“I thought I was going to die.” School girl who was lost on West Coast mountain tells her story
By Denise Titian, Ha-Shilth-Sa, March 12, 2015
A group of about 20 school kids from Ahousaht went to Clayoquot Wilderness Resort in Bedwell Sound. It is the off-season for the resort and the school was using the base camp for their field trip.
Leanne, a Grade 9 student, was part of a group made up of students from grades 8 to 11. They were to spend four days in Bedwell Sound to learn cultural teachings from staff working at Ahousaht’s Holistic Centre.
Her group arrived at the resort on Monday, March 2 and began a fast that night. Leanne’s understanding is that they were to go without food and water in order to get in touch with their spirits.
The following day, the group woke around 5 a.m. and went to ‘oosimch’, a spiritual cleansing ceremony that involves bathing in an outdoor body of water.
After morning prayers they went back to the cabin and hung out until about 10 a.m., at which time they were given a choice; either stay at the cabin and take part in a sweat lodge ceremony or go for a hike up the mountain. Leanne joined the larger group who went on the hike, the purpose of which was to collect medicinal plants.
Leanne is a tiny young woman, about 5’ tall and maybe 100 lb. It was a sunny, warm day, even though it was still winter. John left the cabin in a pair of shorts, a tank top, flip flops and a knee-length lacy, knitted cashmere sweater. She also carried a small knife.
Her group hiked two hours up the mountain with a guide leading the group and two chaperones behind. At one point they rested by the river.
“We were hungry and thirsty and decided to go back to the cabin,” John recalled.
Some of the group, including Leanne, ran ahead. Like a game of cat and mouse, some would catch up with the group ahead and then they would scatter again along the path.
But eventually, John was walking alone. She remembered that there were plenty of forks in the path.
“I started seeing things that didn’t look familiar, and I looked back and there was nobody behind me,” Leanne told Ha-Shilth-Sa.
She turned around and went back the way she had come, but with so many forks in the trail she didn’t know which one to take and she believed she was going around in circles.
“I tried to keep going forward in one direction but I was getting more lost and saw that I was going uphill,” she added.
John said she didn’t want to accept that she was lost, and began yelling. She back-tracked again, then decided to follow the river. When she’d reached points on the river where she couldn’t walk on the bank, she entered the river to cross to the other side. She said she did that many times.
At one point, the frigid mountain water was up to her chest and she carried her sweater and shirt above her head so she’d have something dry to wear.
The other hikers noticed John was missing at about 3 p.m. By that time John was up the mountain.
“I knew I was on the wrong side of the mountain but I found an old, overgrown road and I thought it would lead me back,” said John. The teenager began bushwhacking down the remains of an old logging road, thorny bushes tearing open the skin on her legs as she went along.
“I still walked through, even though it hurt; I kept telling myself I can find my way back,” she said. But the road ended and John found herself tearing through bushes until she found a creek to follow.
By that time the sun was beginning to set and Leanne’s feet were so cold they went numb.
She spotted an old bridge further up the mountain and made her way toward it.
“When I got there I had to decide which way to go,” she recalled. The trail she chose eventually faded away, having been reclaimed by the forest. At that point Leanne said she started crying.
“I found a pink ribbon (surveyor’s tape tied to a branch) and followed those, but it was going uphill; I could tell it was leading me away from camp and the sun was going down,” John said.
Frustrated, John said she started yelling at herself for getting into this mess. She said she had walked for miles and miles already. She is in shape because she is a basketball player, but her legs started to cramp.
“I’ve never had a cramp in my thigh like that before, but I looked up at the sky and told myself ‘I can’t waste daylight’,” she said.
At some point before dark, John came across a fallen log that crossed a deep, rocky ravine.
“It was really high and there were rocks below and I knew I had to cross it; I also knew that if I fell, I would die,” she said. When she made it across she cried again because she was so mad at herself.
John eventually found herself on an embankment high above a river. She made her way down the embankment, using a stick for support. But the stick broke and she took a tumble, hurting her hip; but she shook it off and kept on going.
Before night fell, she found another pink flagging ribbon labelled CS48. She remembered the exact numbers as she relived her nightmare.
With nowhere left to go in the fast-approaching darkness she sat on a log, exhausted, cramping and so cold she couldn’t feel her body anymore.
“I cried, I yelled, I prayed; then I heard sounds nearby in the forest and I yelled that it can’t have me,” she remembered. “I thought I was going to die,” she said, tears filling her eyes.
