More a warning about tone than content. All of the stories today are heavy, but they all have happy endings, more or less.
In 1921, Alaska native Ada Blackjack was hired as cook and seamstress for an expedition to claim the isolated and uninhabited Wrangel Island, which is now part of Russia, for Canada. The expedition began with five people. They made it to the island before their rations ran out, but there wasn’t enough game on the island to sustain them. Three men left to get them help, leaving Ada with a sick fifth man, who shortly died. Ada was alone on the island…for two years.
We’re all going through some degree of hardship right now, but most of us have family or friends, in person or via technology, to help them through. In that respect alone, we’re doing a lot better than the subjects of today’s episode. Take, for instance, Ricky Megee in 2006. When he stumbled in front of the pick-up truck of two Australian ranch workers–jackaroos, in the local parlance–his deeply-sun-scorched skin hung off his skeleton. They weren’t even sure they were looking at a man and not some demon of the northern outback.
Things had been considerably better for Megee ten weeks earlier. The 35 year old Megee was hale and hearty and had just landed a new job. Driving along a barren north Australian highway, he spotted a group of stranded travelers and their vehicle on the side of the road. Knowing it could be a long time before anyone else came by, he let some of the men get in to drop them at the next town. That was the last thing Megee could clearly remember. He came to in the middle of the desert, stripped naked and barefoot under the harsh sun, which, bonus fact, bombards Australia with more UV rays than other continents because of the hole in the ozone. He had nothing, not even a notion of where to go. Waiting for help to find him seemed fruitless, so Megee began to walk.
Each morning, he told himself that today was the day. Today, he would find a town, or a house, or at least a road he could follow. Each day ended the same as the day before. There was one ameliorating factor in his situation–the rainy season was just ending and there was water to be found. He found a decent-sized waterhold and began to try to make a shelter. One week had ticked by before food, in the form of a lizard, crossed Megee’s path. He was able to catch and kill it with his bare hands, before laying the meat out in the sun to dry. Megee’s diet was made up of anything that walked, crawled, or slithered; lizards, snakes, grasshoppers and bugs, even leeches. After his ordeal, Megee said they weren’t bad, but you had to eat them quickly, otherwise they’d attach to the inside of your mouth. He also ate any plant that passed a taste test, which is not the best method for finding non-poisonous plants, but he got lucky. His diet was diverse but not plentiful. Calories were thin on the ground, no pun intended.
Dingos had begun prowling around, deciding if he was meat yet. Starving, weakening, and beginning to despair, Megee fashioned a cross for the top of his shelter. It seemed likely that shelter would become his casket. But he managed to stay alive. When he’d been carjacked, Megee weighed 233lbs/105kg. When the jackaroos found him, he only weighed 100lbs/45kg. But he was alive. He managed to keep himself going alone in the desert for 71 days in what his rescuers described as one of the “most isolated places in Australia.” Megee was flown to the Royal Darwin Hospital, where medical staff described him as “emaciated, but…well hydrated,” a credit to his decision to stay at the waterhole. Police and the media were initially suspicious of Megee’s story, assuming that a previous minor drug offense must have meant he’d been up to dirty deals with dirty dealers and that’s how he ended up stranded. His stolen car never turned up, which would have backed his story. Megee even offered to eat a frog on live tv, but thankfully bush survival experts weighed in that his story was plausible, so no more frogs for Ricky Megee.
Water kept Ricky Megee alive, but it was nearly fatal to Jose Alvarenga, the man who would probably rather not hold the record for the longest time spent adrift at sea alone. In November 2015, Jose Alvarenga (and please forgive me if I slip at some point and say Alverez) was getting his gear together for a 30-hour deep-sea fishing trip off the coast of Costa Azul, Mexico. His quarry were sharks, marlins, and sailfish, lucrative fish that would hopefully give him an edge over his competition. The trip did not get off to a promising start when Alvarenga’s usual partner backed out at the last minute and he took on a less-experienced fisherman named Ezequiel Cordoba that he’d never even spoken to before that day. But he figured the trip was short, so everything would be okay.
On November 17, the pair set out on a 24-foot fiberglass skiff, small as boats go, with fishing gear, a radio, and an enormous cooler that was soon almost overloaded with fish. Just a few hours into their journey, a storm rolled up. And it stayed. For five days. They had to dump their catch to lighten the boat so it would be more maneuverable. Alvarenga tried to steer the boat back to shore, but he couldn’t see where the shore was in the pounding rain and the little ship didn’t have GPS.
