CHICAGO — 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, Illinois, 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.

As the Flathead County sheriff told reporters early in the search, Connelly was lost in "the middle of nowhere" with freezing temperatures at night. She was wearing just a hooded sweatshirt, overalls and boots.

She credits her love of the mountains, her beloved dog's companionship, and something else that she said is a little harder to put into words — a positive energy or spiritual connection Connelly said she felt to her family and friends by that third day.

"I felt like I was being carried through it," she said. "I didn't know all these people were praying for me and looking for me but, after I got out, it made a lot of sense for why I felt so safe and energized. The power of prayer and positive thinking is real."

Connelly had dark moments. She hesitated to retrace her path after spotting bear tracks overlaying hers. Was a grizzly following her, stalking her every move?

She noticed a helicopter a few times but it flew off. They must be looking for someone else, she told herself.

Connelly said she was often freezing and — but for Mogi — alone to think about her life and the things she did and didn't do, the apologies she wished she had made.

She described the wilderness as the "dark forest," because even in the day it could be hard to see through the dense trees and overgrown landscape.

But she found water, nutrition, warmth and shelter in some of the very conditions she initially feared. The nighttime revealed a full moon for light. She climbed high to find water, figuring it was cleanest and free of bacteria in the coldest places. She ate glacier lilies.

She navigated isolated terrain, sometimes in thigh-deep snow packs. Connelly said the only song she could remember the words to during her days in the wilderness was "You Are My Sunshine," a favorite her mother sang to her and her sisters as children.

She was unaware her parents, John and Laura, had flown to Montana after hearing their oldest child was missing.

As her dad joined in the search, scouring miles of forest in search of any sign of his daughter, her mom was a constant presence at the trailhead providing food, water and coffee and encouragement to several dozen volunteers who'd gather there for daily briefings and to replenish. To keep them motivated, despite her inner fears, rescuers said she wore a smile.

At home in River Forest, members of the large, close-knit family huddled for days between two of their homes, uplifting each other with positive thoughts. But the nights were tough, they admit, knowing Madeline and Mogi were out there alone as they slept in warm beds. As news spread, they said, their community overwhelmed them with vigils, home cooked meals and messages of hope.

After seven days, despite the odds being stacked against her, Madeline Connelly was rescued. In fact, she and her dog nearly made it out of the forest on their own. When located early May 10, rescuers said, Connelly was about three miles from the trailhead where she had parked her car.

She had just kissed the trail sign alerting her that she was on the right path when she spotted a small group of searchers. She hurried to get her dog on a leash, remembering that such rules are strictly enforced.

"I saw the tops of their heads at the bottom of a hill," she said. "I yelled down to them and asked if they were hikers."

"Are you Madeline Connelly?" one of them asked. "Yes," she answered back, stunned, "are you looking for me?"

She became awash with emotion after hearing their response: "The whole world is looking for you."

'Something's not right'

She was on her way to Homer, Alaska, to start a new job baking in a restaurant when she stopped for a visit with her uncle in East Glacier Park.

Marty Connelly has lived in Montana for more than two decades. His niece had visited him there on family vacations a few times over the years, but she was not familiar with the local trails.

It was a Thursday when she headed out. Her uncle grew concerned when she hadn't returned, but his outdoorsy niece was known to camp overnight and sleep in her Subaru hatchback. He knew she was heading toward West Glacier and, with friends, searched each trailhead parking lot for her car. They eventually found it, but she was nowhere in sight.

He alerted authorities; her parents flew out that Saturday.

"My gut feeling was that something's not right," John Connelly said. "I knew she does those overnights but when one night turns into two, and it's dark out and she's not coming out (from the trail), I just felt this isn't like her. Something's not right."

Their three-hour flight to Seattle, followed by a one-hour plane ride to Kalispell, felt like eternity. By then, search-and-rescue efforts were well underway. The worried couple received a couple of texts with updates as they traveled: The bloodhounds had picked up her scent, but their daughter hadn't been spotted.

