Wednesday, February 4, 2015
Finding Yourself in the Wilderness: An Interview with Diana Totten, Expert Tracker
Diana Totten grew up in Southern Humboldt County and is very familiar with the King Range and the Lost Coast. She has been on many missing persons and search and rescue cases in the past twenty years.
Below is my interview with Diana in which I ask her about her experiences with search and rescue, her thoughts about why people get lost (and how to not get lost), and why the wilderness experience is so important for young people and all of us.
Diana has a non-profit: Mountain to Sea Wilderness Camp
How did you get involved with search and rescue (SAR) and tracking?
I was the oldest of 3 kids and I was always busy and always outside. To help relieve my mom I was raised part of the summer with an Indian grandmother. This was a perfect place to drop me off because there were a lot of woods for me to run amok and my grandmother and I got along really well. One of the things Indian grandmothers start to teach you when you start to show interest in Native ways is tracking. I was 6 or 7 years old running around the woods all day without ever having to check in - If I was able to be aware of the sights and sounds, what’s on the ground and what’s around me - I’d never get lost. In doing this she created awareness in me in which I’d start to see things that other people usually don’t see very often – I’d start to see details.
When she took it to the next level she’d have me start to track animals. She’d say to me, “there’s 3 deer and I want you to track that small on.” I would spend the day tracking it then come back and give her a report. She’d ask me specific questions about the animal. By the middle of the summer I knew what it ate, where it slept, if it was a boy or a girl and other nuances. This is how I started tracking – being super aware of everything that is on the ground and tracking animals. Eventually, I learned to track myself - meaning that I followed my foot prints and studied them. My grandmother said that foot prints will tell you everything you need to know about somebody. So I started looking at foot prints differently. I could tell my father’s foot prints from the others even if they were the same boots. The funny part is, when I started studying foot prints – tracking people – I felt guilty or sneaky because I felt like I was invading their privacy. But I learned so much about how somebody moves because their footprints start to reveal, for example, their weight and where they put their weight. Later in life I also took professional classes on tracking to develop the skills I already had. I think some of the most awesome things are that some of the skills that my grandmother taught me were identical to what I learned in the classes.
I started working locally with the Sherriff’s office and having success finding people – especially in Southern Humboldt and the Lost Coast. Often times the Sherriff will look for only 24 hours because they don’t have the manpower or the time to look any longer so a family will hire me or I’ll volunteer. Each time I track I learn more about people’s minds and how they do things and my capabilities become a little bit more honed.
Do you talk with the family members to try to figure out something about the missing person to help you in your search?
Yes. And a lot of times – this is kind of strange – they tell you things that aren’t really that accurate or that don’t have that much depth in who their family member is. The biggest things I’ve learned is that when you’re looking for someone that’s lost they’re not the same person [as they were before they became lost]. When they become lost they’ve gone to their primitive personality. The more you learn about what that primitive personality is the easier it will be to find them because you’ll know where to look. Psychologically, often times it’s a life and death struggle for them once they realize they're lost. Most people don’t deal with life and death situations so it’s a new feeling for them. You can assume that they are going to panic and they are going to do things that are going to lead them to places that really aren’t a good place to be.
What do you think some of the main reasons are that people get lost?
One thing is that they rely too much on their electronics. I think GPS and cell phones are things that people may use instead of preparing mentally and physically. A lot of times, The people that get lost – the people on the Lost Coast that we’ve looked for – just weren’t prepared. I think sometimes people aren’t prepared for the ruggedness. Doing 2 miles on some of these trails is like doing twenty on another trail that’s more level.
One of the things I’ve noticed is a lack of common sense sometimes which leads people to getting lost. One of the other things I believe is that in the older days we were raised in the woods or around rural areas; people went camping more and were more used to being outside. Even many kids that are raised in Southern Humboldt that come to the Lost Coast are baffled about how to be in the woods. When I say “be in the woods” I mean there are several ways to be in the woods. You can be part of it or you can be separate from it. My goal [when teaching kids about being in the woods] is to be a part of it, to become a part of your surroundings so they aren’t so foreign. This is when you also feel comfortable with yourself I think.
We’ve also looked for people that have lost themselves on purpose and the Lost Coast is a place that they feel like they can go and hide from the world. It [the Lost Coast] is not that forgiving when you’re not in your right mind. Those are the bodies that we find.
Do you think there are more people getting lost now than when you first got involved with SARs 20 years ago?
Yes, but not always in the wilderness. In Humboldt Country there are almost 300 missing people reported a year. Nationwide it’s about 2,000 people a day – according to the FBI. Not all of them are lost in the woods, but they’re lost somehow – runaways, for example. The highest rate of missing persons was in 2008 when the economy crashed – that reverts back to the fact that some people go missing on purpose because they’re overwhelmed with life.
To me I almost think that there is a correlation with the disconnection with the natural world and the lack of common sense that you’ve noticed and the ability to handle difficult situations.
