ARCO, Idaho • On the second day of Dan Paulson’s solo, 150-mile search, he found two branches.
The furloughed Bureau of Land Management worker searched Craters of the Moon National Monument for Jodean Elliott-Blakeslee’s body from Oct. 3-21, taking one-day breaks twice.
Paulson, an experienced outdoorsman, made it his task to retrace the footsteps of Blakeslee’s hiking partner, Amy Linkert, whose body was found Sept. 25. Breaking away from the scores of other volunteers, he searched alone in hopes of finding the path taken by the distressed hikers — without water, food or protective clothing.
The two branches were worn on their ends — walking sticks Linkert used as aids, Paulson said. Both broken and left at different sites about 150 feet from where her body was found, they told Paulson a heartbreaking story.
“It revealed to me that at the end, she was struggling, using resources, and going through incredibly difficult terrain. She’s (69) years old,” he said. “As I realized that, I sat out there and had my own emotional thing. I had been out there for two days trying to get into their heads. And when I saw that, you can picture it happening and it had an impact on me.
“It was a sad ending, but it showed a lot of character on her part.”
On Oct. 22, the evening after Paulson returned to work as a BLM electronic equipment technician, searchers found Blakeslee’s body with the help of a helicopter. The 63-year-old worked as a physician in the Boise area.
The two had last been seen alive Sept. 19. They were believed to have headed into Craters wilderness from the Tree Molds trailhead.
Paulson said that during his search, he saw a glimpse of how the two hikers might have become lost and eventually succumbed to exposure. One day, as clouds set in and rain fell, he looked around and couldn’t see any landmarks.
“You don’t know where you’ve come from; you can’t see the cinder cones and there’s this cloud around you,” he said. “If it wasn’t for the GPS, we could have easily been lost.”
Three weeks before the search, Craters Superintendent Dan Buckley had a similar experience in an area not far from where the two hikers’ bodies were recovered. Buckley, a runner, was off the trails and surrounded by lightning.
“I had nothing with me and I really did think, ‘Man, if I got killed out here, no one would ever find me,’” he said.
Buckley said he and Craters staff are now catching up on work delayed by the search, sorting through the “onslaught of bureaucratic paperwork,” filling out “never-ending” reports and restocking equipment. They have not yet estimated the cost of the search.
Part of that process, Buckley said, will be examining what, if anything, could be done to prevent a similar tragedy. Those talks will begin soon, he said.
“People are still emotionally recovering from this,” he said. “… I want folks to be in their right mind when we approach that part of it.”
Obviously, he said, staff will be more diligent about reminding hikers to bring food, water, clothing and a cell phone on hikes.
“I wish we could issue everyone a bright orange vest, but that’s not going to happen,” Buckley said. “This is not Disneyland.”
The responsibility remains with those heading into the wilderness, he said.
“There’s an inherent risk. Probably less of a risk than driving your car down the road, but that’s part of being out in the natural, wild world,“ Buckley said.
But it’s important to note the “freak” nature of the deaths — the first hiker deaths in Craters history, even with 200,000 visitors a year, he said.
That a place so harsh and uninhabitable has not claimed more lives is “remarkable,” said Boise resident Mike Medberry, who had a life-threatening stroke there in 2000.
“That lava is rough and able to hide people,” said Medberry, author of “On the Dark Side of the Moon,” a book that chronicles his experience, rescue and rehabilitation. “It hides the way out, hides the path.“
But that, Medberry said, is what makes Craters spectacular — its wild, harsh, untouched landscape.
“I wouldn’t really want to see the wilderness made safer,” he said.
During the search for Blakeslee’s body, Medberry was reminded of his own mortality. He knows he is lucky to be alive.
That Craters could have killed him, however, doesn’t stop him from returning. Craters’ wilderness has many unique characteristics — extreme desert temperatures, for example, that push the basalt landscape’s heat to 150 degrees. Hikers must be prepared, he said.
“It is a tough place to hike because the trails are not well-marked,” he said. “You can lose them and you have to be aware that you have to follow the trail and you’ve got to have water and a jacket.“
Buckley said that while he and staff have much work ahead — emotional and occupational — many have a “tremendous sense of relief” that the search is over. Among those is Paulson, who said he was “ecstatic” to read Buckley’s message that they had found the body, bringing closure to all.
“It was a relief in one sense, but finding something good from a tragedy, it is kind of difficult to do that,” he said.