Natural disasters and wilderness survivals are my favorite genre of movie and book. Disaster and tragedy both tantalizes and terrifies me. It’s exciting to watch or read about from a distance when you’re home safe and have the “that could never happen to me” mindset. I was raised with a TomBoy mentality by my military mind set father to enjoy everything from camping, hiking, fishing, and just about everything else the great outdoors can provide. Having paid attention to most that people have taught me about wilderness survival, I wasn’t cocky in anyway, but I truly didn’t think that being lost in the forest was something that would ever happen to me. Consider me forever humbled.
Two days ago I was rescued from the Guajataca Forest in Puerto Rico after 8 hours lost in the rain forest. The Guajataca Forest (or Bosque de Guajataca in Spanish) comprises 2357 cuerdas (which is about 2289 acres) of hilly terrain with elevations ranging from 500 to 1000 feet above sea level. My partner, Jibby & I, who live here on the island, were taking a visiting friend, Becca, for a hike to the Cuevo del Viento (Cave of the Wind) and had decided to try a new hiking trail instead of the Interpretative Trail that we were used to taking. We all carried plenty of water, two flashlights a piece, each had our cell phones, and were also hiking with my 12lb Pomeranian, Osita. Although tiny in size, Osita is not your average prissy city dog. She is highly active for her 14 years of age, well traveled, incredibly intelligent, and a service dog who is completely in tune with me and my physical impairments and will respond accordingly based upon my current state of health. I have an auto immune disease called Ankylosing Spondylitis that causes me to use a cane at times due to the constant chronic pain and nerve firings from the slow progression of bone fusion developing between my joints, and narcolepsy which kicks in and puts me to sleep anytime my mind or body is overwhelmed with pain or stress. I am normally very good about carrying my own weight, but on this day Jibby and Becca were already assisting me a great deal on the trails even before we realized that we were lost and potentially in a bit of danger.
The very first mistake that I made was not determining where the trail we had decided to start at actually lead us to or the distance we would possibly be taking before we set off from the car. I am normally incredibly well prepared and organized, but on this particular day my brain was extra befuddled and I mistook trail head #9 for #19 which I knew would connect us to the caves. We began the hike at 1:00pm and by 2:30pm I realized that we were traveling farther and farther from our intended destination and the paths were looking more and more unsued so I suggested we begin finding our way back before we lost light. We had to decide to back track completely and go all the way back the way we came, or push on following the direction that the GPS was telling us our vehicle was. The path we had just completed was so steep and windingly treacherous that we decided to follow the GPS instead and go slightly off trail. This might have been our second mistake. In hindsight, it would have been easier to simply suck it up and take the steep switchback trail from back the way we had come, but we all kept thinking “but we are so close, the GPS says were SO Close! Why go all the way back?”
The trails took us over Fast. Within 30minutes we realized we were traveling what felt like a long distance that actually left us doing circles and not making any headway towards the car. I was not panicked, but the reality of the situation hit me hard and I adjusted my energy accordingly to pull out reserve strength for my body and remain calm so I could think rationally. We were losing day light in a tropical rain storm, my dogs paws were now swollen and she was getting leg cramps so we began taking turns carrying her, what little physically strength and energy I had began with was fading fast, Becca had a flight to catch at 3:00am, and we were lost in a rain forest. Ok, Now I panicked, just a little.
From here on my memory of our experience gets scattered and I had to hear Jibby and Becca retell me about what happened later after we were all home safe. I recall us all being together down low in a valley and I had the thought that I wanted to just get higher and see if I could see a trail anywhere and to see if I could get cell service. I do not recall making the decision to leave my dog behind with my companions, strap my cane to my backpack and begin climbing the rocky cave cliff side, but apparently that is what I did next. I remember hearing my friends screaming my name but I couldn’t figure out why, or why we were even separated, or why I was so determined to keep moving up and forward. Later, I recalled that during my solitary ascent, most of the trees and things that I would try to grab onto to pull myself up or stabilize myself would crumble and disintegrate and I kept falling back down the cliff side and banging myself up more and more. In addition to the forest crumbling around me, I was having a rapid series of narcolepsy attacks which kept causing me to pass out and come to finding myself laying among the moldy leaves with spiders crawling across my line of vision. My brain was mush, my body was fighting for survival by making one horrible decision after another, stumbling blindly as thorny vines ripped up my bare legs. It was the sight of my own blood that kicked my brain back into gear, I remember that clearly. Everything snapped back into focus, I heard my name being called repeatedly, I heard Osita yelp and whimper for me, and I pulled my phone out to check if I had a signal to get us help. I have a friend in town who I knew I could rely upon to think smart and act fast so I called Carla and when then dropped a pin to my location. Then things got cloudy again and I probably made some more bad decisions….
