The wildernesses of our world hold a sense of awe and beauty, a destination for those looking for adventure or peace of mind. Yet, sometimes there can be sinister forces lurking under the tranquil veneer of these places. At times there have been those people who have stepped off into these wilds to never come back, seemingly simply erased from existence and often leaving strange clues in their wake. Is there something mysterious lurking within the forests and wild places of our world looking to claim those who would dare to venture into them? It is difficult to say, but here are some rather puzzling cases of those who have gone off into the woods to simply vanish without a trace.
One very perplexing case comes to us from May of 2013, when a 25-year-old Canadian military reservist and university law student was out on a hiking trip at Kosciuszko National Park, in Australia. Prabhdeep Srawn had come to Australia looking for adventure, and he parked his rented Jucy camper van at the Charlotte Pass Village on Monday, May 13, grabbed his jacket, and headed off along the Main Range Walk up into the mountains. Since it was a fairly well-traveled trail and the weather was clear there would have been no reason to think anything of it at the time, especially considering that Srawn was a trained military man and seasoned outdoorsman. No one would have guessed that as he made his way up that trail to one of Australia’s highest peaks that this would be the last anyone saw of him.
On May 18th, a park ranger noticed that Srawn’s vehicle had not moved in nearly a week, despite only having a 24-hour pass on it. Police were alerted and found a laptop left behind, the doors to the vehicle unlocked, and not a sign of Srawn. An intensive search was launched of the surrounding terrain, using aircraft with infrared sensors, tracker dogs, professional alpine rescue personnel, and volunteers, with the search stretching out to four weeks and utilizing sophisticated data analysis techniques, all without a single trace of the missing man. Follow up searches were conducted in warmer weather months, but again, so sign of Srawn was uncovered. It was as if he had just vanished into thin air. Mountain guide Bruce Easton, who aided in the search, would say of it:
The fact that they didn’t find a single item of clothing, not a backpack, not so much as a scrap of toilet paper out there doesn’t add up. I understand people want resolution, but given how many people go through that area, why didn’t they find anything in summer?
There was one rather eerie incident during the initial search, when on May 20 several rangers heard someone shouting out “Hello!” from the wilderness, but no source for the voice could be found and it is unknown where it came from. There were several reports from hikers of also hearing someone call out for help, but again no origin for the voice could be found. No sign of Srawn has ever been found besides this possible lead, and it is widely thought that he perished in the rugged landscape, with police Superintendent Rod Smith saying of this:
I’ve been up there myself, I’ve seen it and I was blown away by how treacherous it is when the weather comes in. If you fell off one of those rock faces it’s a long way down and underneath it’s very thick scrub. On top of that it’s a massive search area.
Another theory is that he disappeared intentionally, as there were roaming pings picked up from his cell phone in the days after his disappearance, ending at Mount Townsend, at the end of the trail. This suggests that he made it out of the wilderness, but it is difficult to say if he was even in possession of the phone at the time, or if these readings were correct. However, Srawn’s family and other survival specialists who have looked at the evidence doubt that the vanishing was staged, as he had his schoolwork and his friend’s upcoming wedding to look forward to. One of Srawn’s close friends, a John Hagg, said of his thoughts on the matter:
It seems so bizarre to believe some of the suspicions that people have about Prabh trying to disappear himself. You’d think people might get the impression that was his plan, but I got no indication from any of the interactions I had with Prabh that there was anything weird going on. I would almost lean towards him being kidnapped or something crazy like that. He went to New Zealand by himself and made a million friends and travelled around with them. He randomly bumped into people and became friends. I don’t see it as too far-fetched that he bumped into someone and was hanging out with them and it turned out that they were not a nice person. I don’t want to think about that, but I can’t imagine he straight up disappeared on his own and left everyone in the lurch.
What happened to Prabhdeep Srawn? Was this a case of succumbing to the elements, a kidnapping, running away to start a new life, or something more mysterious altogether? We may never know for sure. Australia actually has a few spooky cases like this, and another occurred in 2016, when 77-year-old Elizabeth O’Pray went missing in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney. O’Pray was a long-time resident of the area, very familiar with the terrain, and in March of 2016 she went out on a routine walk along a trail in an area she had taken strolls many times before. A day later, she had not returned, but things would get stranger still.
