Alex Irvin, the 16-year-old autistic boy who got lost in the Columbia River Gorge Saturday, enjoys hiking with his dog Rika. His family says he is learning valuable life skills. (Courtesy of Bruce Irvin)
Bruce Irvin thought his autistic son, Alex, could handle the hike at Horsetail Falls in the Columbia River Gorge without much supervision on Saturday. Instead the 16-year-old boy took a wrong turn and was found the next morning seven miles away, blisters on his heels, having spent a night outdoors in near-freezing temperatures.
The Irvins had been hiking with two other families, including several children. The children struck out ahead, and not until the path took the families back to the road did they realize Alex was missing.
It was not the first time. Alex went missing for two days on a hike near Mount St. Helens in 2008.
It’s not a coincidence. As he’s grown older, the family has tried to grant him a level of independence, to help him develop the living skills he craves; in fact, his mother, Jill, has devoted a blog to the subject, at piepdx.org. He’s volunteered for the Portland Police Bureau and several nonprofits to help him grow.
“It’s been Alex’s nature, and it’s been our desire for him all along, that he should be independent,” said Bruce Irvin. “Not just in hiking, but throughout his life. It’s a balance. You want to foster the things they like to do and can handle.”
This time, Alex’s disappearance triggered deployment of more than 30 search and rescue volunteers, a police canine outfit and a search helicopter overseen by Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office personnel.
The search and discovery of Alex Irvin shows how for someone who is significantly affected by autism, even a seemingly routine hike may not be completely safe. And the bid to rescue that person is not routine either, with trained searchers approaching their task with individualized information to help their chances of bringing the lost person home alive.
Saturday began as so many Irvin family weekends do, with a hike. They chose a return to Horsetail Falls, where the Irvins had gone several times before. Two families joined Bruce Irvin, Alex and Alex’s two sisters.
The family enjoys hiking, but it’s also something that Alex in particular loves. He doesn’t communicate well, but you can see it on his face, his father said. Usually the family brings along Rika, their chocolate Labrador. “If not every week, at least two or three times a month we’re out there on the trails around Portland,” said Bruce Irvin, a software development manager for Oracle Corp.’s Portland office.
Located off the Bridal Veil exit of Interstate 84 east of Portland, the popular trail they picked this weekend offers stunning views and three waterfalls with relatively little climbing necessary.
At about 3:30 p.m. Saturday, the group followed the trail back down to the road where they expected Alex would be waiting. He wasn’t there, and the families fanned out looking for him. As the clock approached 5 p.m., they gave up their search and called the police. The call went to Sgt. Mark Herron, head search-and-rescue coordinator for the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office, who activated several phone trees for help. Soon, a volunteer crew of searchers was congregating below the trail.
With young hikers or people with developmental disabilities, the crews prepare differently than when an adult is missing, said Deputy Keith Bybee. Searchers interview the parents extensively to find out how the lost hiker will react. There’s an added level of urgency, as well.
“Everyone has empathy for those who are disabled,” Bybee said. “They want to make sure they get back safely.”
In this case, Bruce Irvin told rescuers that if asked a yes or no question, his son would very likely answer “yes,” no matter what. Not only that, but some extra motivation might help persuade him to go with them: “When you reach Alex, say ‘Come with me, we’ll go back to the parking lot and see your dad, and go to McDonald’s and get some French fries,'” Bruce Irvin advised.
An Oregon Army National Guard helicopter joined the search, as did a volunteer canine search team.
Bruce Irvin slept in his friend’s Honda in the parking lot as the crews worked. On Sunday morning, sheriff’s deputies were poised to dramatically expand the search, but received word that Alex had been found. A hiker staying at Nesika Lodge, off the Franklin Ridge Trail, saw Alex, invited him indoors and helped him warm up by a fire.
Alex didn’t go into detail about his night, but said he slept on the ground underneath a tree, his father said.
Bruce Irvin said he feels bad that the search and rescue had to come out, and he and his family intend to take steps to help prevent a recurrence, though they won’t stop hiking. He’s already received hateful emails saying he should pay for the search.
Herron said Oregon law allows authorities to recoup costs, but it’s intended for people engaged in willful negligence.
“That doesn’t exist here,” he said, though the repeat does “raise an eyebrow.”
Bybee, the county deputy, said he doesn’t hold the Irvins responsible. He’s been on rescue duty since 2002, and repeats are not uncommon; in fact, he responded to the Mount St. Helens search involving Alex in 2008.
Bybee said he’s heard comments that disabled people shouldn’t be allowed on hikes, and he disagrees strongly with that sentiment. The main expenses the rescue team faces aren’t caused by disabled people or even hikers; it’s the mushroom pickers, he said: “They spend their time looking at the ground and walking in circles, and they lose their sense of direction.”
In this case, “You’ve got a young man who has some disabilities, and there’s probably only a few things he enjoys doing,” Bybee said. “I think he should be able to do them.”