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Science of lost and found

Even the most expert of outdoor enthusiasts have gone missing in the Rogue Valley's backyard, most recently Dr. Ashley Laird, who was found Sunday after going missing on a run in Jacksonville two days earlier.

What transpires both physically and mentally when people get lost may determine whether search-and-rescue teams come home with good news or bad.

On her morning run Friday, Laird left from her home in Jacksonville without giving a route or bringing a communication or GPS-tracking device. She was found at the base of Rail Trail in Forest Park 56 hours later with severe dehydration and cuts and bruises.

It remains unclear where Laird went during her Friday run and at what point she became lost. 

Laird found herself on unfamiliar paths and attempted to get herself to safety, family members said. Over the course of the weekend, she attempted to reach a peak where she could get a vantage and orient herself. When this proved undoable, she pursued other trails to find a road, according to her husband, Dan Arnold.

Clayton Gillette, a volunteer with Jackson County Department of Public Works, helps maintain the Forest Park area. He said the 25 miles of trail within the city park are well signed and maintained; however, the area beyond may not be.

"Once you leave our marked Forest Park boundaries at or near the top of the watershed, you enter a patchwork of MRA (Motorcycle Riders Association), BLM (federal Bureau of Land Management) and private timber lands," Gillette said in an email. "The trails and roads in these areas are not signed to the standards of the city park. As a longtime trail-runner, who has run many of these roads and trails, I know that it is easy to get turned around, and to even wander into other watersheds like Kane Creek, Galls Creek, or Forest Creek."

Laird's case is not uncommon. Many people follow similar patterns when they find themselves disoriented, even in range of familiar areas.

Jackson County had the third highest number of search-and-rescue missions in the state in 2014 behind Deschutes and Lane counties, according to data from the Oregon Office of Emergency Management.

Oregon's data on SAR missions showed that male search subjects outnumbered females almost 3 to 1. Males traveling alone were three times more common than females traveling alone. Of those, 10 percent of men were found deceased, versus 3 percent for women. Across the board, the majority of lost subjects were between age 20 and 40. Lost people traveled an average of 1.8 miles.  

Not all who wander are lost, and the adage is true for missing persons. The term "lost," as used in search-and-rescue, means being disoriented, not knowing the current location and not knowing how to reach a destination or safety, according to work by psychologist Kenneth Hill.

Researchers, SAR experts and psychologists have identified the way types of people function when lost. Most lost people follow patterns of behavior and use the same methods, which can give searchers clues to predict where subjects may have been and where they're headed.  

SAR research groups lost people into two broad types: those trying to find their way back and those who aren't, known as "despondents."

There are 41 categories identified for the profiles of lost people, including hikers and walkers, climbers, hunters, skiers, those who are mentally ill or suicidal and those with mental disabilities, especially Alzheimer's. A missing or lost person who is suicidal, for example, may seek a previously traveled hill overlooking the city, while someone with Alzheimer's may be seeking a private place to urinate.  

Hikers and walkers tend to be very trail-oriented. They usually attempt to find high points to get a better vantage, which may be futile as the view can be obscured by trees or other geographic features. They're also more likely to stick to trails or paths of least resistance (edges of forests, streams), become disoriented by obscurities on a trail or junctions, travel farther than other categories of lost people, regress to poor decision-making if panicked and look for shelter at nightfall.

Self-rescuers tend to travel in straight lines, seek a better vantage, travel quickly on a trail in an attempt to reach civilization faster, travel downhill or downstream and move in patterns as opposed to “wandering” aimlessly.

Emotions and physical reactions play a role in what a lost person does, according to Hill. Adrenaline and increased blood flow to the legs give people the urge to move in order to get to safety. A phenomenon called "woods shock" can cause lost people to behave erratically and fail to recognize familiar scenes. Someone experiencing woods shock may go into a trance-like state, Hill says, where they don't recognize or respond to searchers, even while walking right past them. Being in groups helps keep a check on the emotional states that can lead to bad decisions.

In Oregon, SAR missions are more often than not about trying to locate out-of-towners, not locals.

"What we see a lot of is, it’s not necessarily people who live in those counties who need help or are needing to be located, it’s recreational areas," says Paula Negele, public information officer for the Oregon state Office of Emergency Management. "We see it more in, say, Lane County or Douglas County or Jackson County, where there’s recreational activities."

"We live in a large state with so many recreation opportunities," Scott Lucas, OEM Search and Rescue coordinator, says in a news release. "No one goes out with the intent to get lost or get injured, so preparing in advance can keep you safe."

Negele says holidays are particularly common times for people to go missing.

"We have a long holiday weekend coming up," Negele says. "Be thoughtful in your preparedness level. Have appropriate food, clothes, water, communication devices, tell people where you’re going and how long you plan to be gone." 

Laird has been discharged from Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center and is recovering at home, according to family members.

Reach reporting intern Hannah Golden at hgolden@mailtribune.com.