Authorities tried contacting her mobile phone, more out of procedure than anything else, not really expecting it to come of anything, but rather amazingly it was with much surprise that the elderly O’Pray actually picked up on the other end. She told them that she was healthy, but that she did not know where she was, after which the line went dead. A search turned up nothing at all, but not long after this, a few days later people living in the area reported hearing eerie calls for help in the night, and when police came to investigate they too heard what sounded like a woman shouting out. Searchers were immediately called in, but they could not find the source of the calls, which suddenly stopped just as suddenly as they had begun. To this day, Elizabeth O’Pray remains missing. What happened to her and how could she say she was lost when it was a trail she regularly walked upon? One idea is that she had suffered some confusion as a side effect to stroke medication she had been taking, but how is it that the search could find no trace of her or even discover the origins of those cries for help? It is unknown.
From the United States we have many instances of people stepping off the face of the earth in the wilderness. On Oct. 8, 1976, a 16-year-old high school sophomore from Knoxville named Trenny Lynn Gibson was on a field trip to the national park along with 40 of her classmates. The students were hiking from the parking area towards a spot called Andrew’s Bald, and had separated into smaller groups based on how fast they could walk during the hike. It was a well travelled route, yet at some point during the hike, at around 3PM in an area just below Clingmans Dome, it was noticed that Gibson was no longer with her group, and had somehow become separated from them or had wandered off. It was odd considering that she had been with other people and there had been groups of students both in front of them and behind, as well as other hikers, who had not seen her actually go off on her own. She was seemingly been there one second and gone the next. Additionally, the area is very popular with hikers, is far from remote, and there are a lot of people around, yet no one had seen Gibson anywhere. Despite an intensive search, no sign of Trenny Gibson was ever found. She simply vanished right under everyone’s noses.
Another strange disappearance occurred on September 25, 1981, when 58-year-old Thelma Pauline Melton, often called “Polly” by her friends, was hiking with two of her friends near the Deep Creek Campground. It was an easy trail that Melton had been hiking for 20 years, so she knew the lay of the land intimately, yet as they were hiking at a leisurely pace she rounded a bend in front of her friends and seemingly stepped off the face of the earth. Her friends searched the area where Melton had been just moments before, but could find no sign of where she had gone. Making the whole scene even more bizarre was that Melton was overweight, and suffered from high blood pressure and nausea for which she took medication, making it bizarre that she could have gotten so far away from her friends so fast. In fact, Melton’s friends had been playfully teasing her about her slow pace not long before she vanished. Additionally, her medical condition had gotten her barred from driving at the time and she had no keys with which she could have driven away. She had also been a happy and well-adjusted individual with no discernable reason to want to vanish.
A massive search was launched, but no sign of Melton could be found. Authorities were unable to even get a good set of tracks to follow, which would have made things easier considering Melton’s left shoe had apparently had a noticeable crack in the sole which would have made her tracks distinguishable and easy to differentiate from those of other hikers. Nevertheless no trace of Polly Melton has ever been found and she remains missing.
On July 18, 2007 there was another case of someone who seems to have just stepped off the face of the earth. 55-year-old Barbara Bolick was out on a hiking trip with her friend Jim Ramaker in Montana’s Bitterroot Mountains, with Barbara walking about 6-9 meters (20-30 ft) behind him. At one point along their scenic hike, Jim claimed that he stopped to admire the scenery, and when he turned to look behind him after a mere minute, Barbara was nowhere to be seen. A complete search of the surrounding area would turn up no trace of what happened to the woman, and although Jim Ramaker had been the last person to see her, police never found any reason to suspect he had done anything to her. No new leads in the case have ever been found. She was described as a very physically fit and experienced hiker, so how could she just vanish seemingly into thin air like that when she was with her friend?
One very well known case concerns a 19-year-old college student named Brandon Swanson. On the evening of 14 May 2008, Swanson had been out partying with friends in Minnesota, and on the way home he managed to crash his car into a ditch on a rural wooded road. Since he was unable to get the car out by himself and had no transportation, he called his parents at around midnight asking for them to come pick him up. The parents went out to go get him like he had requested, but soon found that his car was not where he had said it was, near a small town called Lynd.
