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Woman tells hike survival story
By The Associated Press

POLSON - She could have crawled under the tree, Susan Stronberg remembers.

But she didn't.

She figures the downed tree was probably a victim of a June snowstorm because the branches were still green. The weight of the snow must have uprooted it and laid it down across the road in the Mission Mountains where she was walking her two dogs.

The Airedale terriers, Guido and McQ, scampered under the tree. Stronberg, though, climbed up the root of the tree. Then she lost her footing.

"The next thing I knew I was lying in the road looking at my tibia sticking out of my left leg," Stronberg said.

Her left forearm was shattered in two places as well, "and my ankle was not where it was supposed to be."

It was a Friday morning. Beautiful out, a sun-filled day.

Stronberg, 57, had left her home near Yellow Bay on Flathead Lake at 10 a.m. and driven her Toyota FJ Cruiser south on Montana Highway 35, choosing a road near Blue Bay where she turned and drove up the mountain.

Her husband, Michael, was at work in Missoula, and Stronberg had not told anyone where she was going, or even that she was going. It was, after all, just a walk down an old logging road with her dogs.

"The younger one has to have a walk every day or he'll drive me crazy," she said.

But now here she was, nearly two miles off the highway, with shattered bones in a forearm and a half-foot-long piece of another bone sticking out one bloody leg.

"It's a very secluded trail," she said. "If you didn't live near it, you'd never know it was there." Her first concern was passing out. The bleeding wound in her leg worried her, and so she took one of the dog leashes she carried with her and, using her one good arm, tied off her left leg.

But that didn't seem right to her - she'd lose her foot if blood couldn't get to it, right? - and so she untied the leash.

"I thought, 'I'm surely going to pass out and I'll probably be eaten by a bear or coyote.' " Stronberg said. "But I didn't. So then I thought, 'Gosh, what am I going to do?"'

Limited options
Stronberg's options totaled all of two: stay where she was, or try to get back to her vehicle.

"My husband wasn't due back until later Friday, and I knew it would be hours until anyone even knew anything was wrong," she said. "So I decided I'd try to get to my car." Only a quarter of a mile away, it was still much easier said than done.

Walking was obviously out of the question, and crawling that far through the gravel and pinecones wouldn't be fun with all your limbs working, never mind with half of them out of commission.

"I sort of tried to clear a path with my good arm and crawl down on my elbows, and tried to use the right leg and knee while I dragged my left leg behind," Stronberg said.

Inch by inch she propelled herself through the gravel, every movement accompanied by excruciating pain, until she reached the Toyota shortly after 1 p.m.

Now what?

She'd parked the vehicle perpendicular to the road, facing east and in an area thick with brush. Getting the door open and pulling herself into the driver's seat seemed to take forever, but she eventually managed to position herself behind the wheel.

"Then I made my second stupid mistake," Stronberg says. "I was so scared of losing my leg - and well, I drive a clutch, and I'm not small, I'm 5-10 and wear a size 10 shoe - anyway, I put my right foot across both the clutch and the brake and I tried to turn around, but I couldn't do that and steer, too, and I hung the car over the side of the road at a real tilt." Stronberg sat there, stuck, and looked down at her leg.

"Blood was still pouring out, and I was getting faint," she said. "I thought I should get my leg elevated, so I opened the car door and slid out into the bramble and brush," and propped up her broken leg.

By this time, she said, it was 4:30 in the afternoon, "and I thought I'd better prepare for being out here at night." Stronberg had a gallon of water with her, some candy and a walking stick. She'd also grabbed her copies of the Missoulian and the Daily Inter Lake from their boxes as she'd left the house.

She built a bed with the newspapers, laying some on the ground and covering herself with the rest.

"And I tried to make a bullhorn and call for help," Stronberg said. "I could hear boats on the lake and traffic down on the highway," but the thick mountainside forest swallowed up her cries.

Time passed. The sun crept lower and lower. The flies and mosquitoes got thicker and thicker.

And then she heard the coyotes howling.

Falling in love
Back home, Michael Stronberg had arrived from Missoula to find his wife and dogs missing.

The Stronbergs moved to Montana 13 years ago from Chicago. When they decided they wanted to live in the mountains, a friend had suggested checking out Whitefish. They did, staying there, visiting Glacier National Park and exploring the area, and fell in love with the east shore of Flathead Lake.

There were lots of trails and roads in the Missions where Susan took the dogs on walks, and Michael searched the ones near their house before calling the Lake County Sheriff's Office at about 6 p.m.

Deputies arrived, and wanted to see Susan's computer, her e-mails. Had they had a fight? Was it possible she had a lover? Was she suicidal?

