Chicago-area native Madeline Connelly spent seven days and six nights lost in the beautiful but brutal wilderness of northwest Montana.

Planning only a short hike on a sunny afternoon while in town visiting family, the 23-year-old from River Forest set off along the trail May 4 without food or water, with only her dog Mogi at her side. A couple of hours later, after stopping to swim, she got turned around and hiked deeper into the wilderness in search of a way out.

Her disappearance set off a frantic search by land and air, garnering national media attention, as hundreds prayed for her safe return more than 1,500 miles away in the west suburban church where she and her three younger sisters went to elementary school and made their religious sacraments.

While many might panic or lose hope, Connelly in a Tribune interview said she often felt at peace.

The nature enthusiast wasn’t a novice.

She has explored the Redwood forests along the Northern California coast, camped in Illinois’ Starved Rock State Park and weathered the freezing cold in North Dakota to protest an oil pipeline project. Connelly also aced a 21-day Arizona backpacking trip in college that included three days of solo exploration.

But none of her adventures come close to all she encountered in the Great Bear Wilderness, a heavily wooded, mountainous forest near Glacier National Park with steep, rugged terrain, a raging river with several tributaries running through it, and bears and mountain lions among the wildlife.

“We looked in the car and found her camping gear and thought, ‘Oh no, it’s not with her.’ She had nothing,” John Connelly said. “She literally didn’t even have any of her gear. Madeline doesn’t do that. It was just brutal because we knew she was out there in the wilderness. It really hit us.”

Their daughter had been gone for more than 48 hours. She and Mogi were about to face their third night. The Connellys knew their daughter had survival skills and mental toughness. They vowed to remain positive.

By then, deep in the wilderness, Madeline Connelly had already overcome so much.

It was just a random thought, she said of her decision to go hiking. They headed up the trail, a popular spot for hikers and hunters. Maybe they’d be out for an hour or so, she thought.

“I was in snow, but it was so warm and beautiful so I kept going,” she said.

Experts in the area say the trail can be tricky and, without distinguishing landmarks amid dense vegetation, it’s easy for a hiker to get disoriented. The snow patches can hide the actual trail route. When hikers go deep into the woods, there are fewer signs, and conditions can change quickly. With the season’s melting snow, a once dry or shallow creek can swell overnight, making a return crossing impossible.

Folks get lost a couple of times a year, experts say, but rarely more than a few days. There are occasional fatalities, with the most common cause attributed to drowning, local experts said.

“It’s pretty steep, rugged terrain,” said Jacob Jeresek, with the Flathead National Forest, who was with Connelly minutes after she was found. “Going off trail is very, very difficult. There’s everything from a lot of blow down (fallen trees), brush and all sorts of obstacles you may or may not be able to get through. There’s cliffs and steep ravines. If you hit a snow patch, the trail isn’t easily identifiable.”

Deputy Chris Roberts, of the Flathead County sheriff’s office, said Connelly likely got turned around and kept hiking up the river instead of down. He figures she went off trail at least 12 miles.

They searched by ground on foot and skis and in the air by helicopter from early in the morning until well into the evening most days, and a boat crew was scheduled to join in the day she was found.

He said people have survived longer with less. But there were causes for concern. A bear and her two cubs were spotted in the area. Crews found clothing in the river, and pieces of muscle that could be human or from an animal. It later was determined to be from an elk.

Roberts, the search-and-rescue coordinator, said the mission was a collaboration of multiple agencies and volunteers. Burlington Northern Santa Fe provided a mobile cell tower.

The family’s positivity was key, Roberts said.

“(Her mother) would have a smile on her face every day,” he said. “She kept everyone going. Once the family starts breaking down, it just changes the tune of everybody and all the searchers. We were lucky. The whole East Glacier community stepped up and was great.”

Still, as another day turned into night, chances of survival diminished. Her uncle Brian approached a survival expert when other relatives weren’t near and asked what he thought of his niece’s chances.

“He said there’s four threes,” he said. “Three minutes without oxygen. Three days without water. Three weeks without food. Three months without companionship. So she’s got everything she needs up there and she definitely could be alive.

