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Melanie Gould has come out of the wild -- now what?

Craig Medred

After 11 days, Melanie Gould has come back from the wild, and now the outrage begins. On one side are those who want an explanation as to how and why Gould, a resident of Talkeetna and seven-time veteran of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, could abandon her dogs, walk off into the wilderness on the north side of the Alaska Range, and -- if the email of an Alaska State Trooper spokeswoman is to believed -- avoid those searching for her for days. "(Gould) indicated to us that she saw search and rescue efforts but stayed away," the troopers’ spokeswoman Megan Peters told Alaska Dispatch.

On the other side are those who think Gould should be freed from the burden of explanation and given her privacy. Many of them lobbied for shutting down the Facebook site “Have you seen Melanie Gould?” where the postings were coming fast and furious on Saturday after it had been announced Gould had been found. “We aren't suppose to judge people,” Dena Avery Lawson posted on the page. “Thank God that Melanie is safe, prayers have been answered. This is a time to celebrate God's goodness and Melanie's return home.”

Indeed, by that evening, the page was gone -- nothing more than a dead link.

Why Gould left Talkeetna and ventured off into the wilderness without telling anyone has become the subject of much speculation because no one has offered much in the way of facts as to what happened. Gould isn't talking or can't, and friends of Gould aren't talking much. They have said just enough to make everyone wonder.

All of this started when Gould left home without her cell phone. It did not look like she intended to leave for long. Then troopers tracked her credit card to a gas station in Talkeetna in the early morning hours on Tuesday, May 31 and days later found her truck parked off the Denali Highway, about 15 miles outside of Cantwell with no sign of Gould in the area. Search dogs couldn't find her either. Many were left to wonder if she had been abducted. Speculation began about other missing women in Alaska.

There was an information vacuum and as always when this is the case in these times speculation stormed in to fill it because there was the one thing lurking out there that nobody in this society really wants to talk about: mental health. If you are an American, and you come down with an illness -- even a largely avoidable one like a sexually transmitted disease -- you are sick.

But if your problem is of a mental nature, well, then you are crazy. And as we all know, no matter how crazy any of us might be, craziness is not something we talk about in this society.

We shove it under the rug.

I don't know what Gould was thinking when she left about a dozen of her doggie friends to go off into the wilderness. Maybe she was just off for a lark in the woods, with every intention of returning that same Tuesday, and got lost; but that leaves the pesky statement from troopers that Gould avoided search and rescue efforts -- efforts that didn’t begin until four days after the last time she’d been seen in Talkeetna, plenty of time for her to become increasingly concerned about being lost.

What I do know is that she wasn't thinking in the rational way I've witnessed her thinking along the Iditarod Trail. You just don't leave the dogs alone for days without food and water. That alone -- forget what the troopers' spokeswoman has said -- is enough for me to accept that Gould had what some people call “issues.” It might be good for her to talk about them at some point. I don't know. I'm not a mental health professional.

But I do know it would be good for everyone else to talk about them. Too much about mental health gets pushed out of sight in this country. Americans need to talk about it. Alaskans need to talk about it, if for no other reason than that is something important for searchers to know in any search and rescue (SAR) operation.

SAR operations are physically difficult and emotionally draining for the people involved, not to mention risky. Asking people to go into the wilderness to search for others exposes them to some degree of risk. Searchers have died in searching. Evaluating the risks of SAR can be hard to do. So too for deciding how long SAR efforts should continue.

Efforts can be largely wasted if the person who is the subject of the search doesn't want to be found. How long should rescuers search for such a person? What expense and risk can be justified in such a case? I don't know, but these are questions Alaskans do need to discuss. There were those critical of Alaska State Troopers when they called off the search for Gould, two days before Gould emerged from the wilderness. But what if that move was what helped to get her found? What if up until then she had been fleeing from the helicopter, fearful of who knows what?

Now, I know, there will be those who will like none of this being said. I know there are those who just want to go back to some time before Gould disappeared and pretend what came after didn't happen. This is perfectly understandable. Gould is a good person. She has done nothing wrong. Why should people be talking about her now?

Why? Because life asks for answers. Because what sets us apart from the other animals is that we try to figure out what the hell is going on here in our world. Gould injected herself into the public discussion. I doubt that it was intentional, but that's where she is now. Many who've teetered on the edge and known their own struggles to hang onto sanity, ought to be able to empathize with her. Everyone else should sympathize. But Gould's privacy disappeared when her disappearance became a public matter. She'll never get it back.

Life isn't fair. Crap happens.

If you want to worry about someone's privacy, worry about that of poor Michael Poland, an 18-year-old who went for a ride on an ice floe on the Chena River in Fairbanks.

He, too, became the subject of a search and rescue. It was a very short search with minimal cost and didn’t tie down many resources. And it was a largely unnecessary rescue. The Fairbanks Fire Department used a boat to deliver him from the ice floe to shore though the water was shallow enough that everyone could have waded.

And yet, for this little adventure, Poland was pilloried in the Fairbanks media after Fairbanks Police handcuffed him and hauled him off to jail on charges he'd endangered his rescuers. It didn't end there either. He spent a night in jail and was later dragged before a magistrate who fined him and ordered him to spend 10 days in jail or do 50 hours of community service.

Nobody worried about Poland's privacy. Truth be told, they didn't even seem to listen much to his explanation that he had a pretty good idea of what he was doing when he got on that ice floe and judged the risks minimal. As it turned out, he was right about the latter, and he still took a public beating.

I can only hope that doesn't happen to Melanie Gould. She's back. She's safe. Hopefully she'll get healthy. And if she had issues, she had issues. Many people do.

It might help to talk about them rather than try to make them go away.

Alaska Dispatch encourages a diversity of opinion and community perspectives. The opinions expressed herein are those of the writer and are not necessarily endorsed or condoned by Alaska Dispatch.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com.