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Lost In The Amazon: Beyond the end of the trail

First of two parts: A pair's longtime dream of trekking deep into the Brazilian jungle turned into a nightmare

Sunday, September 01, 2002

By Michael A. Fuoco, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

It's easy to understand why Crystal Ramsey and Dave Boyer were attracted to each other.

Their interest in aeronautics brought them to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida in 1997, Ramsey from Burgettstown and Boyer from North Carolina.

Each loved animals and each harbored a desire to visit the Amazon rain forest.

They saved what they could toward a trip to Brazil, but as in many college romances, they eventually became just friends. In 1999, Ramsey transferred to the University of Pittsburgh and Boyer transferred to the University of North Carolina-Asheville.

But they continued to save for their trip.

In May, the 23-year-olds flew to Sao Paulo where they boarded a five-hour flight to Manaus, the capital of the state of Amazonus. A 17-hour boat ride got them to the town of Maues, and from there they made their way to a hostel in an even smaller outpost in the rain forest.

That was May 22. For the next week, they ventured into the jungle a little farther each day on trails marked by colored arrows.

On May 28, Boyer suggested a hike to the end of the White Trail, one they had been on before but hadn't finished.

It was a hike to peril.

Crystal Ramsey

Tuesday: End of the trail

They packed for a three-hour trek, dressing in green pants and black T-shirts made of a quick-drying synthetic. Ramsey twisted her long blond hair atop her head with a pencil.

They tossed two cereal bars, two fruit roll-ups and two granola bars into Boyer's backpack, along with a camera. He had two bottles of water and Ramsey had one.

Boyer had a watch, a small bottle of mosquito repellent, a compass and a penknife.

They set out about 10 a.m. They were thrilled by the wildlife they saw, small animals scurrying through the undergrowth, bats and a treed mammal that they couldn't identify.

The vegetation was so thick that much of the time, they could barely see the blue of the sky.

They thought the trail ended at a river. It was a crucial mistake.

As they walked, they realized that they hadn't seen a White Trail directional arrow in a while, but they reckoned that the arrows had simply become farther apart.

Actually, the White Trail had ended -- just not at a river. They didn't know it and pressed on.

Dave Boyer

About 1 p.m., they ate the granola bars, drank some water and, figuring they had been out long enough, turned back. To their shock, there was no trail.

So dense were the trees and other vegetation, they couldn't tell from which direction they had come.

Boyer said he thought they had been walking northwest. So, he figured, they should head southeast now, back to the marked trail.

Ramsey wasn't flustered. Everything was fine, she believed. Boyer was angry with himself for putting them in this predicament. A little nervous, he nevertheless believed they would find their way out.

They struggled through the thick jungle for two hours -- pushing trees out of the way, climbing over huge trunks that had toppled to the ground, struggling through thick brush -- and still couldn't find anything that looked remotely familiar.

Knowing that the sun set at 6 p.m., Ramsey said they might have to spend the night in the jungle. Boyer was adamant they'd find their way out.

"We need to be realistic," Ramsey said.

"There's no way I'm going to sleep in this jungle," Boyer said.

They kept walking. Now there was no choice. They gathered 6-foot palm fronds for shelter and sat down to wait out the night.

They were uneasy, but they comforted themselves by planning what they'd do at 6 a.m., sunrise.

They felt there had to be a river around, probably to the east. They would follow it to the hostel.

"We'll be there by breakfast," Boyer predicted. "Everything will be fine."

They couldn't sleep. They heard rustling in the jungle but couldn't see anything because so little moonlight filtered through the tree canopy.

As they had throughout the afternoon, they yelled for help in case people from the hostel were searching for them. Each time they hollered, a bird somewhere in the jungle answered. It made them laugh.

They used up the mosquito repellent. The reddish mosquitoes were so relentless that Ramsey used a palm frond to swish them away. If she stopped for a second, she was swarmed.

They heard what sounded like a motor to the east. Was it a boat?

Certainly daylight would bring rescue.

Wednesday: 100 degrees in the shade

From about 6 a.m. until noon, they struggled east through the overgrowth.

Ramsey started to worry. They had drunk the last of their water with the fruit roll-ups at breakfast. They continued to hear the engine noise and occasional gunfire.

But they saw no one. Frustration was setting in.

It was hot, more than 100 degrees, they figured.

They saw a stream of muddy water. Ramsey thought they could filter the sediment through her sports bra, but that didn't help.

They drank the water anyway. It tasted like chalk, burning their stomachs.

"That was stupid," Boyer said. "We shouldn't have done it."

"This is our only chance. If we don't drink water, we'll dehydrate. It's our only shot," Ramsey said. And as bad as it tasted, they didn't get sick.

Boyer wanted to backtrack in an attempt to find the spot where they had discovered they were lost. Ramsey wanted to go forward until they found a river or trail that would lead them to a village.

They walked for 10 or 11 hours that day. It was tough going, with little open space. Branches blocked the way. Fallen trees were so huge they had to climb over them.

And ants became a major problem -- even tiny ones bit. They'd brush away a branch, not realizing it was covered with ants. At times, Ramsey looked at Boyer and saw he had hundreds of them on his back.

About 4 p.m. Boyer decided to build a palm teepee for the night. Ramsey tore off fronds to make a pillow to keep their heads off the ground. They coated their bodies with mud to ward of the mosquitoes.

But the insects were unstoppable. As soon as the mud dried, the mosquitoes bored through and bit them. Ramsey slept for a couple of hours, but Boyer could not sleep.

At 3 a.m., Ramsey awoke, and the couple just sat there, waiting for the sun to come up.

Thursday: Desperation

This just had to be the day they were rescued, they thought. They split a cereal bar -- 75 calories each. They headed southeast toward the sound of what they thought were motors.

For an hour, they ran toward the sound -- and then it was gone. Ramsey's voice was shot by this time from yelling so much.

Things got worse. Her pants ripped at the bottom, providing new access for mosquitoes. She tied a vine around the tear, so tightly that she nearly cut off circulation in her leg.

They struggled through the jungle until about 5:30 p.m. Ramsey thought she had a plan to thwart the mosquitoes.

"Why don't we build a hole, get inside, cover ourselves with dirt and stay away from them that way?"

But the mosquitoes tunneled through the dirt. Then it began to rain. Ramsey fell asleep in a puddle. When she awoke, she was shivering. For the third night, Boyer didn't sleep.

Ramsey began to think that death would be better than spending another night like that one. By now, each had at least 500 mosquito bites.

Nothing was going right. They couldn't even funnel rainwater into their bottles. Optimism of surviving was dissipating quicker than the mosquitoes were biting.

Friday: A way out?

As the new day dawned, they again heard what they thought was a boat's motor. Again they chased the sound, to no avail.

That morning, as Boyer cut a palm frond with the penknife, he rubbed the blade across his wrist. For a moment, he realized he could end all the suffering with a swift cut.

Ramsey noticed what he had done. She decided to end the suffering right there, right now.

"Give that to me. I cannot take it anymore."

dot.gif Tomorrow: A turn for the worse

Michael A. Fuoco can be reached at mfuoco@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1968.

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