Volunteers make search for lost AT hiker possible

Marc Keller, a volunteer with Franklin Search and Rescue, scrambles over the stump of a blown-down tree in a portion of the Rapid Stream in Mount Abram Township during the search for missing Appalachian Trail hiker Geraldine Largay on Tuesday.
Scott Thistle | Sun Journal
Marc Keller, a volunteer with Franklin Search and Rescue, scrambles over the stump of a blown-down tree in a portion of the Rapid Stream in Mount Abram Township during the search for missing Appalachian Trail hiker Geraldine Largay on Tuesday.
Posted July 31, 2013, at 9:08 a.m.
Last modified July 31, 2013, at 9:33 a.m.
Volunteers from Franklin Search and Rescue, left front, Matt Clark and Marc Keller, right, and Maine Wardens Tom McKinney, center back, and Jard Herrick, hike along a portion of Rapid Stream in Mt. Abram Township Tuesday.
Scott Thistle | Sun Journal
Volunteers from Franklin Search and Rescue, left front, Matt Clark and Marc Keller, right, and Maine Wardens Tom McKinney, center back, and Jard Herrick, hike along a portion of Rapid Stream in Mt. Abram Township Tuesday.

MOUNT ABRAM TOWNSHIP, Maine — Matt Clark likes to think somebody would do the same thing for him and his family if he were lost in the Maine wilderness.

Clark, a member of Franklin Search and Rescue, was volunteering Tuesday to clamber along miles of streambed and through the thick underbrush of the deep woods in an effort to find missing hiker Geraldine Largay.

His work was exhausting as he, Maine Wardens Tom McKinney and Jared Herrick and fellow Franklin SAR team member Marc Keller picked their way along several miles of two portions of the farthest reaches of Rapid Stream.

“If I’m ever lost, or a family member or a friend, or whatever the case may be, I would like to think that however many bodies are able to come out would come out,” Clark said near the day’s end. “I may be sore tomorrow, but I can still walk.”

Relatively new to the team, Clark, of Farmington, is a merchant marine. He said he got involved as a volunteer as a way to give back to his community. He and Keller were among more than 60 people, paid professionals and volunteers, who spent the day looking for any sign of Largay.

Largay, 66, from Tennessee, was reported missing by her husband a week ago when she failed to meet him at a prearranged meeting place in Stratton. She began her hike of the Appalachian Trail in West Virginia months ago.

On Tuesday, Keller, Clark, McKinney and Herrick traveled miles of logging roads by four-wheel-drive pickup before starting their grueling hikes up the streambeds. Trudging over slippery rocks and through water or punching their way through thick brambles or climbing over blown-down tree after tree, the men only stopped a half-dozen times to take breathers, eat a quick lunch or energy snack, or sip water and ponder where Largay could have gone.

“For me, it’s a lot of going through and thinking and trying to put myself into that person’s mind and saying, ‘What would I do in this situation?’” said Keller, a teacher and coach at nearby Mt. Abram High School. “You start to try and make the decisions they might have made in order to try and help them out.”

Keller said he was much more comfortable traveling through the underbrush along the river’s edge than trying to negotiate foothold after slippery foothold in the streambed. But often, even the underbrush was impassable.

Meanwhile, McKinney and Herrick seemed to move easily over the terrain, quickly vanishing into the distance as those working with them cautiously kept pace.

Their personal fitness levels and years of working as wardens in the woods of Maine was quickly apparent.

But without the volunteers, the wardens would have only covered a fraction of the nearly 400 miles of terrain they’ve searched on foot so far, said Warden Lt. Kevin Adam, the search commander, from a command post at Sugarloaf.

Adam lauded all of the volunteers who have responded from as far away as Mt. Desert Island and beyond.

“They are taking the day off from their work, or their vacation day or however they are doing it, and using that day to go into a physically demanding area and look for somebody that they don’t know,” Adam said. “The family (of Largay) is just overwhelmed by the response. There would be no operation if there weren’t any volunteers.”

And while the search Tuesday yield no physical signs of Largay, searchers are finding things from other people who have left them behind in the wilderness. A shoe here, a hiking pole there, a pair of broken eyeglasses someplace else, but nothing has been identified by Largay’s family as belonging to her, Adam said.

“It’s not like, if you find a shoe, you are going to miss a person,” Adam said. “We are just not getting our resources in the right places.”

It’s been a frustrating search that’s not only physically but also emotionally and mentally draining for those involved, Adam said. He said all of the places they thought Largay might be have yielded no sign of her.

“You are not going to find her if we don’t put you where we think she is,” he said. “We are all finding stuff, but we are just not finding her.”

The biggest clues searchers have received so far came from interviews with those who had contact with Largay on the trail, Adam said. He said Warden Service investigators were still trying to reach several AT through-hikers who have mentioned her in various journals, either online or at shelters along the route.

He said the search would temporarily be put on hold Wednesday to give the wardens and the volunteers a chance to rest and see their families. Some have been searching for seven straight days, he said. They would spend Wednesday reassessing all of the information they’ve gathered to try to refocus the search area. He said it wasn’t a matter of whether they would start looking again, but where they would look next.

Keller and Clark said they would take advantage of the chance to rest. Clark even admitted nodding off briefly on the ride back to the command post Tuesday.

“I’m going to sleep tonight,” Keller said. “But you know, you’re not going to sleep well, because we didn’t find her yet.”

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