In July of 2013, Geraldine Largay, an Appalachian Trail hiker who went by the trail name Inchworm, disappeared in the mountains of western Maine. More than two years later, her skeletal remains were found on a high piece of ground about 3,000 feet from the trail, where she apparently set up camp after becoming lost.
Law enforcement officers and volunteers searched for days immediately after Largay was reported missing and returned to conduct more searches over the ensuing two years. Her body eventually was found by a surveyor doing contract work for the U.S. Navy at a facility in the mountains of Redington, not far from Sugarloaf.
On Wednesday, the BDN obtained the Maine Warden Service case file on Largay’s disappearance.
That file contains chilling information, including this: Largay wrote regularly in a journal, and the last dated entry indicates that, if she entered the correct date, she was still alive 26 days after she went missing and nearly three weeks after the initial search was suspended.
And the report raises more questions than it answers. As of noon Thursday, the Maine Warden Service had yet to make a statement about that report and had not made warden officials available to answer those questions.
Key among those questions: How could a woman in good physical health, with hiking experience — she’d already covered plenty of tough terrain during her hike of the AT — fail to find her way back to the trail after it would have become apparent that help was not likely to arrive?
The case file mentions journal entries and includes the verbatim text messages Largay tried to send. At no point does the report say Largay has written or texted about having injured herself or having become otherwise incapacitated. The state medical examiner concluded Largay died because of a lack of food and water and environmental exposure.
She simply left the trail to go to the bathroom and couldn’t find her way back. The file’s conclusion, as written by Lt. Kevin Adam: By July 23, a day after she left the trail, she would reach the high ground where she’d set up camp. Largay built a raised area upon which to situate her tent, and the surrounding ground showed signs that she’d attempted to light fires that scorched three trees.
In her belongings, which were found when her body was recovered: Fire-starting materials, including matches in a waterproof container. Nearby: Water sources, including two streams.
Wardens often advises potentially lost hikers to hunker down, stay put and make themselves as visible as possible. But at some point, it would seem Largay might have realized she was on her own.
Did Largay run out of food and lack the strength to try to hike down one of those streams to a larger body of water or a road crossing? Did she see planes and helicopters overhead and figure it was just a matter of time before she was found? Is that why she didn’t make a bold move on her own?
Unfortunately, according to Adam’s conclusion, Largay’s tent site was beneath a hemlock tree, and the tree’s canopy would have made it difficult for it to be seen from the air. A mylar blanket tied between trees in a more open area of her encampment, perhaps to attract attention, was not spotted from the air, either.
Perhaps the most chilling piece of the warden case file: When Largay went into the woods, she may have left the device that could have saved her life behind.
On the initial missing persons report that was filed, Largay’s husband itemized a number of items that he knew she’d been wearing or carrying. Under the category labeled “GPS, PLB, Compass” — the acronyms referring to Global Positioning System, Personal Locator Beacon– the responding warden wrote: “SPOT. Left at motel.” SPOT is a company that makes, among other things, satellite-based devices that allow hikers in remote areas to communicate their whereabouts to others without the benefit of a cellular signal.
Why did Largay leave her SPOT device behind when she embarked on the hike that eventually cost her her life? Was it broken? Did she feel she didn’t need it? Did she simply forget?
If Largay had the SPOT — or a simple compass that would have allowed her to reverse her heading after the bathroom break and return to the AT — in her pack, would she have survived?
Sadly, she may have. Which just makes Largay’s disappearance and death an even bigger tragedy.
John Holyoke can be reached at email@example.com or 990-8214. Follow him on Twitter:@JohnHolyoke