6 days in the wild: Kenneth Knight’s ordeal in the Virginia mountains

What happened to Kenneth Knight is nothing short of remarkable. A missed turn along the Appalachian Trail left the legally blind hiker stranded alone within the wilderness of the George Washington National Forest. But quick thinking on his part got him out of a deadly situation and kept him from being another ghost of the great Appalachian range.

The call comes in

A group of fellow hikers arrived at the Appalachian Trail in the early morning of Tuesday, April 28, 2009, ready for a few days among the Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. First they had to meet up with Kenneth Knight, 41, of Anne Arbor, Michigan, who they had last seen over the weekend when he decided to go solo for a while. As the day went on, however, Knight never showed up.

Kenneth Knight on April 22, 2009, in this photo taken from Backpacking Light via Ann Arbor News.

Kenneth Knight on April 22, 2009, in this photo taken from Backpacking Light via Ann Arbor News.

No one was seriously worried at the time: Knight’s visual impairment tended to slow him down, although not stop him. It was not until the next day when Knight was due to fly back to Anne Arbor and missed his flight that his friends began to worry that something might have happened — an injury, or worse.

At 3:30 p.m., Amherst County Public Safety Department Director Gary Roakes received the call that a hiker had gone missing, the Ann Harbor News reported. A search was to begin immediately in the section of wilderness where Knight was last seen, an area covering nearly 300 square miles.

Knight was last seen near Punchbowl Mountain, to the east of the Blue Ridge Highway and southwest of Buena Vista, Virginia. Searchers had to face a hard truth right away: Knight was last seen at the Punchbowl on Sunday, April 26, and already it was April 30. With four days gone by there would be no telling how far or how close he was to the point last seen.

Knight was no Appalachian greenhorn. As an editor for the magazine Backpacking Light he regularly wrote about his kikes and often blogged about his progress in real time. Something he was doing on this particular trip; his last post before going missing was at 6:36 a.m. on Sunday.

Ryan Jordan, CEO of Backpacking Light, had been on hikes with Knight many times. Jordan described Knight to the Associated Press as someone with “thousands of miles hiking under his belt.”

But Knight’s vision presented difficulties. Often he could only “vaguely” see things 10 to 15 feet away, Jordan said.

So as an experienced hiker searchers would have to consider that he was able and accustomed to covering serious ground, as well as that his vision would make it easy for him to wander off the trail should he not be able to see the white blazes that emblazon the trail.

By Friday, officials from the U.S. Park Service, Virginia Department of Emergency Management, Amherst County Public Safety Department and Amherst County Sheriff’s Office were on the ground searching for Knight, the Ann Arbor News reported. A force of close to 130 searchers was mobilized and dispatched into the George Washington National Forest.

It was only a question of whether the search grid would be tightened so that Knight could be found before the situation became dire.

‘I knew very fast that something was wrong’

A plume of smoke rose from the forest and caught the eye of firefighters on the morning of Saturday, May 2, 2009. Firefighters were dispatched to quash the brush fire before it had a chance to spread too far. What they found when they arrived, however, was more than a fire, it was the hiker searchers had been combing the wilderness for over the last three days.

Randy Sutton, public information officer of the Blue Ridge Parkway-National Parks Service, confirmed that at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday Knight had been found safe and sound, the Ann Arbor News reported.

Searchers, family and friends could now rest easy.

Knight had been found and would be able to tell his story, not like many other hikers who have gone missing along the Appalachian Trail.

So what happened?

Knight had been hiking the nearly 60 mile stretch of the trail between Petite’s Gap and Peaks of Otter with a group of hikers when he decided to go it alone at his pace for a few days. It was not long into his solo hike when he became lost. Knight described the ordeal in an interview with the Lynchburg News & Advance the Monday following his rescue. It was close to seven miles south of Punchbowl Mountain that Knight understood he was not where he was supposed to be. After 20 minutes of hiking there was no denying he had lost the way.

“I knew very fast that something was wrong,” he said.

But being an experienced hiker, he was certain he had ended up near the John’s Hollow shelter. As the temperature was rising, he knew he would need water, something he was running short on.

“I opted [to go find water],” he said to the News & Advance. “I went down the mountain, south, and I did find a stream. I was able to get water. I followed that downstream to eventually where I ended up.”

While down by the stream Knight said he lit a number of small fires in hope that searchers would spot them and help him. What he didn’t know was that a search had not begun and would not begin for a few days.

In the meantime, Knight had a few things going for him: 1. He had a few days provisions of food; 2. He had camped himself by stream, so he had plenty of freshwater; and 3. He stayed put. All together, his planning and wilderness acumen got him out alive.

Those first days were not without difficulty, though.

“The tough times were… wondering how come no one has found you yet,” Knight told the News & Advance. “Is anyone looking?”

He was, however, able to keep his cool, another smart move due in no small part no doubt to his years experience in the woods and mountains.

After a few days with little success, Knight decided it was time for a change of tactics. He crossed the stream and set a larger brush fire, which eventually caught the eye of the firefighters who saved him.

“Everything ended exactly the way it was supposed to end,” Jordan told the Associated Press.

In the end, Knight was not without his critics who charged him with carelessness and recklessness; some even went so far with their vitriol to say he was responsible for covering the cost of the search and the woods damaged by his signal fire.

He was, of course, not without advocates. Mark Eggeman, the Virginia search and rescue coordinator, described the wilderness where Knight was lost as “a horrendous area. It is extremely steep and rugged.” And, with Knight’s eyesight, it came as no surprise to Eggeman that he got lost.

Knight’s ordeal illustrates an essential truth of the wilderness: No matter who you are or your experience in a wilderness setting, you can get lost, hurt or worse. In this case his skills and a cool head kept a bad situation from getting worse. Not only that, he had the supplies needed to keep him going and friends who knew when to report him missing. Along the Appalachian Trail tragedy can strike, just like anywhere else, and when it does a hiker has no one to rely on save the skills and tools packed in for the trip. Still, Knight could have ended up like a Geraldine Largay.

His ordeal has also received mention in Carole Moore’s The Last Place You’d Look: True Stories of Missing Persons and the People Who Search Them.

It is of some interest to note that barely 20 miles north and two years later is the location where Scott Lilly met his tragic end along the Appalachian Trail.

Nature is selective about who is and is not pardoned. It’s out of our control.

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