A camper who became stranded nearly five weeks ago in a national forest because she could not cross a swollen river was rescued Sunday, more than two weeks after the search for her was called off.
A New Mexico National Guard crew waded across the icy Gila River to rescue a dehydrated and weak Carolyn Dorn of South Carolina, who entered the Gila National Forest alone on Dec. 6 for a two-week camping trip.
She was found by two brothers, Albert and Peter Kottke, as they hiked an area they had visited several times in the past two years without ever seeing another human being. They realized Dorn was too weak to get out of the wilderness with them and left her Tang, almonds, dried apples, hot soup and cheese. They also filled her water bottles and left her a book — Michael Connelly’s “Chasing the Dime.”
The brothers hiked 20 miles over the next day and a half, then hitchhiked into Silver City, where they contacted the National Guard.
“We got her prepared to spend another couple of nights while we went upstream to get help,” Albert Kottke, 25, a doctoral student in civil engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, said Sunday from his parents’ home in St. Paul, Minn.
Dorn told the brothers she was warm enough at night, but her eyes lit up when they offered her the book, he said.
He felt comfortable leaving her after that because “you could tell she had a positive outlook,” he said.
Dorn was hospitalized in Silver City and should be fine, said search and rescue coordinator Frankie Benoist of Silver City. Dorn’s condition was unavailable.
“We needed a large helicopter ... one with night vision and a hoist, and we also needed a medic on board because of her condition,” Benoist said.
Rain and snow
Dorn, who travels often to Silver City, had planned to camp for two weeks. But five days into her trip, it rained and snowed and the Gila River rose, trapping her, Benoist said.
“The river got big, as she put it, so she did not want to cross it again,” Benoist said. “It had become too dangerous and also she did not want to get her clothes wet and get hypothermic. By the time the river went down, she had run out of food and was starting to get weak.”
Dorn had a tent, a sleeping bag and enough food and water for two weeks. After she became stuck, she drank from the river, kept warm by building fires and “used very little energy,” Benoist said.
Temperatures have dropped into the low teens overnight in recent weeks, according to the National Weather Service.
Dorn’s car was spotted 2½ weeks after she left and reported to authorities. Benoist said her group conducted an intensive search, “but we never considered that she traveled so far” into the forest.
The search began Dec. 24 and ended Dec. 26. On the third day, after a large group of searchers with all-terrain vehicles, dogs and horses failed to find any clues, the search was called off, Benoist said.
Dorn’s brother-in-law, Stan Cornine — who traveled to Silver City from South Carolina during last month’s search — told the Las Cruces Sun-News at the time that Dorn was an experienced camper who was at home in the outdoors.
‘A free spirit’
Cornine, who described Dorn as “very much a free spirit,” said he and his wife sometimes would go for more than a year without hearing from her. But he said she had called before she headed to Silver City to let her family know.
The National Guard used coordinates provided by the hikers to fly to Dorn’s camp 20 miles northeast of Silver City, said Chief Warrant Officer Dave Burrell.
The crew headed out Saturday night, but bad weather grounded the helicopter for about five hours in Las Cruces, Burrell said. The crew reached the forest about 5:30 a.m. Sunday and used night vision goggles to spot Dorn’s camp near the river in a steep ravine, Burrell said.
He could not land the helicopter on her side of the river, so the crew lowered a medic, Staff Sgt. Greg Holmes, into her camp.
Burrell then found a place to land across the river.
Burrell, Holmes, Sgt. Ian Weigner and Maj. John Fishburn carried Dorn across the knee-deep river while a second pilot, Chief Warrant Officer Race Baker, waited. They then flew to Silver City with Dorn, who was dehydrated and hypothermic, Burrell said.