After three days of fruitless searching in the Sierra Nevada wilderness, things were getting desperate for crews hoping for any sign of Rocklin hiker Cody Michael and his dog.
Dozens of searchers covered ground near Donner Summit. California National Guard helicopter pilots combed the area using heat sensors and dropped teams into rugged terrain.
Then, about 10:30 a.m. Thursday, a National Guard helicopter pilot came on the radio and said he’d be landing shortly with passengers. To the surprise of searchers, it was Michael, 23, and his German shepherd, Bauer.
Both were safe and healthy.
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“It’s nothing short of a miracle. We just don’t get that many great days in law enforcement,” said Dena Erwin, a spokeswoman for the Placer County Sheriff’s Office. “To see him reunited with his family, they were so delighted.”
Officials were still collecting details Thursday, but their initial understanding was that Michael, an athletic and experienced outdoorsman, became disoriented and walked miles in the wrong direction.
“He got lost,” Erwin said.
Michael was found about 3 miles from the Loch Leven trailhead, a popular jumping-off point for hikers along Interstate 80. The U.S. Forest Service warns that, although the trail gets heavy use and crosses a busy rail line, it can be difficult to follow across exposed granite or in winter conditions.
Realizing he was hopelessly lost, Michael pitched camp in a grassy area below the snowline. He used duct tape to write “HELP” in large letters on a rocky outcropping.
Michael waved his rain tarp to signal the helicopter after seeing it overhead, Erwin said.
The National Guard used two Black Hawk helicopters and a Pave Hawk helicopter in the search. It was an Army Guard HH-60 Black Hawk helicopter, based in Mather, that spotted Michael, authorities said.
Capt. Will Martin said crew members noticed an unusual pattern on the ground. Once they knew it was Michael’s camp, they used the chopper’s hoist to pluck the lost hiker and his dog from the ground.
Both appeared to be in good shape, officials said.
A video released by the state Office of Emergency Services showed the emotional reunion between Michael and his family.
“Cody. Cody. Cody. You’re OK,” his mother said, her arms around him.
In the snippet, Michael, wearing a T-shirt and shorts, thanked his rescuers and shook their hands.
“These guys saved my life. Everyone here is a hero,” he said. “God is good.”
Things could have been worse. High winds, near-freezing temperatures and snow were forecast for Thursday night in the Donner Summit area.
Michael’s friend Beau Ingram, who works with him at Primo Pizza Burger Brew in Rocklin, said he was fairly certain things would come to a good end. Michael is an avid hiker and backpacker, he said, though the thought had crossed Ingram’s mind that Michael or his dog could have been hurt.
“Deep down, honestly, I had a feeling he would be found,” Ingram said.
Friends and family gathered Thursday night at the pizza parlor to celebrate the young hiker’s safe return.
“Fortunately, there were a lot of people, a lot of support, looking out for me and they pulled me out,” Michael said at the celebration. “That’s really what it came down to. God was looking out for me. Those people worked countless hours, and it got to the point where I couldn’t get myself out.”
For those close to Michael, it had been a worrisome few days.
Michael’s last human contact came at 10:30 a.m. Monday, when he asked another hiker to take his photo as he knelt next to Bauer, whom he’d dressed in red protective booties and a dog backpack.
Michael, a recent Sacramento State graduate, had sent a video to his family earlier that morning.
“My shoes are soaking wet. My feet are freezing,” Michael said in the clip.
He was expected to do some fishing and leave by noon that day, Erwin said. When night fell with no trace of Michael, his family began to worry.
His vehicle was found at the trailhead. Officials posted a deputy overnight at Michael’s car in case he returned, but he did not.
The search began Tuesday near the Loch Leven area. Because the location is near the snowline, the search involved people on foot, skis, snowmobiles and helicopters.
Erwin said crews were relieved to see Michael in fine shape almost exactly 72 hours after his last contact. He and Bauer were taken to medical facilities as a precaution, but only after they had some chow.
Erwin said Michael wolfed down a Subway sandwich. Bauer ate, too, before quickly falling asleep.