"I totally understand," Stronberg said of the initial questioning. "You don't want to tie up a lot of people and resources if there's something else at play."

Convinced that Susan, a private care aide in Kalispell, might have run into trouble or gotten lost while walking the dogs, the deputies called in search and rescue teams from Lake County and the Swan Valley, and game wardens from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes joined them.

Michael Stronberg gave them a list of places where Susan often walked the dogs.

"If she drives, she always goes south," he told them, and gave them a list of several possible trails in that direction.

By 9 p.m., 40 people were searching for Susan Stronberg in the Mission Mountains.

Intense pain
Susan Stronberg, meantime, wanted back in the Toyota after she heard the coyotes nearby.

"I took the newspapers and made a path to the car so I wouldn't have to drag my leg through all the bramble," she said. "The way I'd gotten in the first time didn't work very well, so this time I grabbed my left leg, screamed bloody murder, and put it in first.

"Then, with my good hand, I grabbed the parking brake and pulled myself in on my belly. My head was on the high side. I grabbed the walking stick and pushed myself up on the seat and used it to keep sliding farther and farther in until I just collapsed." She drank some water. Rested. Then she went to work turning herself around so her leg would be on the high side.

"I'm telling you, it was inch by inch," Stronberg said. "It was well after 10:30 when I got turned around, and then I couldn't close the door or I would have fallen right back out." She had a pair of prescription sunglasses in the car, put them on, and gazed up at the stars. She was getting cold again, so she took some large rubber mats from the back of the Toyota that the dogs sat on and, using her teeth and one good arm, tore them up to make another blanket for herself.

About 11:30 p.m., she saw searchlights bobbing on another mountain.

"I took my good foot and laid it on the horn," she said. "I prayed to God I wouldn't have to stay there any longer than he wanted me to. I knew now they'd find me. The only question was how long would it take?"

The searchers didn't hear the horn, but at about 2 a.m. headlights appeared on the road. It was 141/2 hours since Stronberg had broken her arm and leg.

Tribal game warden Brian Ducharme climbed out of his truck. "And I fell in love," Stronberg said.

Ducharme covered her in a blanket and told her he would have to retreat down the mountain in order to radio for help, and wait on the highway so the ambulance would know where to turn.

"In a little while there were lots of lights, and lots of pickup trucks," Stronberg said.

"The people were all so caring, and so nice," she said. "I can't tell you how much they did for me."

Making a path
The ambulance couldn't get all the way to where her Toyota was. Rescuers used their coats and jackets to make a bed for Stronberg in the back of a pickup. Because the road was so narrow and the branches on the trees so low, they then walked on either side of the truck as it slowly made its way down the mountain, pushing the branches aside so they wouldn't hit Stronberg.

Once in the ambulance, she was stabilized and taken to the tribal campground at Blue Bay, where a helicopter carried her to Kalispell Regional Medical Center.

She needs a plate and screws to repair her broken arm. Infection remains a concern, and Stronberg faces as many as four surgeries on her leg. The doctors' goal in repairing it is to keep it the same length as the other, so she won't have to walk with a limp.

She's telling her story, Stronberg said, because "I want people to think about what they're doing, and not do something as stupid as I did."

If you're going on a hike - even if it's just up a mountain road - tell someone. Leave a note.

And support search and rescue teams with donations, she says.

"We read about all the rafting accidents, the hikers who get lost, and they do such a fabulous job," Stronberg said. "We don't need them until we need them. But we do live in a wilderness, and bad things can happen. I cannot say enough good things about them, and I cannot thank them enough."

Her own experience was horrid, she said, "but it's made me a totally different person."

As she crawled across or lay on the mountainside for 141/2 hours, Stronberg said, she remembered the story of the mountain climber who amputated his own arm in order to escape death.

"I never understood it, but now I do," she said. "You do what you have to to survive. On that mountain, I discovered a tenacity and strength I never knew I had."

Oh, and Guido and McQ, the two dogs?

They never left her side.

Copyright © 2008 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Published on Saturday, July 05, 2008.
Last modified on 7/5/2008 at 12:31 am

Premium Member
2,797 Posts
Great story. A survivor to be sure. It's all about attitude and problem resolution. Good stuff.:bigthumb:

851 Posts
Wow, that gave me chills. To think about how many of us just venture off on unexpected roads in search of adventure, we need to be careful! And get satellite phones!!! Glad she made it out OK!

2,165 Posts
That's some story, would have of been nive to have an AT FJ that day, almost make me reconsider having a 6MT..........Then again maybe not.:bandit:
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