Greeley Tribune M/CLOUDY 79

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Lost hiker reunites with family and recounts his ordeal

Chris Casey, (Bio)
August 3, 2007

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A cell phone, a trickle of water and senses-calming faith helped an Illinois man and his dog pull through a frightening two days in the foothills west of Fort Collins.

Roger Baird emerged from the woods in Pingree Park Thursday morning to a relieved gathering of 30 family members and friends at the Browns Lake trailhead.

That was the spot at which Baird, an experienced hiker, made a costly mistake Tuesday morning.

"I knew Browns Lake was to the east, but I headed west," Baird, 63, said in the condominium he owns in Greeley Thursday evening. "I just didn't look at my compass."

Baird and McKinley, his 9-year-old golden retriever, strolled off at 8 a.m. Tuesday on what turned out to be a Forest Service road headed in the wrong direction. After about 50 minutes, he knew something was wrong and turned around. But heading down another forest road only made him more disoriented. By 5 p.m. Tuesday, Baird knew he was lost.

He dialed 911 on his cell phone.

"The first time I got through to 911 I thought, 'yes.' But then when (the operator) couldn't hear me I thought 'no,'" Baird said. "As long as I had battery power I was hopeful."

He made camp and gathered wood that he used to spell out S.O.S. in a fire signal. Besides the phone, he had four granola bars, two beef jerky sticks and three 25-year-old bouillon cubes in his survival kit.

"I just decided to stay there," he said. "I figured ... I could be here a day, two days, a week. Who knew?"

He had traveled with his wife, Kathy, from Rockford, Ill., to Colorado for a short trip a week earlier. They stayed at the condominium, which is used during the school year by their daughter Janey, a senior at the University of Northern Colorado. On Monday, Kathy left for an emergency trip to Phoenix, where her mother was being treated for an illness.

"He called me that night and said he was going out on a hike (the next day)," Kathy said. "I said, 'Please don't do that and give me something else to worry about.' ... He didn't intend to."

Her worry escalated by 4 p.m. when Baird, good about checking in, especially since he was concerned about his mother-in-law, hadn't called. Kathy tried his cell phone, which was turned off.

She contacted the Larimer County Sheriff's Office and about 10 p.m. Tuesday he was declared missing. An intensive search began about 2:30 a.m. Wednesday after Justin Whitesell of the Larimer Sheriff's Office of Emergency Services found Baird's SUV at the trailhead parking lot.

The search grew to about 45 people, including searchers from Larimer County Search and Rescue, Larimer Sheriff's Office Emergency Services and Arapahoe Rescue Patrol in Denver. A helicopter from Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne joined the search Wednesday morning.

Mike Fink, Larimer County Search and Rescue spokesman, said Baird was well prepared to be in the woods.

"There's a lot of roads up there and he just never found the road that managed to get him back to his car," he said.

Meanwhile, Baird's two daughters arrived from Illinois, a son flew in from Seattle, his wife flew back from Phoenix, and a brother flew in from Spokane, Wash.

"I had a water supply and when I'd get anxious and start to worry I'd pray, and then I'd start to feel better," Baird said.

On Thursday morning, he walked to a clearing and tried the cell phone again. This time he had a signal.

"The operator said, 'Are you one of the searchers?' I said, 'No, I'm the lost hiker.' And she said, 'Oh, good,'" Baird said.

About 10 a.m. Thursday, a Civil Air Patrol plane flew over Baird, guided in by the smoke from the fire he'd started in the clearing. Minutes later, searchers arrived in trucks to drive him out.

McKinley has a bad left leg and was limping early in the ordeal, Baird said. "He's just tired. More tired than me."

Baird said his family, some of whom joined him on a trip to Browns Lake 20 years ago, likes to make fun of the survival gear he takes on hikes.

"And now we're glad he does," Kathy said.

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