John remembers hearing whistles and she would yell back but the sound of the whistles would fade away and she was losing her voice.
With the temperature quickly dropping to sub-zero, John began building a rock cocoon up against a log. She cut some branches and laid down in her cocoon, covering herself with the branches to wait out the night.
It wasn’t quite big enough for me, she remembered. Her legs were still stiff and cramping and they poked out of the shelter.
John said she spent the night crying, alone with her thoughts and afraid she would never be found. Sometimes she would doze off and sometimes leg cramps would wake her or she would hear rocks moving. John said as painful as it was, she eventually bent her cramping legs, curling up and stretching her thin sweater over her tiny body.
“It didn’t make sense because a truck can’t get up there,” she said.
As the sun started to rise John began hearing whistles again.
“I couldn’t get up, all I could do was yell back because I couldn’t move,” said John.
John believes she lost consciousness because her next memory was the feeling of warmth as the sun shone through the branches covering her.
“I forced myself to move and struggled to get out of the shelter. I kept telling myself that I’m not weak – I made it through the night,” she said.
She followed the sun to a trail where the pink CS48 ribbon was tied. She followed the ribbons all the way down to ribbon CS15.
“I was dizzy and my legs were bleeding, but I didn’t care about my legs anymore,” she said.
The next ribbon she found was longer than the others and said, ‘follow trail to bridge, then follow trail to road.’
“I remember looking at it and smiling; I followed it and as I approached the bridge I heard men talking but I couldn’t see where they were; I didn’t know if they were workers or searchers,” she recalled.
Leanne yelled, and then heard one of the men say, ‘Did you hear that? Is that her?’
She heard another say, ‘That’s Leanne!’
The men told her to stay where she was, that they would come get her.
“I was so happy that someone was looking for me,” she said.
The men ran to Leanne, asking if she was okay.
“I told them I fell a lot and that I couldn’t feel my body,” she said.
The searchers started removing jackets, shirts, socks and covering her with their warm clothing.
They sat her down and gave her water and crackers while she waited to be evacuated.
“Then they told me my dad was just a little way down the hill,” Leanne recalled. “I wanted to run to him but they told me to sit back down because I was weak,”
“I thought to myself that I had walked a long way and survived the night so they can’t call me weak,” she said.
Jon Manson of Tla-o-qui-aht was part of a search team that had been out all night looking for Leanne.
“I didn’t want to give up because my daughter is about Leanne’s age and I knew I would need to count on people if this ever happened to my daughter,” he said.
Manson said he was with his brother Tim and Peter Williams; they were about an hour hike away from their marshalling point.
“It was daybreak and we were thinking about heading back but we saw her footprints and knew we were close,” Manson recalled. He said they heard her voice and he was the first to run up to her and hug her.
“At first it was like I was looking at my own daughter for a split second,” Mason said. He noted that she was in good shape but her legs were scratched up and she was cold. They gave her their sweaters.
“When my dad came he ran toward me crying and he held me and told me never to scare him like that again,” she said. When her father saw her injured legs he said, ‘aww, my baby,’ Leanne remembered.
Leanne was taken by helicopter to Tofino airport, then by ambulance to the hospital.
She remembers hearing radios in the helicopter as people shared the happy news that she was found safe.
“I remember smiling; happy tears that I was safe, alive and able to go home,” Leanne said.
Leanne was reunited with her tearful mother at the hospital. She was examined and was told by the doctor that she was one tough little girl.
“She watches Survivor. My daughter is tough. She’s a warrior,” said proud father George John.
Leanne said her mother told her that there were 150 searchers on the ground looking for her all night.
Gloria John said she spent the night by the base camp fire waiting for news.
“We could hear her yelling at around 9 p.m. and then again at around 1 a.m. Searchers went out each time in the direction of the screams, but could not locate Leanne.
“I just cried and prayed, asking the Creator to tell her to make a shelter and keep her safe,” said Gloria.
Leanne returned to Ahousaht on March 4 just a few hours after being found.
The community gathered together for a celebration dinner and Leanne was given a name from Tyee Ha’wilth Maquinna Lewis George’s house.
George and Gloria John took the opportunity to ‘shake hands’ with people, thanking them for staying up all night to help find their daughter.
A few days after the incident, Leanne continues to recover. She suffered from fevers and nightmares and is receiving counselling.
As for her favorite cashmere sweater that likely played a key part in keeping her alive, Leanne said it was burned in keeping with Nuu-chah-nulth teachings. Everything she had on, even the knife she carried, was burned.