April 21, 2018
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Hiker recalls harrowing days lost in Baxter State Park

By Nick Sambides Jr., BDN Staff

BANGOR, Maine — When Michael Hays goes back home to Ohio, he will tell his family how much he loves them. To an ailing and distant uncle he will write a letter he has been putting off for a year, and he will “get his affairs in order” — create a will and designate a next of kin on his pension plan.

“I do a good job at work, but I could do better,” Hays said. “I consider myself a spiritual person, but I don’t attend church or pray a lot. I could go see my uncle, too. That sort of thing is much more important to me now.

“It’s time to get myself cleaned up.”

Sitting in a bed at Eastern Maine Medical Center on Wednesday with a brace supporting his knee, scabbed by mosquito and black fly bites that accumulated as he wandered lost in Baxter State Park for three days of the Memorial Day weekend, Hays was somber and focused.

Sometimes he joked, such as when he remembered looking at the food in his backpack and saying, “That’s it. I have to get rescued now. I am down to my last granola bar.” Sometimes Hayes laughed, as when recalling how one of his rescuers, Maine Forest Service aviation mechanic Ron Adams, minutes into the rescue asked him, “So — are you ever coming back to Maine?”

The frustration of the moment gone by reanimated Hays’ face when he recalled how a park official told him that at one point in his wanderings he was only a mile from a park bridge. He heard helicopters and barking dogs on Saturday and Sunday but never saw any aircraft until he stepped into a clearing a half-mile south of Helon Taylor Trail and waved an orange poncho on Monday. That ended the longest Baxter search in 40 years.

“My rescuers said that the orange poncho saved me,” Hays said.

Regardless of the subject, Hays seemed and said he was a man who had found a profound measure of his own mortality in the Baxter woods. The discovery has given him a new sense of purpose.

“I need to focus on what’s important before I lose it,” Hays said. “By all rights, I should be dead.”

He had climbed the highest peaks of the Appalachian Trail in North Carolina, New York and Virginia, but Hays said he didn’t know what to expect in Baxter when he arrived on Friday.

Hays had a compass, a good flashlight, lots of clothes, food and water, a first aid kit and a pocket knife, but no flint stone, matches, bug repellent or detailed trail map. He thought that his cell phone would get a signal when the park has little coverage and he left his GPS system in his car, he said.

And after climbing 4,919-foot Pamola Peak and 5,267-foot Baxter Peak, Hays opted to leave Mount Katahdin’s Knife Edge Trail at its lowest point at about 2 p.m. Friday in search of a shortcut that would skirt Pamola and lead to Roaring Brook Campground.

“My goal was reached,” Hays said. “The important thing was to climb Baxter. To me, and the people that I [hike with], to say that I did the Knife Edge twice doesn’t mean anything.

“It was the stupidest decision I ever made in my life,” he added.

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Hays was heading down into what he thought was a valley when he began encountering large flat slabs of granite jutting from the 45-degree slope. He stepped around several before finding one he couldn’t avoid, he said. He stepped onto it and hit a wet spot, sliding about 20 feet before he slammed his knee into a 2-inch granite outcrop.

Hays didn’t know it, but his kneecap was shattered. He taped the knee and bandaged several scrapes. He found he could stand if he kept his leg straight and walked by planting his left foot and using his right to stride. Once discovering that his cell phone was useless, Hays headed for a nearby stream, thinking that it would lead to the campground, Hays said.

What had been a challenging hike was now a fight for his life.

“The thought going through my head was, ‘You have to be careful. This could be your last step. If you fall again, that’s it. You’re stopped.’ I was told that most people, when they go down that slide, never come back,” Hays said.

He decided to stay close to the stream to help himself stay hydrated. That night he slept on an island in the stream with his arms tight against him, wearing every piece of clothing he had, putting his gloves on his feet and covering himself with his poncho to keep warm. Blood spurted from his knee whenever he sat, Hays said.

During the day he had one thought — survival. At night, his mind filled with recriminations. Hays blamed himself for the supplies he lacked, but especially for going off the trail.

“I was cursing myself for doing stupid things,” he said. “I could have been sleeping in a warm bed. Instead I am sleeping on dirt or sand and I am shivering.”

On Sunday he realized another mistake and reversed course, focusing on reaching high ground to be seen by searchers. He yelled for help often and would stop to listen whenever he thought he heard rescuers or aircraft.

His rescuers found him, Hays said, when he came upon a clearing made by a forest fire. When he heard the helicopter, he immediately ran — and fell flat after about two steps. He got back up and burst into tears when he realized that he had been spotted.

“They made it easy for me in the sense that they weren’t dramatic. They made me feel comfortable,” Hays said. “They said, ‘You are going to sleep in a warm bed tonight.’”

Tears came to Hays’ eyes when he spoke of how the more than 30 volunteer searchers gave up their Memorial Day weekend to search for him. He also praised Baxter State Park’s visitor check-in system, saying it was the best he has ever seen.

The 41-year-old is expected to be released from EMMC on Friday, but he knows how close he came to joining the 19 people who have died on Mount Katahdin since 1963.

“The Baxter State Park people are just fantastic. If it was not for the system they have here, my car might still be in the parking lot,” Hays said. “You have a heck of a park here.”

The Associated Press contributed to the report.

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