A Widow Set out to Scatter Her Husband’s Ashes in the Woods—Soon She Was Lost

Would she make it out alive?

Lost in the woodsJoseph Sohm/Shutterstock
She set out to scatter her husband’s ashes in a national park. Would she make it out alive?

For 34 years, Jean and Jack Geer doted on each other as they moved from San Francisco to Hawaii to, finally, Port Angeles in Washington State. Then, in December 2016, Jean walked into their bucolic backyard and found Jack crumpled on the ground. Seemingly in perfect health, he had died of a massive heart attack. He was 72.

In the following months, Jean devoured books on grief and loss, hoping she would find the will to go on without him. One task she thought could help: Jack had told Jean that when he died he wanted half of his ashes scattered in Hawaii and half in Olympic National Park, about a 25-minute drive from their home. So in March 2017, Jean dutifully flew to Hawaii to disperse the first part of Jack’s remains in the ocean. But she dreaded the thought of parting with Jack forever. She put off spreading the rest of Jack’s ashes until she was ready. That day came on July 17.

Jean, 71, took the urn holding Jack’s remains, grabbed Yoda, her five-year-old 11-pound Chihuahua mix, and climbed into her 2004 Ford Explorer. It was 4 p.m. A slight woman, just five feet tall, Jean wore capri pants, a Hawaiian shirt, and canvas espadrilles. No need for a coat on what should be a 30-minute walk. She planned to be home in time to make dinner.

With its dramatic peaks and old-growth forests, Olympic National Park covers nearly a million sprawling acres. Jean was heading for one special spot off Obstruction Point Road, an eight-mile dirt and gravel byway. She drove in about three miles, pulled her Explorer over on an untamed stretch of road devoid of signs, and got out. She grabbed her cell phone and the urn, stashed her purse in the car, and locked the doors. And then Jean and Yoda entered the woods.

Jean GeerCourtesy Jean Geer
Jean Geer, months before she and her dog disappeared in Olympic National Park

The park features one of the world’s most diverse populations of wildflowers, and Jean was on a quest for blue alpine forget-me-nots. Their beauty, Jack had once told Jean, moved him. When she didn’t see any, she walked deeper into the woods and finally spotted a blanket of blue through a small opening in the trees. Relieved, she walked to the flowers and distributed Jack’s ashes. She said a quiet blessing and turned to leave.

Then she paused. Had she come in this way or that? Where was the trail? Jack would have laughed. He’d frequently teased her about her terrible sense of direction. His nickname for her was “wrong-way Jean.”

She saw a hill and headed toward it. If she could make it to the top, she could scan the horizon and spot Obstruction Point Road. Her shoes, which had smooth treads, were ill-suited for the climb. Yoda ran ahead while Jean struggled to maintain her balance. She slipped, dropped the urn, and watched it roll over the edge of the hill and tumble into a gully. Jean crept her way to the slope’s side. She spotted the dark plastic urn, barely visible in the underbrush. She hated abandoning anything related to Jack, but the steep hillside was too dangerous to navigate. She eventually made it to the top of the crest, where she saw nothing but trees and more hills. She’d been gone from home for a few hours, and it was getting dark.

She reached for her cell phone to call for help. No service. Thirsty, Jean needed water. She randomly picked a route, pushing her way through underbrush and branches that cut and pricked her, until she came upon a small creek. She and Yoda drank deeply. As night fell, Jean was chilled by an awful realization: She would be spending the night in the woods.

She’d heard stories about people who had died in the park, including one who had been mauled by a bear. Just stay calm, she thought, forcing herself to focus on the task at hand. First things first—she needed a place to sleep. She spotted a downed tree, about seven feet in diameter, that had fallen on a big rock next to the creek. The space beneath was large enough to shelter her for the night. She crawled under the log and lay there. Yoda snuggled close, warming her as the temperature dipped into the 40s. An experienced camper, Jean wasn’t frightened by the forest’s strange noises or creepy-crawlies. But her predicament did keep her awake. To distract herself, she thought about the dinner she’d planned but wouldn’t get to eat: noodle soup with pork and vegetables, and fresh cherries for dessert.

And she thought of Jack. Jean recalled the first time she’d laid eyes on him. It was 1982. Armed with her MBA, she had applied for a job at a San Francisco bank, where Jack served as a vice president. After she was hired as an assistant vice president, Jack took her to lunch to congratulate her. Mutually attracted, they began to date, fell in love, and were soon married. Thinking about Jack made her calmer, allowing her to conclude that if she could make it until daylight, she’d find her way out.

Jean's shelterCourtesy Rick Prentics/Washington Explorer Search and Rescue Kitsap
The shelter Jean made. She and her dog, Yoda, ultimately lived in it for three days.

At dawn, Jean left the shelter, forging her own trail through underbrush with Yoda now trying to keep up with her. At home, Yoda had the run of nearly five acres, where he chased deer and explored. But this adventure was different. The bushes were high in many places, and he had to tunnel through. With his short legs, he couldn’t jump over the logs. Discouraged, he’d yelp for Jean. But Jean couldn’t carry him. It taxed her strength, and she might fall. Yoda was on his own.

Jean, meanwhile, was fighting her own battles with panic. So much could go wrong in the wilderness for even a young, able-bodied hiker. But for a septuagenarian, the perils were magnified. Crossing over slippery rocks, she worried she’d fall and break a leg. She avoided ravines, knowing that if she plunged into one, she could never climb back up.
Before she knew it, another day had passed. Her chances of being rescued had not improved. As night fell again, Jean and Yoda found another fallen tree to sleep under.

