A hiker who was rescued after going missing on a hike in the Montana wilderness is revealing how she survived with no food or shelter for nearly a week.
Just one week earlier, the 23-year-old Madeline Connelly had been blissfully unaware of the ordeal awaiting her. Born and raised with three sisters just outside Chicago in the village of River Forest, Illinois, Madeline was a lover of the outdoors.
When a proposed North Dakota Access Pipeline threatened the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation last year, Madeline braved freezing temperatures to join the protest. At college in Arizona, she’d thrown herself into a three-week backpacking challenge, even exploring solo. Also no stranger to the state parks of Illinois, she’d happily camp out for days at a time.
Now she was off to a new life working at a bakery in Alaska. On her way, she made a quick detour to visit her uncle Marty in Montana. One sunny Thursday afternoon, she popped out to walk her dog Mogi along one of the local mountainous trails. However, she didn’t return, and when Marty and his friends found her Subaru Outback, it was empty.
One phone call and two plane flights later, Madeline’s parents were in Montana, joining a search effort that would only grow in scope as the hunt for their daughter continued. “My gut feeling was that something’s not right,” her father John said. “It was just brutal because we knew she was out there in the wilderness.”
Other friends and family members soon flocked to Montana, faced with the task of combing more than 300 miles of winding trails in the Great Bear Wilderness. By Saturday, 40 to 50 walkers and multiple helicopters were engaged in a full-scale search. Moreover, by Monday the missing girl was national news.
However, the truth was that it didn’t look good for Madeline. Ranger Rob Davies, who co-ordinated the Forest Service’s efforts, admitted that “after six or seven days… knowing she didn’t have food or shelter in 32°F temperatures, and some snow where she was, made survival very unlikely.”
Moreover, it wasn’t just the weather and unfamiliar terrain that posed a threat to her survival. Indeed, the aptly named Great Bear Wilderness has one of the densest grizzly bear populations in the U.S. So, when search parties found bear tracks mixed with human boot prints, they feared the worst.
Nonetheless, her family remained hopeful throughout the ordeal, holding vigils at the local St. Luke Catholic Church. They also reminded each other of Madeline’s survival skills, sang her childhood songs and remembered her smile, her thoughtfulness, her easy laughter.
Consequently, six days after Madeline went missing, hope was beginning to run low. However, a search team exploring the steep, rugged terrain then looked up to see a woman staring down at them from a rocky overcrop. “Are you looking for me?” she asked, breathless and with a woolly hat perched on her head. “The whole world’s looking for you!” they cried.
Exhausted, cold and starving, Madeline nonetheless wanted to hike out of the wilderness under her own power. “She had been on this great journey, and wanted to end it on her own terms,” said Jacob Jeresek, one of the rescuers who found her. Fortunately, the Two Bear Air helicopter team were already on their way to lift her out.
While news of her survival spread over social media, an emotional family reunion was taking place. “I was just crying,” Madeline subsequently told the Chicago Tribune. “There were lots of hugs and kisses and ‘I love you’s.’ I definitely was apologizing for putting them through this.”
She revealed the full story of her disappearance soon afterwards. Madeline had indeed set off for a quick hike, but stopped for a swim – and a drink for Mogi – at a nearby lake. Then, all it took was a wrong turn returning to the trail, and she’d soon strayed miles off course in the vast, empty and unfamiliar woods.
Madeline consequently panicked. She pushed onward, hiking about ten miles daily, crossing raging rivers and steep rocky hills, convinced she’d find the trail again if she just kept going. However, unable to find any food other than glacier lily flowers, exhaustion and hunger finally slowed Madeline’s pace, forcing her to spend days lying next to Mogi for warmth.
Nonetheless, she was determined not to despair. “I wouldn’t let myself get sad or scared,” she recalled, reflecting on how “beautiful” the moon was that first, terrifying night. “I really had to just let all that go, just be accepting of myself and totally switched my mindset – I was just so grateful for all the nature surrounding me.”
Alone in the wilderness, Madeline felt in tune with her spiritual side. Indeed, she said that she soon left her fear behind. She even claimed to have had “angels talking to me throughout the trip,” including her grandmother, and to have felt hope “channeling” through to her from the family gathered at St Luke.
Far from hating the wilderness, Madeline counted it as a blessing. She later wrote a Facebook post about “the trees that kept us dry at night in the snow… the birds that kept us company with the beautiful songs throughout the day, the dirt that provided us with a soft space to sleep at night, the bones and fresh animal poop that made Mogi’s day.”
So, what advice do the authorities have for those hoping to avoid Madeline’s plight? Be sure that you have enough water and some kind of shelter, and stick to the trails. You should also make lots of noise, to avoid stumbling across dangerous animals. Madeline sang “You Are My Sunshine” throughout her journey, and the childhood song may have saved her life.
Still, if you do get lost? “Stay put!” advises Ranger Davies. “Get to an open area or trail and stay there.” You should be reported missing after three or four days, and if you’re wearing bright clothing, a search helicopter can spot you from the air.
Well, in the end, Madeline didn’t take up that job in Alaska. Instead, she’s back home, spending precious time with those she missed so badly out in the wilderness. As for Mogi, she’s home too. “She’s stoked to have a nice place to sleep!” said Madeline.