Dangling high above the treeline of the Great Bear Wilderness, Madeline Connelly shook with exhaustion and relief as she was winched into the waiting helicopter. Almost 300,000 acres of mountainous forest stretched out below her. Somehow, with no food or water or phone, alone except for her Jack Russell terrier, she’d survived.
Just one week earlier, the 23-year-old 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 is a lover of the outdoors.
In fact, when the proposed North Dakota Access Pipeline threatened the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in 2016, Madeline braved freezing temperatures to join the protest. At college in Arizona, meanwhile, 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, though, she made a quick detour to go and see her uncle Marty in Montana. One sunny Thursday afternoon, then, 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, then, and 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 told the press. “It was just brutal because we knew she was out there in the wilderness.”
Other friends and family members also soon flocked to Montana, all faced with the task of combing more than 300 miles of winding trails in the Great Bear Wilderness. By the Saturday, in fact, 40 to 50 walkers and multiple helicopters were engaged in a full-scale search. What’s more, by the 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 the unfamiliar terrain that posed a threat to the missing girl’s 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 jumbled up with human boot prints, they feared the worst.
Nonetheless, Madeline’s family remained hopeful throughout the ordeal, holding vigils at the local St. Luke Catholic Church. They also reminded one another of Madeline’s survival skills, sang her childhood songs and remembered her smile, her thoughtfulness, her easy laughter.
Six days after Madeline had gone missing, however, hope was beginning to run low. Then the incredible happened. A search team exploring the steep, rugged terrain 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.
The search was over. But though 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 the missing girl’s survival subsequently spread over social media, an emotional family reunion was taking place. “I was just crying,” Madeline later told the Chicago Tribune. “There were lots of hugs and kisses and ‘I love yous.’ I definitely was apologizing for putting them through this.”
Madeline also revealed the full story of her disappearance soon afterwards. She had indeed set off for a quick hike, but then she had stopped for a swim – and a drink for Mogi – at a nearby lake. Then, all it had taken was a wrong turn upon her returning towards the trail, and she’d soon strayed miles off course in the vast, empty and unfamiliar woods.
Madeline consequently panicked. She pushed onward, hiking some ten miles daily, crossing raging rivers and steep, rocky hills, convinced that she’d find the trail again if she just kept going. However, with the disorientated Madeline unable to find any food other than glacier lily flowers, exhaustion and hunger finally slowed her 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 [her] throughout the trip,” including her grandmother, and to have felt energy “channeling” through to her from her family and others who were trying to help her.
Far from hating the wilderness, moreover, Madeline counted it as a blessing. She later wrote a Facebook post about, as she put it, “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 helped save 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.
And Madeline? Well, in the end, she didn’t take up that job in Alaska. Instead, she’s back home, spending precious time with those she missed so badly while out in the wilderness. As for Mogi, she’s home, too. “She’s stoked to have a nice place to sleep!” said Madeline.