Conservation officers recover body of hiker in UP's Big Island Wilderness Area

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

Sept. 23, 2019

A Sunday night search for a lost hiker in the Big Island Wilderness Area of the eastern Upper Peninsula turned into a somber recovery early this morning, after conservation officers with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources located the man, deceased, apparently from an accidental injury.

At 8:20 p.m. Sunday, the Negaunee Regional Dispatch received a call about an overdue hiker who had been camping in the Big Island Wilderness Area. The 29-year-old man reportedly was alone and had failed to return to his home in Clarkston (Oakland County) at the expected time. The DNR’s 24-hour dispatch contacted local conservation officers Mike Evink, Mark Zitnik and Acting Sgt. Rob Freeborn, who responded by 10 p.m. with canoes to the Wilderness Area.

“The missing hiker’s vehicle was located at Big Island Lake trailhead,” said Freeborn. “We portaged into the Wilderness and paddled through Big Island Lake, Mid Lake, Coattail Lake and, finally, into McInnes Lake, portaging between each lake.”

Freeborn said that the officers eventually found the man at a campsite on McInnes Lake. It appeared that the hiker had experienced an accident in which his leg was badly cut and he then applied a tourniquet using his own belt. Unfortunately, those efforts failed, because the man was deceased upon the officers’ arrival.

Shifting to a recovery operation, the officers had to contend with challenging conditions, including the heavy rains that made it impossible for Michigan State Police to provide air assistance.

Shortly after 4 a.m., the officers were able to load the body into a canoe and transport him by water and over land back to Coattail Lake, where they were assisted by other responding agencies. Finally, the man was taken out by trail from Coattail Lake to federal Forest Service Road #2254, where a responding ambulance from Alger County was waiting.

“Temperatures were in the mid-50s overnight, but torrential downpours made it a miserable night to be out,” said Chief Gary Hagler, DNR Law Enforcement Division. “Everyone involved went above and beyond in dealing with a terrible situation. We wish this search effort had resulted in a different outcome.”

The hiker's identity is not being released until the medical examiner's report is completed.

Big Island Wilderness Area, a wilderness complex encompassing nearly 6,000 acres and containing almost two dozen lakes, is located in Schoolcraft County approximately 8 miles south of Wetmore in Hiawatha National Forest.

Hagler said that Michigan conservation officers have an intimate knowledge of their work areas and special training, equipment and skills that equip them to handle situations in the state’s wooded and rural areas.

Assisting agencies include Michigan State Police, the Schoolcraft County Sheriff’s Department, the Inwood Township Fire Department, the Thompson Township Fire Department and Alger County EMS.

Learn more about the work of the state’s conservation officers at Michigan.gov/ConservationOfficers.