The next morning, her third day lost in the park, Jean had given up on finding her own way out. She’d read stories about people who’d endured in the wild, and the rules of survival were simple: Find a water source, don’t get injured, and find an open spot to make it easier for rescuers to find you. Then stay put. Find out the proven skills you need to survive any emergency.

By midafternoon, Jean had scouted out the place she’d call home for however long she needed it. She’d found two trees that had fallen next to each other. She used branches to build a roof and to close off one end of the space, leaving an opening for a “doorway.” Inside, she stacked branches to use at night to close off the opening. She used moss to make the ground softer.

At the end of day three, Jean and Yoda entered the eight-by-five-foot shelter. As she settled in, so many thoughts, some absurd, ran through her head: She’d bought tickets with a friend to go on an October cruise that would take them to Greece, Italy, and Spain. Would she get to go? And then there were those cherries. She couldn’t stop thinking about them.

The next day, her fourth lost, Jean settled into her survival routine. Several times over the course of the day, she made her way down a steep hill to drink water. Taking care not to fall, she dug her heels into the ground and clung to the bushes.

She tried building a fire by gathering dry pine needles and then rubbing a small stick against a stone, hoping the stick would get warm enough to ignite. It failed, but she kept trying. Be sure to carry these items with you all the time—they could save your life one day.

Starving, she ate wild currants, tender pine needles, and even ants, which had a lemony taste. Yoda, for his part, impressed Jean with his newfound ability to snatch flies out of the air and dig up grubs for dinner.

By 4 p.m., Jean and Yoda had climbed into her shelter. Despite the moss, the hard ground was miserable and the cold was embedded in her bones. But she wasn’t giving up. Although Jack had taken care of her for so many years, Jean now harked back to a time when she hadn’t been dependent on anyone.

Shortly after World War II, her family had moved to the United States from China. At school, kids would hurl racial slurs and start fights with her. Her father had sat Jean down and offered this advice: You are a little person. You won’t be strong physically. You must be strong internally. Somehow, someway, he was saying, Jean had to take care of herself. Hungry, tired, and growing weak, Jean drifted off to sleep repeating her father’s words.

map wasington olympic national parkPeter Oumanski for Reader's Digest
Using her car and the urn as guides, teams searched for Jean–and her dog, Yoda–in four directions.

By now, Jean’s brother in Seattle had become concerned. Numerous calls to Jean had not been returned, and when he drove the two hours to her home, there was no sign of her. He contacted the sheriff’s office, which sent a missing-person report to all governmental agencies, including an office at Olympic National Park. At 1:30 p.m. on July 22, five days into Jean’s odyssey, a park employee spotted the Explorer. He radioed it in, setting in motion a series of alerts that ended with Zachary Gray, of the park’s search-and-rescue operations squad, gathering a handful of searchers to look for Jean. Find out the things you should never do in an emergency.

They met at her parked Explorer. Dust and water spots indicated the vehicle had been there for several days. Searchers walked into the woods, calling Jean’s name. They found nothing. At 7 p.m., with nightfall approaching, the search was halted.

The search began again the next day at 6 a.m. Gray now had a team of 37 under his command, which he split into four groups heading out in different directions. Still, he couldn’t buck the nagging feeling that this would end poorly. At 71, Jean was likely disoriented and probably injured. Gray had been on ten searches already that year. Nearly all had ended when the team found a body.

At noon, Gray’s two-way radio crackled. A searcher had found a plastic urn with Jack Geer’s name on the side. Gray had other teams focus on a half-mile radius from where the urn was found. Hours passed. Nothing.

Gray radioed to request a helicopter. Once aboard, he searched below where the urn had been found. Jean, he thought, might have fallen into the gully and dropped the urn. Injured, she likely would have continued walking downhill until she either collapsed or died. Flying 300 feet above tree level, Gray saw nothing but a sea of green. He had another idea. If Jean were somehow alive, she’d need water. He studied the terrain. Far away, he spotted a creek. The pilot made two passes. Nothing. Wait—Gray thought he saw something move. He asked the pilot to circle back.

Then Gray saw a dog. Then a woman with silver hair waving at the chopper. He radioed the team, giving new instructions. From a distance, he watched searchers running to the woman. He saw them hug her. His radio came to life: We have Jean.

After six days in the woods, Jean was too weak to walk out on her own. Gray called in a larger Coast Guard helicopter, one that could hoist Jean up into the chopper in a basket, while the ground crew carried Yoda out.

At the hospital, doctors were stunned that Jean’s only injuries were scratches on her legs. Tests revealed that her potassium was low from eating next to nothing for nearly a week. She was released from the hospital that night with a prescription for potassium tablets, which she chased down with a big bowl of cherries.

When rescuers discussed the search, they talked about the small urn. Without it, they would never have found Jean. Gray is convinced that Jack Geer’s spirit protected his wife.

Jean doesn’t doubt it. But the woman who questioned her will to go on without her husband had found the wherewithal to survive. And with that came a life-affirming conclusion. “It’s time to let go and let [my] own light shine, and stand up,” she told the Seattle Times. “This situation forced me. I realized I had to be on my own and move on to my life.”

Next, find out the 20 everyday fixes to survive basically anything the world throws at you.

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