Conservation officers locate missing Manistique hikers in Hiawatha National Forest

Contact: Acting Lt. Jerry Fitzgibbon, 906-293-5131
Agency: Natural Resources

Sept. 20, 2019

LED-logo-transparentWednesday night’s heavy thunderstorms intensified pressure for first responders searching the Hiawatha National Forest for two missing hikers. After a thorough search effort led by conservation officers from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, the hikers were found just before the downpour started.

“There’s not a lot of law enforcement in this remote area,” said Chief Gary Hagler, DNR Law Enforcement Division. “Our officers have strong expertise based on training and experience when it comes to searching for missing people. We also had some young officers involved in this search and they did an outstanding job.”

Two Manistique men, ages 61 and 65, told their wives that they would be hiking the Thunder Lake area, located in Schoolcraft County, and planned to return by 7 p.m. When the men – both diabetic and with heart conditions – did not return at the anticipated time, the women called 911.

Manistique Public Safety received the call and contacted Conservation Officer Mike Evink just before 9 p.m. Evink was provided with GPS coordinates based on the recent cellphone activity of one of the hikers. Coordinates indicated a location along Federal Forest Highway 2219 in the Hiawatha National Forest.

While en route to the provided GPS location, Evink requested assistance from additional conservation officers, along with Michigan State Police K9 units. Due to the storms, a helicopter was unable to safely search the area.

Evink arrived on scene and met a Sault Tribe Law Enforcement officer, who was looking for the hiker’s vehicle.

“It became clear very fast that the location based on the cellphone coordinates wasn’t accurate,” Evink said. “There was no indication that the vehicle was in the area.”

In the meantime, Manistique Public Safety had been in contact with the wife of one of the hikers. Based on the operator’s conversation with the woman, the officers believed that the hikers might be north of Thunder Lake.

During this time, Conservation Officers Steve Butzin, Andrea Dani and Mark Zitnik arrived. The officers began driving along two-track dirt roads, searching for fresh tracks. Dani and Zitnik found the vehicle shortly after midnight Thursday morning, located southeast of Pot Lake, west of Thunder Lake Road.

Evink and Zitnik began searching the trail with two separate MSP K9 units. After about 30 minutes of walking, Zitnik and an MSP K9 unit located both of the hikers southwest of Pot Lake in Delta County.

Both of the men were in good condition – though hungry, as they had no supplies for their extended day.

Butzin and Evink drove the hikers back to their vehicle so the two men could return home.

“Thunderstorms were rolling in the entire time,” Evink said. “We got them out of the woods right before some really nasty rain and storms came in. Weather and the hikers’ medical conditions definitely increased the sense of urgency.”

“In this case, the hikers’ decision to stay where they were for the night was the safest decision,” said DNR Acting Lt. Jerry Fitzgibbon.

Conservation officers were assisted by four MSP troopers, two K9s and Sault Tribe Law Enforcement.

“Manistique Public Safety interviewed one of the hikers’ wives multiple times, receiving additional details about the two men each time,” Evink said. “We were able to use the information to build a ‘lost person behavior’ profile.”

“Lost Person Behavior,” a book by Robert Koester, outlines the methods used by conservation officers in search and rescue events. By learning details about the missing individual(s), officers are able to use that information to predict actions during a search. The method has proven successful in reducing the amount of time it takes to locate a missing person.

Michigan conservation officers are fully commissioned state peace officers who provide natural resources protection, ensure recreational safety and protect citizens by providing general law enforcement duties and lifesaving operations in the communities they serve. These officers undergo extensive search and rescue training to locate missing persons and have specialized equipment to navigate rural and difficult terrain.

This week the DNR also announced it is recruiting candidates for the department's next conservation officer academy, set to start in July 2020. 

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