After three days of searching, hopes of finding this young California man and his German shepherd were dwindling. But then the search-and-rescue teams discovered this boulder.
Cody Michael of Rocklin, California had recently graduated from California State University. As an ardent outdoorsman, the 23-year-old Michael enjoyed hiking and backpacking with his dog, Bauer.
On the morning of May 16, 2016, Michael set out in his car for the Loch Leven Lakes Trail, a popular hiking area in Tahoe National Forest in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California. Located just south of the Interstate 80 highway, the eight-mile trail leads hikers around a cluster of beautiful alpine lakes.
There was no hint of danger in the air as Michael put on his backpack and set out to explore nature with Bauer in tow. “My shoes are soaking wet. My feet are freezing,” he said in a short video he sent to his family before he disappeared.
Michael’s last contact with civilization came at 10:30 a.m. that Monday morning when he asked a passing hiker to take a photo of him and Bauer. The smiling Michael had absolutely no idea of the life-changing ordeal that lay ahead.
Before setting off, Michael had told his family and friends that he would spend a few hours fishing and start driving back home by midday. But when he still wasn’t home by evening, his concerned family members contacted the authorities.
His disappearance resulted in a large search-and-rescue effort, with around 60 people scouring the area around the trail. The search team called in snowmobiles and three helicopters, the latter of which began flying over the region in search of the missing hiker.
The operation began on Tuesday, but as the hours passed, there was still no sign of Michael. By Thursday, more than two days having passed since the search began, hopes of finding him alive were starting to dwindle.
To make matters worse, the weather forecast promised low temperatures, snow and strong winds for Thursday evening. This would not only make Michael harder to find, but also seriously hamper his chances of survival.
But something miraculous happened on that Thursday morning during one of the rescue helicopter flyovers. The crew picked out something odd on the ground below.
Several miles south of the Loch Leven Lakes Trail, not far from where Big Granite Creek flows into the American River, the Black Hawk helicopter crew noticed the word “HELP” inscribed on a boulder. It was evidence that Michael must be nearby.
Indeed, as the crew hovered over the open area below the sign, they spotted a tent – and near it a man who began to frantically wave a tarp at the rescuers. At 10:30 a.m. – exactly three days since his last sighting on Monday – Michael had been found.
As he later explained to his rescuers, the young man had made a wrong turn when coming upon a snow-covered section of the trail. He ended up going a number of miles in the wrong direction, each day hoping that he would figure out a way to get back home.
However, Bauer’s paws had become painful after all that walking, and Michael decided that he had no choice other than to set up camp and hope for the best. As he recalled, “That’s when I figured [that] they’re going to come get me or I’m not going to make it.”
To increase their chances of being found, Michael used duct tape to construct the word “HELP” on a large, flat rock not far from the tent. It was this creative signal that ultimately caught the eye of the National Guard helicopter crew and led to Michael’s rescue.
A grateful Michael shook hands with and hugged his rescuers when they touched down at camp. As he later told FOX 40, “Five hours or so ago, I didn’t think I was going to make it.”
Although Michael was first taken to the hospital, by the Thursday afternoon he was released with a perfect bill of health. Bauer, meanwhile, was taken to a veterinary center to receive treatment for his painful paws.
Michael’s parents were understandably emotional to see their son return unharmed. His father Howard could barely contain his tears as he said, “It was unbelievable to cast eyes on him. And to have that unbelievable father-and-son moment…”
The hiker’s friends were equally happy that Michael had been found safe and sound. But as one work buddy noted, given Michael’s outdoors experience, he had a feeling the story would have a good ending.
Later that day, friends and family celebrated the hiker’s safe return at the Primo Pizza Burger and Brew restaurant, where he works. Here, Michael thanked the rescue personnel for their hard work. “Fortunately, there were a lot of people, a lot of support, looking out for me,” he said. “Those people worked countless hours.”