It was about an hour drive from the airport to Marty's house. They pulled off Highway 2 on the way to stop at the trailhead where their daughter's locked car was parked. It was about midnight and pitch black outside. With the light from their cellphones, the couple peered inside.

"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."

Connelly said she went on another trail, swam a bit with her dog, and then took a wrong turn while trying to head back to the trailhead. She knew it was a looping trail so she figured if she kept going, eventually she'd find her way back.

"I panicked," she said. "I tried to keep myself calm. I think that first night was the scariest. But the moon was out and I wouldn't let myself get sad or scared. It was so beautiful. There were times I woke up screaming — and it must have been my subconscious — but I never let myself feel that."

She likely hiked about 10 miles each of those first couple days, she said, then slowed down due to exhaustion. She clung to branches while crossing raging waterways, with Mogi at times on her back for safety.

Connelly said it was in those first two days that she dealt with some emotional obstacles, as well.

She was overwhelmed with anger — at the snow, at the mountains and cold, and at herself.

"When you sit with yourself for a long period of time, you start to think, 'I wish I would have apologized to this person. I wish I would have said this or done this or gone here,'" she said. "I really had to just let all that go and forgive myself for things I hadn't forgiven myself for in the past. I was able to just be accepting of myself. I totally switched my mindset. I was just so grateful for all the nature surrounding me."

Connelly said she cried at times but tried to keep positive, singing the song aloud that her mother sang to her as a child. She spoke to Mogi. Knowing that bears are less likely to attack if they aren't startled by your presence, she often announced herself.

"Hey, Mogi and I are here," she said. "You just kind of let the animals know you're there and it's all good."

The area is populated with black and grizzly bears, mountain lions, deer, elk and moose, but Connelly didn't see much beyond the mice scurrying around her at night. For a girl who once owned a pet rat, that wasn't a problem.

The melting snow provided water. She found animal bones and excrement to feed Mogi. Her dog kept Connelly warm as they slept under the shelter of large trees at night. Beyond the glacier lilies, which are sweet but burned her hoarse throat, there was little in the snow-covered terrain to nourish Connelly.

Plenty of tough terrain and weather awaited.

The search

Her disappearance made national news by that Monday, the fifth day.

Her aunt and uncle Brian and Maureen joined her parents and Marty Connelly in Montana. Some longtime friends came as well.

As they all aided in search efforts, the family back in Illinois waited anxiously for updates, trying to keep sisters Maeve, 22; Mardie, 19; and Lillie, 16, thinking only good thoughts.

That proved especially difficult when reports of bear tracks on top of Madeline's reached them as they drove to the first of two vigils at St. Luke Catholic Church in town.

"The kids were so upset," said aunt Sharon Connelly, who with her husband, Kevin, and sister-in-law Cathleen, tried to keep them calm. "We just kept saying the same thing over and over: She's fine. She's safe. Out of this situation, only good will come."

Another uncle, Michael Connelly, handled the onslaught of media. He promised reporters this story would have a happy ending. And, addressing hundreds of community members in church, he used laughter to quell fears. Looking out at the crowded pews, he noted that out of all 20 grandchildren, Madeline was the only who had the wherewithal to make it out alive.

Whether in Illinois or Montana, they all swapped stories and tried to make each other laugh. Madeline Connelly graduated from Oak Park and River Forest High School. She has her maternal grandmother's smile, and a laugh that's so loud at times her sisters wished for silence. How they all wished to hear that laugh again. Maeve recalled the time she made the family write down something they liked about each other, and about themselves, then shared them with the family.

"She is really good at making you appreciate little things," her sister said. "Every Christmas, she would write each of us a really nice, long note and then something meaningful as a gift that she made for you."

Added their father, John: "You think about a lot of things. I kept going back to when she was younger and playing sports. I coached her forever in basketball and softball. All that stuff. Madeline was just my rock. You try not to go there but you can't help but think, 'How are we ever going to go on without her?'"

By then, there were 50 to 75 people showing up daily to assist with the mission. The canines and searchers picked up her footprints several miles into the trail but, with all the snow and rain, a lot of clues were wiped out.

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."

Contact Christy Gutowski at cmgutowski@chicagotribune.com.

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