She Vanished Hiking the Appalachian Trail, Then 2 Years On They Found Her Heartrending Notes

Deep in the woods of Maine, a forester is calculating the number of trees that sprawl thickly across the landscape. As he walks on, though, he suddenly ventures upon what looks like an abandoned campsite, complete with a damaged tent. Unknowingly, the man has uncovered the fate of a hiker who has been missing for two years. Then searchers finally come across the woman’s journal – and the words within make for truly heartbreaking reading.

Geraldine Largay – known as Gerry – was 66 years old when she disappeared, and she had always wanted to traverse the Appalachian Trail. It is one of the world’s most famous hiking trails, after all, and it extends from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine.

For much of her life, in fact, Gerry lived near the southern end of the trail in Nashville, Tennessee. There, she spent her days working as a nurse and bringing up a child with the love of her life, George. And after their daughter, Kerry, became an adult, the couple went on to relocate some 250 miles southeast to Atlanta, Georgia.

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In Atlanta, Gerry found many outlets for her passionate personality; she joined the Nature Conservancy, for one. The mom also attended a local newcomers’ group where she took part in all manner of activities, including hiking and quilting. All in all, then, Gerry was an active and engaged member of the community.

And Gerry also had a spiritual side. Having previously taken up George’s Catholic faith, she often prayed during her adventures in the great outdoors. At other times, though, she enjoyed simply wandering through the woods, using a guidebook to identify the flora and fauna that she found.

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Kerry went on to have children of her own, and Gerry loved to take her grandkids out on hikes, too. But her own sights were set on something bigger: the more than 2,000 miles of the Appalachian Trail. And, in the end, it seems that the temptation of the trek became too great, as the grandmother went on to plan the ultimate adventure – an epic journey that she would go on to write about in her journal.

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Now although the grueling nature of the Appalachian Trail hike did not appeal to George, he was supportive of his wife’s ambition. And so the couple later sold their Atlanta home before moving in with Kerry and her family in Brentwood, Tennessee. It was while Gerry was residing with her daughter, in fact, that she began meticulously plotting every step of the long journey ahead.

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Gerry even found a way around a potential obstacle in her path. Sometime before, you see, she had injured her back, making it impossible for her to carry a heavy pack. So, George agreed to regularly run supplies to his wife as she made her way along the trail. And after a number of challenging practice treks, the enthusiastic hiker was ready to make a start.

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On April 23, 2013, Gerry started out from Harpers Ferry in West Virginia with her friend Jane Lee. The pair are said to have intended to move north from the center of the trail to its terminus at Mount Katahdin before catching a ride back to their starting point. Then, they would hike the southern half of the trail all the way down to Springer Mountain.

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And, to begin with, things went about as smoothly as the two women could have hoped. Seemingly not deterred by the rain along the way, Gerry was upbeat when writing in her journal about the abundant flora she had encountered. The enthusiasm that spilled from the page stood in stark contrast to the harrowing message that she would later scrawl in the book, mind you. But for now Gerry even adopted the trail name of Inchworm, and her sociable personality led her to befriend other hikers.

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In late June, however, things changed. After receiving word of a major family issue back home, Jane was forced to leave the trail, and Gerry, behind. Undaunted, the solo hiker continued on, sleeping in makeshift shelters when the location was too remote for George to whisk her to a campsite or motel.

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And by July 21, Gerry had successfully conquered some 900 miles of the northern section of the trail. In fact, she was only 200 miles or so from Mount Katahdin at that point. But before she could reach George and pick up more gear for the last section of the trek, she faced a 22-mile hike on difficult ground.

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As she expected this section of her hike to take two nights, Gerry packed a tent in preparation. Ultimately, though, she slept in a shelter at Poplar Ridge on the evening of July 21. Then, the following morning, she waved goodbye to a fellow hiker and set out once more – not knowing what fate had in store for her.

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On July 22 Gerry left the trail in search of a secluded space in which to relieve herself. In the process, however, she apparently walked onto land that had been logged a dozen years earlier and which had now become a mishmash of discarded trees and foliage. And, at this point, the hiker realized that she had become lost.

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Disorientated in the thick woods, Gerry therefore sent a text to George to say that she was experiencing some difficulties; she also asked her husband to contact the Appalachian Mountain Club for assistance. The message read, “In some trouble. Got off trail… Now lost. Can you call AMC to see if a trail maintainer can help me. [I’m] somewhere north of woods road.”

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Sadly, though, there was no cell phone signal in the area, and so Gerry’s message remained unsent. Hoping to find a spot with service, the hiker subsequently set off in search of higher ground. But despite fighting her way through the logged trees, she did not succeed. Eventually, then, Gerry decided to set up camp in the area.

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The following day, Gerry tried to send another text to her husband, asking him to contact the police. And, once again, the message did not go through. Meanwhile, George was waiting in the designated spot for his wife to arrive. Because the weather was bad, however, he was not overly concerned when she missed their original rendezvous.

