It’s Monday August 25, 2008, and Yi-Jien Hwa, the 27 year old hiker from Kentucky is still missing after not returning as anticipated from an ambitious hike in Glacier National Park. Hwa, a married seminary student, embarked on a challenging 7 day hike alone, August 11, 2008, into the backcountry of Glacier with the intention of covering approximately 90 miles with an elevation gain of 15,000 feet and downhill more than 14,000 feet. Family reported him missing on August 19, 2008 when he didn’t return as expected.
According to biographical information on a backpacking gear site blog, Hwa is an experienced hiker who has hiked in Kentucky’s Red River Gorge, Isle Royale, Hawaii’s Big Island, and the Smokey Mountains. This summer he and his wife would experience the west in such places as The Grand Tetons, Yellowstone, Zion, Grand Canyon, and Glacier.
As someone who revels in our National Parks and truly loves the west, I can imagine the excited anticipation of the trip. Having visited and hiked in many of these aforementioned beauties, I feel blessed to say that I live in what’s called Montana’s Glacier Country and have the privilege to recreate in Glacier National Park year round.
Every year we hear stories of lost and injured hikers; mostly tourists who are unprepared for the rugged terrain, or who leave the trail, travel cross country without the proper gear and need to be rescued. Fortunately, these people are just a little worse for the wear and are usually only shaken up and a little dehydrated.
What’s different about Hwa? Apparently he is prepared with gear and supplies for his arduous trip. He applied for his backcountry permit, left a complete itinerary, and an anticipated return date. We’re always told, never to hike alone especially in grizzly country and my mind wonders, “Where is he?” He’s been gone so long now.
On our visit to the park last Saturday, I was painfully aware of his missing. Posters identified him and asked for any information to his location. Helicopters flew abnormally low in the park, breaking the quiet as they repeatedly searched for Hwa’s whereabouts. Having hiked with my family on some of the trails he was scheduled to take, I imagined other hikers would have found him by now if he was only injured and weak on the side of the trail. He seems to have vanished. Rescue efforts have been concentrating on the first leg of his journey, so it’s presumed he may have gotten into trouble early on. Did he slip on ice or break through a snow bridge? Could he have tumbled down a scree slope, startled a grizzly and been dragged away? Has he tried to signal, to no avail? With no cell service in the park, did he pack a whistle? Will these questions ever be answered?
Winter comes early to the Rockies and Glacier’s highest peaks already show a dusting of snow. Help the rescue team find you Mr. Hwa before nature’s frozen blanket covers the park and the visitor’s leave. I pray you’ve looked with eyes wide open and discovered the grandeur of this awe-inspiring place. You’ve got a tale to tell and I want to hear it.
With dense forests, sweeping vistas, crystal blue alpine lakes, and majestic wildlife, it’s no wonder that Glacier National Park is called The Jewel of the Continent. I never tire of its ever-changing splendor. I respect this wilderness and don’t ever want to take it for granted. It is heaven on earth and a hiker’s paradise.
Once, as I stood in a blustery wind on the Scenic Point Trail gazing over the awesome site of The Great Plains, I met a young man from Ohio. A certain camaraderie exists between fellow hikers. After a chat, my family and I said farewell as he embarked on another leg of his trek towards the historic East Glacier Lodge. Independent and idealistic, I felt his freedom. I watched as he left alone, no bear spray on his belt and prayed Godspeed.
Note: In August of 2011, 3 years after the disappearance of Mr. Hwa, a hiker discovered bone fragments and clothing that appear to be the remains of Yi Jien Hwa.