Hearing Jibby retell of hearing my blood curling screams from below and then silence after as I kept falling and them not being able to find me or reach me was terrifyingly heartbreaking. Once I relocated Jibby & Becca and we were all together again, we made our third mistake. Even though I had contacted help and dropped a pin to our location we all still had the mind set that we could still make it out of the rain forest and find the car before dark, so we continued to follow the GPS and I continued to drop Carla bread crumb pins via text when I was able to get service. Carla’s continued warning to stop moving and remain in one location so that the search party could locate us didn’t kick in until almost an hour later when she texted the words, “try not to move so much okay.” I didn’t realize that my brain had clouded again until her words cleared the fog. I looked back at my pins and realized they were all over the place, why the hell was I moving, I knew better than that, I was a Girl Scout for goodness sake (which was repeating like a broken record inside my head for hours). We finally stopped making mistakes at this point and got everything right from this point forward. I sent out a final pin to Carla, promised to stay still, and passed the communication responsibility to Jibby because I knew I could trust my partner to handle the rest of our rescue properly and I had absolutely no strength left. By 6:30pm, as darkness set in, the night noises got deafeningly loud and Sargent Cortez messaged Jibby with instructions to keep our flashlights on and respond to the vocal shouts when we heard them so that the search teams could locate us. I will never forget how fast the search team responded, even though it took them almost three hours to actually locate us because of how high up on the mountain side we were, we began shouting back and forth with the searchers almost immediately. The relief we felt just knowing that help was out there and working hard to get to us was almost enough to jump start my tears, but even then I held them in.
Press Play on the YouTube Video below to hear the night noises we were surrounded by!
We all found places to sit as we waited to be found. My dog remained curled up in my backpack nestled close to me, I massaged her tiny legs when the cramps would come and tried not to think about the snake I saw slithering along the rock we were resting by. I could feel Jibby’s concern about my condition and apparently they even tried to give me a dose of my medicine while I was incoherent which I refused. Jibby kept reminding us to take tiny sips of water and keep our lights up. Becca revealed that she had a battery charger pack in her backpack and a few other helpful items we were unaware of and we all fell into a delirious bout of laughter as we held hands to transfer strength and energy for a moment, recap our stupidity, and apologize for things said during our fearful moments. I found a few videos on my phone later and Jibby told me that when we first heard the search party I tried to put on a brave face and make light of our situation by making a Blair Witch type of video so that we could remember this forever and hopefully laugh about it later. None of us were ever worried about the possibility of not being found and making it out. Pain, discomfort, and the potential of a missed flight was our only real concern. One positive thing that can be said about being lost in a Puerto Rican rain forest as opposed to anywhere else, is we had no predators to worry about and the weather was actually kind of beautiful despite a little rain fall. By 9:43pm we saw the lights of one of the search parties through the trees and for the next half hour I apparently repeatedly asked Jibby for confirmation that they were actually there. I kept hearing “Yes Baby, they’re really here, we’re going home, drink some water” but I still wasn’t sure if it was really happening or not.
The Search & Rescue members involved in locating us and getting us safely off the mountain side and back down the trails were all amazing. I keep trying to come up with a word other than “amazing” and I simply can not, there are no words. Reflecting back now I can recall they smelled like clean clothes and every one of them had huge smiles and beautiful eyes. I remember feeling their energy. I could feel their happiness that the search was finally over, relief that we weren’t injured more seriously, and pride that they had done their job so well and swiftly. I could feel all of that coming off of them in a heavy wave, and it was their energy wave combined with Jibby being so near making me feel safe, that gave me the final burst of strength to lift my dog into my backpack one last time and begin the descent on my wobbly legs. I don’t recall leaving the rain forest with the search party or the hour hike we still had to make to get back out to the road but I do recall being mortified when I stepped out of the darkness and into a street completely filled with rescue lights, ambulances, cop cars and about three dozen search and rescue members. My manners kicked in immediately and I could hear myself repeating how sorry I was, thanking everyone, and checking on Becca while silently I was sobbing in my head for Jibby to just get me home, get me clean and hold me.
Home safe and wounds cleaned, we all got relieved earfuls about wilderness safety from all who cared about us. We fully understood exactly what mistakes we had made and how to not repeat the same mistakes ever again. I will admit, living here on the island has taught me a lot of good things about letting go when the universe demands it and going with the flow, but I “let go” to the point where I have begun to get a little to comfortable with simply thinking, “No worries, we’ll figure it out as we go along…”. Balance is a beautiful thing and I am learning more from every mistake and success life brings my way. All of a sudden all those geeky wilderness survival books that I took for granted seem like a super interesting read! I found a website that I have become addicted to reading through every little detail of that has a wealth of information about any and all types of wilderness survival, check it out and share it with anyone enjoying the great outdoors!