updated 4/6/2007 9:54:15 PM ET 2007-04-07T01:54:15

A Great Falls man last seen in October and reported missing in early December was found living in a cave near Cardwell after an outdoorsman spotted footprints "off the beaten path," Jefferson County Sheriff Craig Doolittle said Friday.

Keith Odermann, 51, was found March 15 "in poor condition," and was hospitalized. He is still receiving care, officials said.

Rick Schmauch, a game warden with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, credited trapper Bill Stewart of Whitehall with the rescue.

The search for Odermann began Dec. 5, when his pickup was found abandoned near old Highway 2, about three miles west of the Lewis and Clark Caverns, county officials said.

The sheriff's department looked for him unsuccessfully using both search dogs and a plane, Doolittle said.

A short time later, a series of six or seven minor burglaries in the area were reported, he said.

"The things that were missing were some canned goods, bread, cheese, things like that," Doolittle said.

The sheriff's department alerted other law enforcement officials, including Schmauch, to keep an eye out for any signs of the Odermann.

‘Cave was very well concealed’
Schmauch, who covers a five-county, 2,400-square-mile area, said he put out the word to local outdoorsmen and recreationists in hopes they would report any suspicious activity.

Stewart reported to Schmauch that he saw footprints leading to a cave off Highway 2 in mid-March.

"The cave was very well concealed," Schmauch said. The entrance was covered with branches and had a 4-inch stovepipe sticking out of the center.

After a deputy arrived, they entered the cave and found the Great Falls man. The cave, which was 12 feet to 15 feet long, was equipped with shelves, a homemade cook stove and bedding, Schmauch said.

If Stewart hadn't found the tracks and notified him, it's doubtful the man would have survived, Schmauch said.

"He was in very, very poor condition. I don't think he would have lived that much longer," he said.

"That's quite a long time to be out in the weather, especially that time of year," Doolittle said.

The cave was located approximately halfway between Cardwell and the Lewis and Clark Caverns near the mouth of Sheep Gulch.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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