Sajean Geer, 71, survived six nights in the wilderness of the Olympic National Park with her dog, Yoda, after becoming lost while spreading her late husband's ashes.
Last Monday, on her 71st birthday, Sajean Geer pulled her Ford Explorer to the side of a dirt road, and ventured into the wilderness.
All she had with her was a pair of sunglasses, the clothes on her back, her cellphone, her car keys, an urn, and her dog, Yoda.
The urn held the ashes of Geer’s husband of 34 years, Jack, who died in December after a heart attack. For months, she had mourned his death “in a state of shock,” she said.
“I got through that, and I was ready to complete … that cycle of my life. I’ll honor it, I’ll cherish it, but I need to move on,” Geer said Tuesday.
She’d promised to scatter his ashes at his two favorite places in the world: The Kona coast on the Big Island of Hawaii and near Obstruction Point, inside Olympic National Park.
Focused on closing a chapter of life, “I ran out there,” she said.
After she spread his ashes, she realized she’d lost her bearing.
“I didn’t think I walked that far, but I could have, because I was emotional,” she said.
Hoping to catch sight of the road from a high point, she climbed a hill, but slipped and sent the urn tumbling below.
With dusk settling over the range, she was embarrassed to realize she was lost.
“All my outdoor experience has been hiking on trails with signs, and I hadn’t had experience in total wilderness like that. All I could see is trees. I couldn’t find anything to orient myself with,” she said.
As the light waned, she found a log to sleep beneath and curled up next to Yoda. It would be the first of six nights she spent in the wilderness alone.
She built a shelter
Geer spent the next day walking.
“I did this to myself,” she remembers thinking. “I’m in a dire situation. I have a Hawaiian shirt, no jacket. I had no water bottle, no knife, nothing to start a fire.”
Her shoes hardly provided any traction.
Still, she remained calm. An avid reader, Geer had become interested in foraging and survival. Years ago, she’d devoured books on those topics.
“I had four things I had to do to survive: (Find) water, not get injured seriously … find shelter, and I had to be visible to be rescued,” she said.
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A positive attitude, she remembered, was key.
“You have to have something in your head, to keep you motivated and alive.”
She reflected on friends, family and her life.
“The most important thing is our relationships and love. Love people. Love your life … take responsibility and don’t be a victim.”
By the third day, Geer decided to hunker down and wait for rescue. She hadn’t told anyone of her plans, and knew it could take days, if not weeks, for help to arrive.
She chose to fashion a shelter near a creek that sliced through a steep, narrow valley.
Where two logs converged, Geer built walls and a ceiling with tree branches, and used moss and bark to plug holes in the wall.
At night, she’d snuggle with Yoda, a Chihuahua mix. Temperatures at night reached the mid-40s.
Each day, she made several trips to the creek with Yoda, scooping up water to quench her thirst.
For the first three days, she said, hunger hardly bothered her.
But by day four, she began to crave cherries, so fresh this time of year in the Northwest.
Geer had to settle for scavenged currants and young pine needles.
An ant bit her, which sparked an idea.
“I go, ‘Well, I’ve got a bigger mouth than you, so I ate it.’ ”
Yoda, a “domesticated, spoiled dog,” adjusted to life in the wild, too.
“He would sit on my lap and I had all these flies around me. He would gulp flies right out of the air,” Geer said.
A call from a friend
Before she had set out Monday morning, Geer’s brother, Jack S. Eng, wished her a happy birthday. He was the last person she talked with that week.
He became worried when he got a phone call from a friend of Geer’s in Hawaii who said she hadn’t answered messages. That was out of character.
Eng, who lives in Seattle, asked police to check on her. They found no trace of her at her Port Angeles home, but also found no sign anything was wrong.
The next day, Eng searched Port Angeles, hoping for a clue.
“At that point, you don’t know. It could’ve been anything. She could have been abducted,” he said.
On Wednesday, it became official: Geer was missing. The Clallam County Sheriff’s Office asked for the public’s help in its search.
Eng spent several days looking and hoping.
Finally, on Sunday morning, he received some news. A National Park ranger on patrol had noticed her vehicle Saturday night parked on the shoulder of Obstruction Point Road, according to Patte Danisiewicz, a park service employee.
The park service began an aerial search.
From the park’s Hurricane Ridge visitor center, Eng listened to radio chatter and watched the helicopter hover in the distance looking for his sister.
She waved from a log
Geer had heard helicopters and planes overhead several times that week, but this was different — it was circling near her.
“I went and found a spot that was sunny” and “jumped on a log and started waving at them,” she said.
Rescuers tossed Geer a notebook with a note to stay put.
A few minutes later, a rescuer appeared.
“I jumped up and hugged him, I was so happy,” she said.
The terrain was too rugged for them to hike out, so a Coast Guard helicopter was called. Among towering 250-foot trees, guardsmen lowered a basket and hauled Geer up.
Rescuers gave her a Clif bar, a bagel and blue Gatorade. They took her to the hospital, where she was reunited with Eng and his family.
“My brother was crying,” she said.
“We were obviously elated to see her,” Eng said.
She was dehydrated, scraped, bruised and “chewed up” by mosquitoes, but otherwise fine. She was released that evening. That night, she ate some cherries and recounted her adventure for her brother and his family.
Geer credits the professional rescue response, her friend’s call and her brother’s dogged efforts for bringing her home safely.
It made her thankful for the self-reliance she developed early in life.
Shortly after World War II, Geer’s family moved to the United States from China. She grew up in a hut in the back of the laundry business her dad owned. At school, kids hurled racial slurs and started fights with the self-described “feisty tomboy.”
“I had a tough childhood. I learned to discipline myself and to have a positive attitude,” she said. “I was brought up to take care of myself.”
She reflected on her predicament, and said she learned something about herself in the ordeal, too.
“When you’re by yourself up in the wilderness with nobody to talk to except your dog, you learn a lot about yourself,” she said. “I forced myself to look at … decisions I made that put me in my situation. I made a lot of mistakes.
“I was really encouraged by myself. I didn’t panic. I was calm. I was glad I had the knowledge to figure out what to do,” she said. “I was grateful for everything in my life — my friends, my family.”
In the woods, she felt her late husband’s presence.
“It’s time to let go and let your own light shine, and stand up,” she realized. “This situation forced me. I realized I had to be on my own and move on to my life.”
Information in this article, originally published July 26, 2017, was corrected July 26, 2017. A previous version of this story gave an incorrect date for when Sajean Geer became lost.