Man rescued after trying to investigate deaths of California hiking family

Nearly a year after a family died on a remote trail in Northern California, a Michigan man trying to retrace their steps had to be rescued last week, drawing the wrath of the local sheriff.

According to the Mariposa County Sheriff’s Office, a call was received on June 29 reporting a man missing in the Hites Cove/Savage Lundy Trail area, near the bodies of Jonathan Gerrish, his wife Ellen Chung and their one-year-old daughter Aurelia “Miju” Chung-Gerrish and their dog Oski were found in August 2021.

The caller said they spoke to the man about the death of the family around 7 a.m. June 28, according to the sheriff’s office.

“He was not a local and spoke to the reporting party about the previous deaths and the determination of those deaths, which he found ‘odd’ and wanted to do some personal research of his own,” the sheriff’s office said in a statement.

The next morning, June 29, the caller noticed the man’s rented vehicle was still parked at the trailhead and contacted authorities, MPs said. A search and rescue mission was launched and the man was found on the Hites Cove Road section of the trail.

Sheriff’s officers said the man was in his 60s, about 5ft 6, 200lbs tall and was wearing sweatpants “on some of the hottest days we’ve seen this year.”

“It’s hard not to be angry about this particular rescue mission,” said Jeremy Briese, Mariposa County Sheriff. “For someone to intentionally put themselves at risk, use vital resources and potentially compromise the safety of our employees just to try to prove us wrong is annoying and frankly disgusting.”

The man, who could not be identified except that he was from Michigan, began his hike in an area blocked by a gate and a “CLOSED” sign, lawmakers said.

“He immediately started complaining that he was forced to spend the night at the end of the Hites Cove Trail because he couldn’t find the path that leads to the Savage Lundy part,” where the family died in August, the Sheriff’s Office statement said. “He tried calling 911 multiple times but the calls didn’t go through. He was carrying two 1-gallon water containers and was concerned that he was being forced to drink water sourced from the river basin and wanted to know if there had been any updated algae testing.”

Medical staff treated the man for serious blisters on his feet and dehydration before driving away in his car against medical advice, MPs said.

Gerrish, Chung, Miju and Oski died on the Savage Lundy Trail in August in blistering temperatures.

Without water, exposed and overheated, at 11:56 am on August 15, the father tried to send a last, desperate message for help.

But the message never got through.

Theories abounded as to the family’s deaths after their bodies were discovered days later.

Physical violence and violence were ruled out just as quickly as poison gas from a disused mine shaft. Lightning Strikes was eliminated, and investigators contemplated suicide and drug or alcohol use before proceeding.

Some wondered if water contaminated by a toxic algal bloom in the Merced River, which flows along part of the trail, caused their deaths. Toxicological and other tests finally ruled this out as well.

In October, Briese announced that an inquest found the family and their dog had died of a heat-related illness and likely dehydration.

About four months later, an FBI analysis of Gerrish’s phone revealed his final message of help, allowing authorities to trace the family’s path down the trail.

Gerrish and Chung were experienced hikers who had recently moved to Mariposa from San Francisco.

Savage Lundy may be small but is known for being a challenge. Its south-southeast orientation exposes it to constant sunlight, and the 2018 Ferguson Fire left little vegetation to provide shade, Briese said.

Authorities urged anyone planning a hike or other outdoor activity in Mariposa County to let others know of their plans, check trail conditions, obtain wilderness permits if necessary, be prepared for conditions, and bring more water and food than they deem necessary and do not expect cell phone service.

Deputies also directed the public to the Mariposa County Sheriff’s Office app, which has been updated to include information about conditions in Stanislaus and Sierra National Forests.

“The forest is the forest,” the sheriff’s office said in its statement on the rescue last week. “It can be beautiful, dangerous, impressive and treacherous all at the same time. Mother Nature’s wonders must be respected, it’s not Disneyland. It is not perfectly manicured, temperature-controlled, fresh arctic water served around every corner for people to enjoy carefree.” Man rescued after trying to investigate deaths of California hiking family

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