When the storm finally cleared, the men found that the motor was gone, as was the fishing gear, most of the electronics were damaged. Unlike the passengers on the S.S. Minnow, who took all their belongings on a three-hour cruise, Alvarenga and Cordoba had only had about a day’s worth of food and water. There was enough charge in the two-way radio’s backup battery for Alvarenga to get a Mayday message out, but they couldn’t tell their potential rescuers their location, because they simply didn’t know what part of the seemingly endless Pacific Ocean they were in. Search teams tried to look for them, but the rain made it impossible.
There was no way to know how long they would be out there, so the men turned to the sea for survival. Alvarenga was able to catch fish, turtles, and birds with his bare hands, though Cordoba was basically useless in those efforts. The turtles were a lucky catch; their meat is actually rich in vitamin C, which prevented the men from developing scurvy. They collected rainwater when there was rain to collect, but otherwise had to hydrate themselves with a mixture of turtle blood and their own urine. The sun rose and set dozens of times, but the flat horizon of the ocean remained unbroken.
Alvarenga was used to a diet of seafood, being on the water, and the harsh salty air. Ezequiel Cordoba, however, was not. By the fourth month, Cordoba was at his breaking point, physically and mentally. He couldn’t keep food down and after a while, he stopped trying. It wasn’t long from that point. Alverenga couldn’t bring himself to put Cordoba’s body overboard, not because such a makeshift burial at sea was disrespectful, but because he couldn’t cope with the idea of being alone. He sat with the body for days and considered ending his own suffering. Somehow, though, he found the strength to push himself up and the determination to survive.
That was month four. Alvarenga began to keep track of the lunar cycle, to get a rough idea how long he’d been adrift. 15 lunar cycles would pass before Alvarenga saw the sight he’d been dreaming of. The little battered boat washed up on the shore of an atoll in the Marshall Islands. For those, like myself, who don’t know off-hand where that is, the Marshall Islands lie roughly halfway between Hawaii…and New Zealand. Alvarenga drifted over 6,000mi/9700km over the course of 400 days, more than a year.
Fortune smiles on Alvarenga. There was a little cottage on the beach, with people inside. Those people called the authorities immediately. Alvarenga’s family and employer were thrilled when he returned. Ezequiel Cordoba’s family, not as much. They, like a lot of other people, doubted the details of Alvarenga’s incredible story. He seemed to be in too good shape for someone fighting off starvation every day, to say nothing of the devil’s own luck in landing in the Marshall Islands. Doctors, career sailors, and experts on ocean currents from the University of Hawaii came to his defense, but that wasn’t enough for the Cordoba’s. They believed Alvarenga had survived by eating Ezequiel’s body and they sued him, for a million dollars. Alvarenga maintained that as Cordoba was dying, he made Alvarenga promise him two things: that Alvarenga wouldn’t eat his body and that he’d find Cordoba’s mother and tell her what had happened. Alvarenga kept the second promise and swore he kept the first one, too. If you’re dying to hear what happened in the case, so am I. I found article after article about the lawsuit being filed, but not one single mention in the intervening five years as to the outcome.
Oh well, at least I have the YBOF trivia contest to distract me. The most recent prize was provided by Fireside Gaming. The contest starting this Friday has *three games from Greenbrier Games, BarBEARian Battle Grounds, Burger Up and Ninja Dice. You can play at yourbrainonfacts.com/trivia. Thanks to everyone who check in on me after my recent surgery and to my wonderful patrons at like Maria and Loralie, who are getting all the perks regardless of their level until the pandemic passes, including the most recent bonus episode on what you can and can’t name your baby in certain countries, and the lovely folks who leave me reviews, like Amanda who wrote “I’m a complete trivia freak, and will soak up all that information goodness that Moxie showers me with every episode. She could read me the phonebook, and I would be happy as a clam. And I’m sure she could tell you where that fun idiom came from.” Thanks, Amanda. Are you a member of the Brainiac Breakroom at ? It’s a great place to find and share more weird and wonderful facts, as well as to connect with your fellow Brainiacs.
