Recently, I stumbled onto a unique and perplexing (if not mysterious) group of missing people that spans not only the entire United States, but quite possibly the world.
I’m referring to the strange and often bizarre disappearances of people who wander off into the woods and are simply never heard from again.
Statistics on Missing People
Of course, this is such a small segment of missing persons – even for people who go missing in the woods. Statistics for missing people lost in the woods of the Pacific Northwest seem to be rather sketchy to start with. Only Oregon seems to have readily available numbers: 189 men and 51 women officially listed as missing since 1997 after walking into wilderness areas.
And search and rescue experts claim it is very easy to get lost in the woods, adding to the risk by going into the brush without proper equipment, proper training, or not notifying someone where you’re going.
Now, we’re not talking about some distant future dystopian world here. This is the United States, one of the most developed countries in the world. And, this is most likely why 89% of people lost in the woods are found alive. But, despite our best efforts, there are still 8% who are found too late, and 2% who are never found at all.
And, it’s not just hikers. Hunters in the woods are often found with maps and compasses in hand, yet still, for one reason or another, don’t make it out alive.
So, when I stumbled onto this group of missing people, I started asking myself, “What’s happening here?” But, in actuality, 2% is a really small group of people. Out of the total 240 missing in Oregon since 1997, that means, statistically, less than 5 of them have never been found.
Yet, still the question remains. What’s happening to them? Are ghosts or UFOs taking these people? Are they being snatched by Bigfoot or falling prey to vengeful spirits?
The Disappearance of Jake Dutton
One of those unlucky 5, at least until 2016 when his remains were discovered by a hiker, was Jake Dutton.
This 32 year old man went for a hike along the French Pete Trail in the Three Sisters Wilderness area. It’s a trail about 15 miles long, east of Eugene. It is a rugged and dangerous area, with steep terrain, dense undergrowth and enormous ancient trees.
Now, despite it’s close proximity to a major city in Oregon, this area is still quite wild. Lane County Sheriff’s Office states that, in the last 40 years, more than 30 people have disappeared in Lane County’s mountains and simply never returned. That’s almost one person a year!
Dutton had been somewhat of a secretive person, though. He didn’t share much of his life with his family, and reports state that he suffered from spells of depression. So, it is possible he went out there to take his own life – a theory his family denies.
He disappeared in June 2012, and only two searches were conducted for him in July and August. There were additional search and rescue training exercises done in the area, but nothing uncovered Dutton’s whereabouts until the chance encounter of a hiker stumbling onto his remains four years later!
Dutton’s body was found on August 24th, only 100 feet from the trail he had come in on. He was four miles from the trailhead. He was near his backpack and two cans of bear spray, on steep terrain, in a densely forested area. He was found with his pants still on, but no shirt. His cell phone was also found on him, though there is no reception in that area of the wilderness. Authorities state there was no evidence of trauma, gunshot wounds, or anything leading to conclude foul play.
It is speculated that Dutton died of hypothermia.
But, come on. Really?
Unless he fell into a creek and had no change of clothes, or got caught in a freak storm, summers in that area of Oregon are moderate to say the least. Temperatures average between 41 and 70 degrees in June, so hypothermia seems the least likely culprit.
Surviving in the wilderness, though, often requires adequate knowledge of map reading and the ability to use a compass or GPS equipment. Likewise, wandering off into the woods unprepared to build a fire, can quickly spell disaster for someone who gets turned around or suffers some kind of injury.
And an injury may be the best speculation I’ve heard thus far to explain Dutton’s fate. It is quite possible, given the difficult terrain he was in, Jake may have become disoriented after a fall, or he may have suffered an mortal injury, such as a gash on the leg. If someone opens the femoral artery, they could lose consciousness within 30 seconds and bleed out in a matter of a few minutes.
It is quite possible that Dutton was hiking along, then maybe decided to go off trail to find a quiet place to rest (something I do quite often when I’m hiking in the woods).
While searching through the underbrush, he may have tripped and gouged his leg on a jagged branch or rock outcrop, dropped his pack as he stumbled, went down as he passed out from blood loss, dying shortly thereafter. In a situation like this, things would have happened so fast, he may not even have been aware of it.
After his death, his remains would not be discovered for four years, after seasons of exposure to the elements, leaving nothing but skeletal remains.
The French Pete Creek Trail.
I can speak from personal experience, accidents happen all the time out in the wilderness. Dense underbrush will camouflage dangers at every turn, lulling you into a sense of security, only to drop you off ledges you thought weren’t there, or pin you in between two fallen trees you did not see coming underfoot.
It can happen to the most prepared and utterly skillful, and yet, there is often nothing that can be done once the damage occurs.
Fate & Happenstance
In the end, we’ll never really know how James Dutton met his fate out in the wilds of Oregon, a mere hundred feet from the trail he was hiking on.
Though, we can probably say with some level of certainty there was no supernatural or metaphysical element to his untimely demise. After all, this is not a paperback thriller fiction novel or a popular supernatural suspense flick. This is real life, with real people wandering off never to be heard from again.
And, once you step back and apply a rational eye to these situations, you find that there is less fringe science happening and more a combination of fate and happenstance, with the most likely of answers being that some unforeseen accident befell Dutton, stealing him from the world like a caught breath.
I do know, whenever I’m now wandering around in the woods, I step just a little lighter as I go – a little more cautious as I move through the underbrush, and make my way under the majestic old growth trees surrounding me – as James Dutton frequently comes to mind.
Is a similar fate likewise waiting for me just up ahead? At the next turn? Just over that next ridge? Will I be taken from this world, and become part of the 2% that is never heard from again?
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