where he last saw her and anything that might help find her.

He hadn't remembered seeing her, but he did meet her husband while he was waiting for her at the trailhead. She was already overdue when Shoelace met him, but neither were particularly concerned at the time since it's not at all unusual to be running a little late in such difficult terrain. He told Shoelace to tell her he was at the trailhead and waiting whenever she arrived. He never passed on the message because he never saw her and didn't suspect anything had gone badly, badly wrong until the authorities had started asking questions about her.

Well, I can definitely say it's not human! A moose, perhaps?

He also said that the day he went through, he was hiking with his daughter and the fog over Saddleback Mountain was so thick, one of them would stop at a cairn or blaze while the other went ahead to search for the next one and when it was found, call out to bring the other person in the correct direction. They, quite literally, couldn't see the trail and used this method to not get lost themselves. One would be the "anchor" to the trail--the last spot they knew where the trail was located--and other other would go out just far enough to find the next anchor but not out of shouting distance.

It sounded like a pretty bad day to be hiking, and I'm not sure if that was ever reported in the newspapers, but Shoelace was absolutely convinced that she just lost the trail and she was still out in the woods somewhere.

Which sounded a heck of a lot more plausible to me than her running off to South America.

So I left the Poplar Ridge Lean-to with thoughts of Inchworm on my mind. I was now following in her last known steps--the thought of which put a chill in me. Her body was out there somewhere. I didn't expect to find it--I was planning to stay on the Appalachian Trail and if her body was on it, she'd have been found a long time ago. But it was probably out there nearby, off-trail somewhere.

The weather for me was considerably better than she had to contend with. It was sunny, clear and beautiful out. Not a whole lot of views, however, since the trail largely stayed deep in the trees the whole time. My guidebook warned that two of the rivers on the trail would have to be forded, but they were low enough that I was able to rock-hop across them and my feet stayed dry.

The shelters were awkwardly-spaced for me. The next one was 8.0 miles ahead, then the one after that was 26.6 miles ahead. I was never going to reach that second one today, and if the weather had been very bad today, I might be tempted to stop after 8 miles. But with the beautiful weather today, I certainly didn't want to stop after a mere 8 miles, so I'd be camping between shelters. Exactly where, I didn't know, but somewhere between the two shelters. I could decide that later in the day when I saw how much progress I was making, but I intended to squeeze as much in on this beautiful day as I could. The weather forecast predicted rain all day tomorrow, and the long term forecast showed a pattern of rain, sun, rain, sun, rain, sun for the next week.

I didn't pass many people on the trail today either. A mere 3 soundbounders, absolutely no northbounders, and 4 day hikers. It was a nice day for a hike!

Some of the terrain near Sugarloaf Mountain and Crocker Mountain were ridiculously steep and later in the afternoon, when it looked like I could get past both areas, that became my goal.

My guidebook didn't show any campsites immediately behind Crocker Mountain, but it did show a small spring and under my theory that there's always a hidden, unofficial campsite near water sources, I made that my goal. I'd get water, and then look for wherever I could camp after that. Hopefully somewhere near the water, but whatever the next feasible place I could camp after that water would be my destination for the day. I needed a place large enough to fit my tarp, though, since rain was possible overnight.

Needless to say, I didn't find any bodies in the woods. However, less than three months later, Inchworm's body was found a mile or two off the trail at a nearby Navy training center. Not a happy ending, but I hope her family can at least put their minds to rest about her disappearance. In a lot of ways, I think a missing person is probably a fate worse than death for friends and family and not knowing for certain what happened. RIP Inchworm!

This is the "golden spike" of the Appalachian Trail, although nobody calls it the golden spike memorial. Not like they do on the Arizona Trail or the PCT (which both have golden spike memorials).

One of the steeper sections of the trail today.


Jaxx said...

What a sad story ... and it really makes one realize how dangerous a hike like this can be. I'm glad they found her ......

Jiffy said...

So Sad about Inchworm, but there was a huge sigh of relief from Maine outdoors people when she was finally located.

One of the episodes of North Woods Law was about the search for her. I hope her family has peace, now that she can be laid to rest. She seemed to be such an amazing woman. I for one would have loved to hear or read the stories of her adventures.

The V's said...

Burt wait! Where did you camp? Did you find a spot for your tarp before it rained???

Ryan said...

I had no trouble finding a place to camp just off from the water source. It was uneventful and right where I expected to find something, so I guess I forgot to mention it! =)

-- Ryan

Unknown said...

I had the same thought. The story of your day just seemed to be lost at this point. I hope you made it to a good camp site for the night.

Unknown said...

I had the same thought. The story of your day just seemed to be lost at this point. I hope you made it to a good camp site for the night.

wassamatta_u said...

You HAD to have a moose skull, huh? Sheesh...