EL PASO, Texas - A search and rescue team found Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reporter Cathy Frye alive but dehydrated Sunday afternoon in Big Bend Ranch State Park in Texas where she had been stranded since Tuesday.
Frye, 43, and her husband, Democrat-Gazette photographer Rick McFarland, 58, had been on vacation camping in Big Bend National Park before being forced to evacuate Tuesday when the park closed because of the federal government shutdown. The couple decided to hike a trail at the nearby state park, on the border of Texas and Mexico, but lost their way a few hours into the hike, McFarland said Sunday.
After three days of hiking the desert terrain with limited supplies, Frye told her husband Friday that she couldn’t travel any farther on foot. Together they made the decision for McFarland to continue on toward their truck alone.
But by the time McFarland got to the couple’s truck, reached a ranger’s station and arrived with a ranger back to where he thought he had left Frye, it was getting dark and Frye was nowhere to be found.
“We had been doing this thing where I would call out and then she would call out, and what scared me to death is when we were searching, I was calling and she wasn’t answering,” McFarland said.
Four search crews combed the area all day Saturday with no luck. And then just before noon Sunday a rescuer stood on a ridge with binoculars and spotted a body in a valley below. He directed crews on the ground to where Frye was lying nude under a small piece of brush in a dry creek bed. To their relief she was not only alive but also could communicate.
Frye said at the University Hospital in El Paso Sunday night that she had read in a book that the people who “make it” in these situations don’t try to keep moving during the hottest parts of the day. She said she found the small tree that provided some shade and used it to her advantage.
“I just kept rotating around it as the sun moved, trying to stay in the shade,” she said.
Frye and McFarland travel to Big Bend National Park every year for what they call their “anniversary trip.” Their wedding ceremony was on a trail in the park, and the couple - who are avid hikers - spent their honeymoon there in 2001.
Frye’s friend Amy Webb got an email from Frye on Tuesday that said she and McFarland planned to hike a day or two in the state park since their usual plans were interrupted with the closing of the national park. The couple checked in at the ranger station where an employee directed them to his favorite campsite and a pull-off area nearby where they could park their truck and hike one of the park’s looped trails.
It’s a marked trail, but still rugged, barren terrain that isn’t clean-cut. McFarland said the trails had not been well worn and the trail markers, which were piles of stones, had been eclipsed by overgrown plants.
He said they had been able to hike the first part of the trail quickly and decided to finish the loop Tuesday afternoon. Things went wrong when the couple climbed through a steep riverbed, and on the other side of the trail the terrain became an alternating up and down climb that wore Frye out, McFarland said.
They spent Wednesday, Thursday and Friday walking in the direction they thought they had left the truck and surviving on a few canteens of water, two granola bars and a banana.
On Wednesday they came across a small water seepage in the ground after McFarland spotted some cottonwood trees and followed their roots to the water. Frye was able to refill her water bottle, but by Friday she was exhausted and told McFarland she couldn’t go any farther.
“When we found the water it was like OK, maybe we’re going to be OK,” McFarland said. “When we separated, she had about an inch and a half of water and I had about a half an inch in my canteen. It wasn’t much.”
Capt. Ray Spears, a game warden from El Paso called in to assist with the search, said the terrain isn’t easy for any hikers.
“They covered a pretty good area during those couple of days they were out there. This area is not easy to navigate. It’s rugged. Everything’s got thorns in it. There’s rattlesnakes,” he said.
On his own, McFarland made his way slowly, nestling under brush for shade every half-hour or so. Eventually he reached a ridge where he had an aerial view of what was nearby.
He took a photo and was able to zoom in to see a vehicle. It wasn’t his truck, but he noticed it was near the parking area they departed Tuesday. He made his way to that vehicle and then to his truck.
He sped to the ranger’s station, honking his horn and yelling to get help in rescuing his wife.
BACK AT HOME
Frye’s parents were baby-sitting Frye and McFarland’s two children in Little Rock. They didn’t want to talk with a reporter Sunday, but sent a statement through Webb.
“Cathy’s friends and family are very grateful to the men and women who searched for her and for all those who prayed for her safe return. It has been a very difficult few days, but we know God gave her the strength she needed to survive so that she could see her family again, especially her children,” Webb said.
Webb used to work at the Democrat-Gazette and was Frye’s desk mate. The two often worked as a pair on in-depth human interest articles that involved suspense and emotional situations. So Webb couldn’t help but think that the experience Frye was living out was the type of story she’d be great at covering.
“Cathy covered many situations like this and oftentimes there is good news and people are reunited with their families. So I was hopeful because I wanted to be hopeful for her,” Webb said.
Frye, who has won numerous investigative reporting, feature writing and other reporting awards, has worked at the paper since 1999. McFarland, who has also won many news photography awards, has been an employee since 1992.
Managing Editor David Bailey said the newspaper staff members were worried when they got the news Frye was missing. “It’s kind of corny, but we really are a family … she’s one of our kids. I was thinking she was facing pretty long odds. I didn’t know if she’d make it. I was really scared. [Finding out she was found alive] was like the sun coming out. Holy cow. I can’t remember the last time I was that happy,” Bailey said.
The Chihuahuan Desert is rugged, mountainous terrain where elevation levels vary. Cactus, cat claw and rocks cover the barren land and there’s little natural water available. So just as it was difficult for Frye and McFarland to navigate their way back to their truck, it was equally hard for rescuers to search the area thoroughly.
Searches and rescues happen often at the park, according to Spears, but ones that last more than two days and two nights are rare. A local man died inside the park in January. He had been missing for nine days before friends found his body.
About 15 rescuers reached Frye on Sunday where she was lying in an arroyo - a dry creek or stream bed that fills after a heavy rain. She had ripped off her clothes, was bruised, sunburned, had chapped lips and couldn’t move because of cactus thorns and soreness from dehydration.
She told rescuers that she had seen the helicopter fly over the day before, but didn’t have enough energy to move.
“What she tried to do, I think, was maybe try to get up higher at one point so somebody could see her, but the higher you go the harder it is to hide from the sun. She had to get back down to that brush to get out of the heat. The sun tears you up out here,” Spears said.
Frye said she had made one attempt to climb higher but couldn’t make it.
She was taken by helicopter from the trail to an airstrip in the park, where she was then airlifted to the University Medical Center of El Paso. She had been moved from the emergency room in stable condition Sunday night.
McFarland, who had to drive the gravel roads out of the park to El Paso, reached the hospital late Sunday.
“I’ve never felt that kind of elation before in my life,” he said, recalling when the rangers first told him his wife had been found. “I just hit the ground. I hit the ground and I couldn’t stop smiling.”