Some survival stories hinge on strength of will, a person’s raw determination to live. Other times, science steps in and saves the day. Anna Bagenholm worked as a radiologist at the University Hospital of North Norway. She made history there in 1999, but on the operating table. Her remarkable incident began with a skiing trip after work with some colleagues. They were all avid skiers who were familiar with the local mountains, and conditions that day were ideal, sunny with lots of fresh powder. They were only a few runs in when tripped, losing her skis, and tumbled and slid toward a frozen stream. When she hit it, the ice broke and her upper half was pulled into the frigid rushing water. Her friends were able to reach her and grabbed her boots before the current could pull her all the way under. They phoned for help. Below the water, Bagenholm struggled upward and managed to reach the air space under the ice. She could breathe, but her clothes were soaked with near-frozen water. Drowning now had to fight Hypothermia to see who would get her first. By the time the rescue team arrived, hacked a hole in the ice, and hauled her up, pulled her out, Bagenholm had been submerged for nearly an hour and a half. She was not only unconscious, she had no heartbeat. The med-evac helicopter ride took another hour, during which the rescuers performed CPR on her.
A little bit more information on the meat mech your brain is piloting. Left to its own devices, the human body likes to be around 98 degrees Fahrenheit/37 deg C. All sorts of complex, involuntary, automatic things happen to keep you as close to that as possible. But the world is a cold place sometimes. When the body senses you getting too cold, it begins to protect you from the outside in. Since air pulls heat away from the surface of the body, blood vessels in your skin begin constricting. Less blood is going to your arms and legs and more is staying in your core to keep your internal organs warm. This leaves you susceptible to frostbite, but we’ve got bigger problems right now. If the vasoconstriction doesn’t stop the temperature drop, the body tries to make more heat by moving the muscles. You’ll start to shiver, usually from the chest muscles outward. This, too, can be a problem if it goes on too long, as it tears through your nutritional reserves and taxes the heart, increasing the risk for a heart attack or a stroke.
If the body temperature drops below 95F/35C, hypothermia sets in. Your blood pressure drops and your breathing becomes shallow. This means less oxygen getting to your brain, which can bring on slurred speech, confusion, nonsensical actions, none of which will be particularly helpful. Arctic explorer Robert Falcon Scott referred to this in 1911 expedition as “half-thawed brain.” There’s a truly bizarre reaction that sometimes happens-paradoxical undressing. The freezing person suddenly feels like they’re burning up and strips off all their clothes. So now you’re dead and everyone can see you hooha. As the cooling continues, the brain and other organs begin to shut down.
When the helicopter landed at University Hospital, Bågenholm’s core temperature was 56.7F/13.7C, about 60% of what it should have been. There were no signs of life, but head of the emergency department, Mads Gilbert, and his team made a decision. Anna was not dead until she was warm and dead. They rushed Bågenholm into an operating room and hooked her up to a heart-lung bypass machine, pumping her blood out of her body to warm it and pumping it back in. Hours passed and her temperature slowly rose. The staff watched her vitals. The EKG blipped, then flatlined, then blipped again. Suddenly, Bågenholm’s heart jumped back to life, pumping on its own. The cold had preserved her brain, like an organ waiting to be transplanted, even while it was starving her brain of oxygen. Anna Bagenholm was alive, but she had a long row to hoe. It took 12 days for her to open her eyes and it would take years for her to walk again. But she did. Hell, she even went skiing again, though I most certainly would not. Not unless you want to try to beat her record for lowest body temperature in a living (eventually) person.
Outdoor recreation, while healthy and fun, always carries with it inherent dangers. Anna Bagenholm had friends nearby to help her; Aron Ralston did not. To tell you his story, please welcome my guest Juan Herrera from the podcast Sic Parvis Magna. [GUEST]
Thanks, Juan. Look in the show notes for a link to his show, which I’ll be appearing on too. From that very well-known story, to one that’s lesser known, but always fascinates me when I come across it. It began on Christmas Eve 1971. Juliane Koepcke was a high school senior living in Peru, though she was a German citizen, owing to her German researcher parents. 17-year-old Juliane and her mother boarded a flight across the country to join her father at the research station they had founded. They were flying in Christmas eve because Juliane’s graduation was the day before and this way she could attend the ceremony and the family could spend the holidays together. Mid-flight, over the vast dense Amazon rainforest, the LANSA Lockheed Electra flew into a dangerous thunderstorm. There was a bright flash of light over the right wing; maybe an explosion, maybe a lightning strike. At around 10,000 ft/3km above the ground, the plane began to break apart and disintegrated. Passengers and wreckage were scattered over the jungle as the plane arced toward the ground. Koepcke, still strapped into her seat, fell nearly two miles to the earth.