Exactly. Again, we rely a lot on the electronic world and we’ve learned not to rely on our own instinct. You can learn common sense in a city if you learn how to practice it or where it’s at. Just because you’re in a city doesn’t mean you’re not going to have an awareness of your surroundings.
What do you think some of the benefits of experiencing the wilderness are – for an individual or for society?
We live in a hostile world. Cities are hostile. We’re surrounded by television and news media that’s telling us everything that’s wrong and there’s death and destruction and global warming and everything is just bad and we’re inundated with that. When I’ve worked with kids from cities the scariest thing they could think of was being lost in the woods - So there may be no refuge for them other than a cell phone or a computer game. My goal would be to show them that the wilderness is a place of refuge – a place to find that peacefulness that is inside yourself because it’s there but you just don’t know how to access it sometimes; the wilderness gives you that access. You take part of that with you when you go home – that refuge. You will know that it isn’t such a chaotic and destructive world that we live in.
What would be your advice to someone that is planning their first backpacking trip to the lost coast – or anywhere?
My advice is to go really slow and to take only what you need. Walk without just watching your feet – not just watching your boot laces for 4 days. There is a different way to hike.
Learn to use your other senses - Not just your eyes. Learn to use your ears and your smells. All the smells that the lost coast has to offer – coastal smells, vegetation smells, mountain smells; it’s an amazing thing that you can take home with you. It’s more that the pictures you take and the things that you see.
Go slow and don’t take too many miles – don’t try to do 30 miles in 2 days. Take a smaller trip and soak in the environment.
Do you think there is an appropriate time or place or balance for technology in the wilderness?
My answer is no. I go the farthest away from man-made stuff in the wilderness and I think that is where you can truly find that peaceful place. I don’t even really like cameras in the wilderness because that only captures a little bit of a picture that doesn’t really make any sense because there is no smell or sound or anything else with it. If you rely on that then that is all you get. But if you go with a little more openness - with all your senses - you’ll be able to take something more home with you.
One of the things I have done is to take a hike every month of the year on the Lost Coast. So many people try to cram it into a certain period of time. I’ve been up there in storms and it’s different – it gives you a different feeling. But it also pushes your limit – to be comfortable when it’s storming and you find out a little bit more of what you’re made of.
After you’re in a wilderness for a while you can have a real good sense of which is which and where is where. I think in our lives these days we limit ourselves so much. Until you’re cold, you don’t know what it’s like to be warm. Until you walk in the dark you don’t know how great it is to have light - That sort of thing.
One of the things I think is important about the wilderness experience is that the pace of civilization, of everything, is going faster and faster and I think that all the technology around us is limiting people’s ability to think – there’s just constant stimulation. What I find many people are scared of is being by themselves. Very few people are truly ever alone. Even if we’re by ourselves we have something to occupy our time - to entertain us. Many people are scared to be alone with their own thoughts.
Yes, Yes. And being alone is so awesome and yet it’s something people hardly ever experience.
I think that if everyone had that experience – especially at a young age – they’d be better people.
When you look at the world as a hostile place it’s hard to find a place where you can find that peace. And yet when you find it you’re able to take it with you throughout life. That’s something that I think is the key ingredient.
Can you tell me the story about the person who was lost in the snow?
His vehicle became stuck in the snow so he started walking and had gotten lost. He started walking downhill and was eventually in the rain, so he was wet. He came across a little line-shack rancher’s cabin that had been half fallen down but there was still a stove in there and some supplies. Yet they found him dead in the cabin. He had tried lighting a fire with 3 wet pieces of wood from outside. He had a whole box of matches that had been used. No kindling or understanding of how to start a fire which would have saved his life.
Just the understanding of how to build a fire is huge. What I’ve always done with my kids is one match – everyone gets one match. So you have to have everything set up just right. Even now we could go walk in the woods [it’s raining out during this interview] and I’d show you dry wood, but it’s not easy to find. It’s using the same eyes to see the world differently.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
When you’re in the wilderness you have the ability to look at the world differently. Look at the woods as a place of refuge – as a place of comfort – instead of as a place of fear. Take that with you back to the city and use that feeling when you get overwhelmed.
I remember when we got our first wet suits when I was a teenager. We used to fish all day then go and swim around the bell buoy at Shelter Cove in the afternoon or evening. We weren’t afraid. Why would we be afraid? We didn’t have televisions. And after I saw Jaws I couldn’t even go waist deep in the water. When I was a commercial fisherman I used to hit great white sharks the size of this table with my oars just to keep them away from the boat because I thought they were going to scare the fish. But after I saw Jaws when I’d even see a fin in the water I’d go move to another part of the ocean. I think of when we were teenagers and when we used to go swim around the bell buoy and of all the sharks that watched us go by. Now I can’t even wade out past my belly-button without thinking, ‘was that seaweed or was that a shark?’
You see this is what electronics do to you. Yet when I went to Universal Studios with the kids I saw that the whole thing is fake – it’s just a machine. Yet, it changed the way I go in the water. So can you imagine all these other images that the kids are watching that are changing what they do.
Yeah, we need to unplug.