Wild Awake

Lessons from an Epic Survival Story

When I received the alert that Ian Irwin (72) and Carol Kiparsky (77) had disappeared on Valentine’s Day in Inverness, I was sick with worry. I live less than two miles from where they were last seen. Were they lost in the woods near my home? Would they be found? How would they survive?

As the details of their disappearance leaked out into my community, there was a lot of speculative scenarios about what might have happened, and none of them were good. I couldn’t stop thinking about the couple, and on the night after their disappearance, before I went to sleep, I asked for a dream to tell me what had happened and where they might be. I dreamed they had fallen down a ravine and were now stuck, but very much alive.

The next day I looked over our topo maps and told my son that perhaps they walked on the Jepson and Johnstone Trails toward Heart’s Desire Beach (after all, it was Valentine’s Day) and then somehow fallen into one of the ravines. We didn’t go look because search and rescue teams were already in that area, and I didn’t want to interfere in their operations. Plus, I doubted the validity of my dream. It was, after all, only a dream. Lesson learned: Dreams can be messages and it’s worth paying attention to them.

Within 24 hours of the disappearance, an impressive search operation was launched, and our tiny little community was inundated with police, fire and search-and-rescue teams. Helicopters, drones, K-9s and boats were employed. Yet after seven days with no results, we all feared the worst.

On the eighth day after their disappearance, I was driving with my son on Pierce Point Road when police cars and an ambulance flew by and my son yelled: “Mum! They found them!” and we both knew it was true. A miracle had occurred.

I watched the recovery operation by helicopter line and the press conference at our local fire station, and I’ve been following the news ever since. I was captivated, not only because it happened close to where I live, but also because I’m a practitioner of survival skills, and there are many teachings that this story has to offer.

Search and rescue located Ian and Carol in a ravine less than a quarter of a mile from the Johnstone Trail and less than a mile from their vacation rental. Apparently, they went for a brief hike to see the sunset, taking nothing with them but the clothes they were wearing. At some point they left the trail, became disoriented, and with darkness falling they couldn’t find their way back.

The couple reportedly scrambled around for four days, before ending up stuck in dense vegetation at the bottom of a steep ravine. Carol had lost her shoes and socks, and Ian his glasses and hearing aids. In their last days, they could see the lights at a nearby house only 1,000 feet away but were unable to reach it.

They survived eight nights with no food, no fire, in temperatures that dropped close to 30 degrees, wearing only light summer clothes. They drank water from a puddle and ate fern fiddleheads, an abundant food source this time of year. Apparently they kept warm by huddling together. Aside from being cold, hungry, thirsty, and covered in bruises and scratches, they were found relatively unharmed.

After the rescue, I went out with my son to retrace their footsteps, following the trail from their vacation rental to locate the ravine where they were found. We knew the coordinates of this final location, and could see it from the path, but we could not figure out how they came to be down there.

Leaving the hiking trail in this part of Inverness is not easy, because the vegetation is extremely dense, practically impenetrable, and hostile. The land is covered with an old-growth forest of bishop pines, many of which are dead and fallen. The understory is a tangled thicket of poison oak, blackberry, gooseberry, salal, huckleberry, elderberry, coffee berry and bracken. My son and I bushwhacked through some of this terrain, crawling on our stomachs following animal trails, and it was tough going. You need a machete. Plus, the thick understory hides the topography of the land, which can be precipitous and unstable.

Ian and Carol ventured off-trail into this jungle just as it was getting dark. It is no surprise that they soon became lost. Losing the trail once you wander away from it can happen to anyone, even the most experienced of hikers. It is the number one reason that hikers require search and rescue. Research shows that 80 percent of these lost hikers are day hikers, and few are equipped to survive.

Even on a short hike, it’s good to be prepared. Essential items to take with you include a pocket knife, cordage, a whistle, a brightly colored bandana, a signaling mirror, a compass, a survival blanket, and at least three ways to make fire (a lighter, waterproof matches, flint and steel). These items are all small and lightweight, and can be slipped in a pocket or tied onto clothes, and they could save your life.

Taking your charged-up smart phone is a smart idea and using an app to download maps of your hiking area is even smarter, in case there’s no signal. Remember to bring a light jacket even if it’s warm and to wear breathable wool layers. Carry a metal water bottle and a nutrient-dense snack like trail mix, or jerky. Tell someone your plan: where you are going and when you will be back. You can also leave a note at home or in your car.

The first mistake that Carol and Ian made was to not to tell anyone where they were going. The second mistake was leaving the trail at dusk. The third mistake was moving from their location. Once you realize you are lost, staying put is often the best strategy to being found, unless it is unsafe, and unless you know for sure that no one is coming to rescue you.

As soon as they knew they were lost, Carol and Ian needed to use the well-known survival acronym S.T.O.P., which stands for Stop, Think, Observe, Plan. They probably panicked, as so many people do in this kind of situation. Panicking leads to poor decision making, and this may be why Carol and Ian ended up deep in the thick vegetation of a ravine. Staying calm in a survival situation is difficult, but it is absolutely necessary. One reliable calming technique is to breathe longer on the exhale than on the inhale.

In the light of day, Carol and Ian would have been able to assess their situation more clearly and make a plan to find their way out or be found. If they did decide to move the next day, they could have used branches or rocks to make arrows that marked their direction of travel. And they could have used sticks and other landmarks to make sure they traveled in a straight line, rather than going in circles, which is easy to do.

Apparently, Carol did try to find help from the ravine, and tied pieces of her scarf to branches so she could venture out and then find her way back to her husband, who was at that point unable to walk. This was good thinking and it might have served them well on the first day as they scouted for a way back to the trail.

If they had stayed put from day one, they might not have lost their shoes, socks, glasses, and hearing devices. Glasses could have been used either to start a small signal fire or as a reflective device for signaling. The glass on a watch face could also have been similarly used. With a signal fire, wet vegetation is used to cover a small fire that produces a thick column of white smoke visible in the air from many miles away. The soles of shoes, or any kind or rubber or plastic, can also be used to produce a black smoke fire, which can be more visible from afar.

Carol and Ian might have shortened their stay in the wilderness if they’d had a whistle or a brightly colored bandana that could have been tied to a branch to be visible from above.

Signaling for help is the most important skill you need in a true survival situation, and it’s also one of the most overlooked. Think about it: once you are found, everything else—food, shelter, water—is irrelevant. Signaling should always be your primary objective.

This couple endured, against the odds, and that’s what matters. It’s an epic survival success story. Carol and Ian are tenacious and tough, and thankfully they knew enough to stay warm and hydrated. But a certain amount of luck was involved, too. They were fortunate to find water, and the weather was in their favor. They also had each other to boost their morale and to stay warm. If it had rained and dropped to the 50s in the daytime, not uncommon this time of year, their story may not have ended so well.

I’m sure they both learned valuable lessons, and are grateful to the search and rescue team. My hope is that others will also learn from this story and ensure they are prepared at all times for survival in the great outdoors.

A version of this blog post was prepared for the Point Reyes Light and will be published on March 5th 2020. 

Photo credit: Marin County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue Team

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