Some time later, she didn’t know how long, Koepcke woke to find her glasses and one shoe were gone. There was deep lacerations on one arm and one leg, a broken collarbone, a probably concussion, and her right eye was swollen completely shut and the left eye nearly. It’s thought that the seat actually saved her life, by catching some air to slow her descent and cushioning the actual impact. Her first instinct was to call for her mother. They’d been sitting next to each other, so surely she must be nearby. She began to search her surroundings. Twisted metal from the plane, suitcases, and bodies littered the jungle, but none of them were her mother. She gingerly searched the things she found, which turned up a little bag of candy. It was the wrong time of year for fruit and so many things in the jungle are poisonous, so this would be the only food she would have for the next 10 days.
Injured, lost, alone, without supplies, Koepcke did have one thing in her favor. Three years before the crash, she spent a year and a half living with her parents at the research station. She had been taught some survival skills, so she knew what dangers awaited her in the dense forest, and she knew how to avoid them. She kept her one shoe on so she could lead with that foot to avoid stepping on camouflaged snakes. She soon came upon a tiny stream, not even big enough to be called a crick. But Koepke knew that small streams lead to big streams; big streams lead to rivers; and rivers eventually lead to people, so she followed the stream.
Sleep was difficult for Juliane. The wound on her arm had become infected and insects bit her relentlessly and tried to crawl in her nose and eyes. To her horror, there were maggots living the wound. On the fifth or six day, Koepcke heard a familiar sound, a hoatzin bird call, a sound she heard often at the research center from a bird she knew nested near open water. She was going the right way and that gave her some strength. The next day, standing on the bank of the river, she heard a plane pass overhead. She thought that the searchers were giving up, that they had found all the other passengers and written her off. She was enraged, then despaired.
When the river bank was too densely covered, Koepke had to wade in the river, then swim when it got deeper, keeping her eyes open constantly for piranhas and caiman, which are like small alligators. Being in the water also means being out from under the shade of the trees and Germans are not renowned for their tolerance of sunlight. Koepcke was so badly sunburned that her skin bled. The days go on and each morning it gets harder to get up and keep moving. Koepcke dreams about food and hallucinates a roofline in the distance or the sounds of farm animals. On the tenth day, she was so tired, she just floated along with the river, bumping into logs and having to summon the strength to climb over them. That evening, she slept on the riverbank.
When Juliane Koepcke opened her eyes, she saw something she couldn’t believe–a boat. She swam over to it; it was real, she could touch it. She saw a little trail going from there up the hill and managed to drag herself up it. At the top, she finds a fishing hut. There are no people in it, but at least it’s shelter and it gives Koepcke a chance to try to tend her wounds. She found a gas can and poured gas over your maggot-y wound, something she had seen her father do for a wounded dog. Sure enough, the maggots fled the wound to get away from the gas. No one came to the hut that day, or the next, and Koepcke was so weak she could no longer stand.
Finally, on her 11th day alone in the jungle, three fishermen arrive at the cabin. Koepcke was so gaunt, burned, and injured that the first man who saw her with her blue German eyes thought she was a ghost or a demon. “I’m a girl who was in the LANSA crash,” she said to them in Spanish. “My name is Juliane.” The men tended her wounds and fed her that night and in the morning took her seven hours down-river, where a local pilot was able to fly her to the hospital. At the hospital, reunited with her father, Juliane learned that she hadn’t been separated from the other survivors; she was the only one. This brought her years of survivor guilt to deal with, along with her injuries. Like her parents, Juliane earned a degree in biology and returned to Peru to research bats. Her remarkable story was the subject of, among other things, a documentary by director Werner Herzog called Wings of Hope. Herzog was actually supposed to be on the same flight, but his plans changed at the last minute.
And that…. Ada Blackjack survived alone on the island there for two years, sort of like the book The Island of the Blue Dolphins, but move the island to the arctic and replace the dolphins with polar bears, which were a constant threat. After she was finally rescued, Blackjack wasn’t lauded, but was criticized for not saving the sick crewmate. There’s just pleasing some people. The main takeaway from today is: So if these folks can survive what they went through, we can do what must be done to survive this and make sure others survive as well. Stay inside and stay safe. Remember…Thanks..