They called Brandon and asked him to explain where he was, but even when they arrived at where he claimed to be they were unable to locate him, even after they both unsuccessfully tried flashing their headlights in order to try and hone in on each other’s locations. After driving around and talking on the phone for around 45 minutes without locating him, Brandon proclaimed that he was just going to head to Lynd and crash at a friend’s place for the night. They stayed on the phone a bit longer and Brandon said he could see the lights of the town in the distance and also that he could hear running water. Then he suddenly exclaimed “Oh shit!,” and the line went dead, with numerous attempts to call him back remaining unanswered. Brandon Swanson would never be seen again.
A search was launched involving hundreds of people and trained dogs, which would go on for around 4 months meticulously going through a 100 square mile area without finding the missing man or even any trace whatsoever of where he had gone. Police were able to find the young man’s car, but it was nowhere near where he had told his parents it had been. Authorities were also a bit perplexed, as the route Brandon had been traveling was very familiar to him and that he had always taken a very specific route to and from school each day, so it was a mystery as to how he could have gotten so hopelessly lost and how his car had ended up so far off of that path. It was determined that there was no evidence at all that he had met with foul play or that he had had any desire to want to suddenly run away.
A lot of theories have been proposed as to what became of Brandon, such as that he fell into a river and was washed away or that he met with some sort of foul play, but one interesting factor to consider is that in his last moments on that phone the call seems to have ended because the phone was deliberately hung up. There is “Oh shit”” and then the line is ended, with no sounds of a struggle, being dropped, or of a rushing river or some such incident. It simply ends. Efforts to call back also reached a seemingly operational phone that was simply not being answered. He may have dropped the phone and dislodged the battery, but it is weird nevertheless. Subsequent searches over the years have also failed to find any clue as to what happened to Brandon Swanson, with all tips that have come forward likewise leading nowhere, and he has seemingly vanished into thin air. We will perhaps always wonder what provoked the “Oh shit!” that were perhaps his last words ever.
Lastly, we have the bizarre case of Cullen Finnerty, a former college football star who vanished on Memorial Day weekend of 2013 during a fishing trip to the Baldwin River, in Michigan. At one point during his trip, Finnerty made a bizarre call to his wife, in which he claimed that he was being followed and that he was frightened. He was also breathing heavily and made the rather weird proclamation that he was taking his clothes off without giving any reason why. Shortly after, the phone went dead. This would be the last time anyone spoke with him.
Finnerty did not return from his fishing trip as planned and a search was launched. Oddly, according to David Paulides, author of The Missing 411 series of books, during the search efforts Finnerty’s phone was pinged several times to try and find his location, and each time the phone was pinged it was found to be far away from where it had been in the previous location, suggesting he was on the move rather rapidly. Search efforts were unable to locate the missing man, but in this case a body was found, although it did little to clear up the mystery. On May 28, 2013, Finnerty was found dead in the dense woods, around 1 mile from the location of his fishing boat and not far from a busy road. The body showed no signs of trauma or external injuries and he had been well dressed for the conditions, notably and oddly not nude as one would expect from what was implied in that last call, making death from the elements seem unlikely.
An autopsy was conducted but the original results were inconclusive, only able to ascertain that he had no signs of drugs and negligible amounts of alcohol in his system that would not have impaired him, and that there were no external injuries such as cuts, scratches, or bruises. Later autopsies conducted by the Kent County Medical Examiner’s Office would come to the conclusion that Finnerty had likely died from a complicated combination of factors. Since he was a football player, he had sustained numerous concussions throughout his career, which had led to a condition known as “chronic traumatic encephalopathy,” the symptoms of which can include disorientation, confusion, and memory loss, which may have contributed to the strange call he had made and his death. He was also found to be taking the pain killer oxycodone for a back injury. The final autopsy results were that he had most likely become scared, panicked and confused alone out in the woods, which had been exacerbated by the oxycodone and his brain trauma, and that at some point he had inhaled his own vomit, which had led to his death. It still remains unclear what his final call meant, who he thought had been following him, or why he had been about to take his clothes off, making his death still more than a little mysterious.
These have just been a few of the more baffling cases of people who have gone off into the woods only to seemingly step off the face of the earth. What has happened to these people? What do the strange clues surrounding their vanishings mean? Are these cases the result of the terrain, mental issues, or something else? One theory that has been put forward in more paranormal circles is that there are strange forces within the woods themselves that are somehow "taking" these people, but if that is the case what are these forces and why or how are they doing this? We are left with the disturbing fact that on occasion people are just evaporating into thin air in the wild places of our world to never be seen again, whatever the causes may be.