“If she is, we’ll find her.”

The rescue

The family said that final morning on May 10 felt different.

John Connelly addressed the large crowd that gathered at the trailhead once again to help find Madeline.

“The selflessness and time that you all have given to us means so much,” he said. “I know she’s still out there.”

The first sighting of her was less than a few hours into the search. A Glacier National Park crew was the first to see her in the Spruce Creek drainage off the east side of the middle fork of the Flathead River. Or, depending how you look at it, Connelly found them from her viewpoint standing on an overlook.

She called out to the crew, and when they asked her name and told her of the massive search effort, Connelly became overwhelmed with emotion.

Both she and her dog were soaking wet, said Jeresek, the Flathead National Forest worker who arrived minutes later. They gave her clothing, sandwiches and other food in their backpacks. Jeresek said her vitals were stable, but Connelly was shaking, and he feared she could be in shock. It was his difficult task to persuade her to let the helicopter crew fly her out to safety.

“She was adamantly opposed to flying out,” he said. “I think her mindset was that she had been on this great journey and wanted to end it on her own terms.”

She acquiesced, after being assured her uncle Marty was meeting up with the crew to get Mogi, and then she was lifted from the wilderness by Two Bear Air Rescue. The private foundation in Whitefish, Montana, had been involved in either searching for Connelly or getting crews in and out of search locations since Day 1.

“It’s always quite an experience for us,” said Jim Pierce, director/chief pilot. “If you save one life, it’s well worth it.”

John Connelly was out searching in some brush, near a creek, when someone shouted: “They found her! She’s alive!”

“I just looked up and Marty came running up out of nowhere and just jumps on me, and we fell and rolled around hugging and crying,” he said. “It was just so incredible.”

Photos of Madeline on the helicopter quickly spread across social media and national news, and her sisters texted the photo to their overjoyed parents as the couple drove an hour to be reunited with their daughter at a park service ranger station in West Glacier. The girls soon boarded a plane to join them.

Madeline Connelly said she can’t remember her exact words at the sight of her parents.

“There were no words,” she said. “I was just crying and there lots of hugs and kisses and ‘I love you’s.’ I definitely was apologizing for putting them through this.”

But for some problems with her feet, Connelly emerged from her journey physically unscathed. Mogi too. In the days that followed, the family has tried to wrap their heads around what occurred.

John Connelly said losing his daughter and then finding her again forever changed him. He hopes to get more connected to his faith and “the simple things” in life, and worry less about money and work and things beyond his control.

“You want to shape your kids but, you know what, sometimes, they’re the ones teaching you about what’s really important in life,” he said. “She’s been teaching me that stuff for a while and I didn’t listen. Madeline is who she is and she’s an awesome girl. Look what she survived? I feel like I was given another chance.”

A few of the experiences Madeline shared still has her family in awe.

For example, she said, her fear left after that second night and she remained calm and at peace. That third day is when family and friends learned she was missing, and began to pray. Connelly said while out in the wilderness she had a reoccurring feeling a funeral was held at St. Luke, where two vigils were held unbeknownst to her until later.

She felt the presence of her father’s mother, whom she calls Nana, who died in 2007. On that fifth day, at a difficult moment, Connelly said she saw her, dressed in blue, and heard a message to get some rest, then keep going because she had two days to make it home. John Connelly said he had asked his mother to send him a sign, just minutes before learning his daughter had been found.

And then there’s that song, “You Are My Sunshine,” the one her mother used to sing to her as a kid and that Madeline sang to herself while lost. Laura Connelly urged everyone that morning to make it the day’s theme. All the trackers were singing it, she said.

Madeline Connelly plans to stay in Montana for the summer, skipping her planned Alaska job. Instead, a local bakery owner who aided the search effort offered her a job.

It’s still emotional for Connelly to talk about her ordeal. Frankly, she’s embarrassed by all the fuss. She agreed to share her story to thank the search-and-rescue crews and volunteers and those who prayed for her safe return.

“I’m so grateful,” she said. “I feel the love.”

cmgutowski@chicagotribune.com

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