Getting lost in the Great Bear

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I have to admit, I was very, very surprised last week when rescuers found Madeline Connelly alive in the Great Bear Wilderness after she’d been wandering around in the woods for nearly a week.

I’m happy for her and her family. I’m sure it was a very stressful time and I’m glad it came to a good conclusion.

I too, have been “turned around” in the wilderness on more than one occasion. Phone Creek comes to mind. The official Forest Service map of the Bob Marshall Wilderness is notoriously inaccurate.

It shows trails on the map that disappear or aren’t there altogether. Also, over time, routes have changed, so what the map says doesn’t jive with reality.

It can get a little maddening, to put it mildly. Such was the case with a Phone Creek trip I did a few years back. My plan was to hike along Walling Reef on the Rocky Mountain Front, backtrack, and make a loop back up Bennie Hill and then down into Phone Creek to the South Fork of Birch Creek, and back around to the trailhead on the east side of the Bob.

The trail along Walling Reef was thin to non-existent. It didn’t really matter, of course. It’s open country with broad meadows and scrub, and Walling Reef is a fairly gigantic feature on the landscape, so trail or not, it was tough to get lost.

A day later, however, I lost the trail along Phone Creek, made a mistake by following a well-worn deer trail, and spent the afternoon criss-crossing the drainage looking for the trail.

I found it right at the end, just above the creek after about a three-mile or so bushwhack.

Still, I wasn’t really lost, I just didn’t know where the trail was. (I am glad I found it, however. If I had continued following the creek just a bit farther, it dropped into a canyon with a series of pretty, but impassable, waterfalls.)

When it comes to wandering around in the woods, the best thing to do is keep your head, trust your map (even if the trails aren’t where they say they are), and remember that in mountainous terrain, down is almost always out.

That’s what makes Connelly’s disappearance a head-scratcher. The Big River Trail at Bear Creek is a big trail — it gets a lot of traffic and is about as wide as a sidewalk.

In addition, anyone who goes in there quickly realizes that the Middle Fork of the Flathead is flowing out back toward the road. So even if you lost the trail, if you followed the river, you’d eventually find the road.

But Connelly told the Great Falls teevee that she found a lake and then she knew she was lost. Not sure which lake she found, but a friend of mine said there are a couple of small lakes not far from the Big River Trail. I’ve hiked it and don’t remember them, but he says they’re sorta hidden up on a bench.

What really got us both to wondering is how she ever made it across Spruce Creek or any of the other tributaries along the way if she truly was covering 10 miles a day, like she said.

They’re pretty swollen with runoff right now and would be tough fords. Maybe she found a log to cross on.

Even if she did ford them, she would have had to remember crossing them on the way in, right? If you didn’t cross a creek on the way in, then you sure aren’t crossing a creek on the way out...

Like I said, it doesn’t make sense. I’m just glad she’s OK. Special thanks to all the agencies that helped finding her. Thanks for not giving up. You did a great job.

Chris Peterson is the editor of the Hungry Horse News.

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