Remembering Hikers Whose Journeys Were Cut Short - by Pamela Beason
It's June, which means the beginning of summer in the Pacific Northwest. The snow is melting in the rugged Cascades, and my thoughts naturally turn to traversing the highest ridges--my favorite pastime in summer--and death. You might think I'm morbid because I'm a mystery writer, and I do probably notice grim happenings in wild areas more than others because of my profession. When I hear about other women hikers dying on the same trails I walk on, I can't help but remember them every time I set my boots on those paths. Although these days I sometimes see alarming and sad posters of missing hikers along the trails, there are three ghosts from the past who particularly haunt my thoughts.
Sauk Mountain is a beautiful popular trail here, regularly traversed by thousands of hikers each season. In August of 2008, 54-year-old Pamela Almli was on a day hike there with a friend, when she was shot by a 14-year-old hunter who mistook her for a bear. The 14-year-old who killed her was accompanied only by a 16-year-old hunter, which, unfortunately, continues to be a perfectly legal situation in Washington State, as well as in many others. The teenage killer was convicted of second-degree manslaughter.
Even more haunting to me are two unsolved murders. On July 11, 2006, on the Pinnacle Lake Trail, Mary Cooper, 56, and her daughter Susanna Stodden, 27, were killed, each shot in the head with a single bullet from a small-caliber handgun. Although their clothing was in disarray, the women were not raped or robbed. Their bodies and packs were left in plain sight alongside the trail.
Crimes in the wilderness are hard to investigate. There were no witnesses, no suspects, and no evidence. The two women had no enemies. Nobody even knew they were hiking on that trail on that day, because they chose Pinnacle Lake as an alternative to the outing they originally planned, which was thwarted by a blocked road. Their killer has never been identified.
These two horrific events inspired my 4th Sam Westin mystery, Backcountry. The murder scenario presented in that book is fictional, a creation entirely of my imagination, and in concocting it, I combined aspects of these two tragedies, mixed into a wilderness therapy school for troubled teens. I hoped to help in a small way to keep the unsolved murders of Mary Cooper and Susanna Stodden alive in readers' minds, and to warn hikers about how many of our hiking trails are in designated hunting areas. Bear hunting season in Washington State typically begins August 1.
The high country of the Cascades is a sacred place to me, and I can never get enough of the beauty of the mountains. But I am always aware that, along with the marmots, mountain goats, elk, and ravens, the spectacular country I travel through is also populated by the ghosts of hikers who never completed their journeys. Pamela, Mary, Susanna, may you rest in peace and be forever comforted by the love of nature that we all shared.