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But when Gerry had still not arrived the following morning, George notified the authorities. And before long, the Maine Warden Service launched a massive search and rescue operation. Along with hundreds of volunteers, wardens began scouring the countryside around the trail.

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At first, the search crews focused on the stretch of trail north of Poplar Ridge, knowing that it was part of Gerry’s intended route. But then misinformation began to cloud the rescue mission. Apparently, one tip-off claimed that the hiker had been seen in Spaulding – even though she had never made it that far. Some boys also reported seeing a woman who matched Gerry’s description further along the path.

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And although searches still continued in the region of Poplar Ridge, the operation expanded to cover other locations. In the meantime, Gerry was struggling to make her meager food rations last through the long days. Hoping to attract the attention of rescue planes, she also took steps to make her makeshift camp more visible from above.

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Relocating her tent to a spot where the canopy was less dense, Gerry cut her silver emergency blanket into strips and dangled them in the trees. But as the days passed, she remained alone. And while she eventually heard the planes and helicopters of the rescue operation passing above, tragically they did not spot her.

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To occupy her time, Gerry made notes in her journal and read a novel she had brought with her several times. Apparently, the hiker also practiced complex sewing patterns with a piece of dental floss. Then, on August 6 – 15 days after leaving the trail – she attempted to send another text message to George. Sadly, though, there was still no signal to be found in the vicinity.

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In the interim, the search and rescue mission had covered an area of 23 square miles – including some of the region’s most remote terrain. However, on July 30, with no trace of Gerry having been found, the authorities were forced to call off the search. And for more than two years afterward, the mystery of the grandmother’s disappearance would haunt the Appalachian Trail.

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Then, on October 14, 2015, a forester working near the trail came across an abandoned tent. And close by, the man unearthed something shocking: what seemed to be a body wrapped up in a blue sleeping bag. He went on to call the find in, with a small team assembling to investigate the situation the following day.

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Among the group of wardens and law enforcement officers was Kevin Adam, who had headed up the search for Gerry years before. The team were joined by a crew who were filming an episode of North Woods Law. And as the crowd neared the spot where the remains had been seen, the difficult moment was captured on film.

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After two hours of hiking, the group had arrived at the place where the forester had discovered the abandoned camp. And there, they discovered what none of them had wanted to find. Inside the sleeping bag was Gerry’s body – easily identified by the ID that she had stashed in a resealable bag.

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For those who had been a part of the hunt for the lost hiker, it was a distressing find. Warden Kris Maccabe told the Animal Planet network, “There’s nobody that wanted to bring her home more than we did. I really feel for the family.”

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Alongside Gerry’s body, they also found personal effects including her cellphone. And the messages that she had attempted to send to her husband remained unsent. Apparently, she had also cut up her credit card and buried the pieces so that nobody could steal the details.

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Most heartrending of all, however, was the journal that Gerry had left beside her. In it, the hiker had left a message that indicated that she had known that she was going to die in the woods.

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“When you find my body please call my husband George and my daughter Kerry,” the message read. “It will be the greatest kindness for them to know that I am dead and where you find me – no matter how many years from now.”

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The last entry in the journal was dated August 18 – a full 27 days after Gerry had wandered from the trail and 18 days after the search had been called off. And after looking at the detailed passages, investigators were able to piece together the lost hiker’s activities as she’d waited in vain for help to come.

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Eventually, though, Gerry had succumbed to the elements – perishing from exposure and a lack of water and food. And, heartbreakingly, she had actually been found surprisingly close to a public path. According to a 2016 report by The Boston Globe, Gerry’s camp had only been situated some 2,300 feet as the crow flies from the Railroad Road trail.

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Gerry’s final request had been for her eventual rescuers to send her possessions on to her surviving relatives. She had written, “Please find it in your heart to mail the contents of this bag to one of them.”

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But while Gerry’s family mourned her death, they remained full of praise for those who had dedicated huge amounts of time and energy in an attempt to bring her home. They said in a statement, “Gerry was doing exactly what she wanted to do. As the warden’s report indicates, she was lucid and thinking of others – as always – until the end.”

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Fittingly, Gerry may continue to help people even after her tragic death. In June 2019, you see, Maine-based writer Dee Dauphinee published When You Find My Body: The Disappearance of Geraldine Largay on the Appalachian Trail. And through this book, the author believes, others will learn about the potential pitfalls of the popular hike.

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“I spoke to the trail culture on the Appalachian Trail. You know, the trail is so well marked that the Appalachian Trail culture and hikers – many of them insist that you don’t need a map and compass or any of the wilderness survival skills,” Dauphinee told Maine Public in 2019. “So, I really spoke to that in the book. And I wasn’t sure how the Appalachian Trail community was going to respond to that. But, overwhelmingly, it’s been great.”

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“I’ve had several hundred emails from people [who] have read the book [and] said, ‘I went out and bought a compass,’ you know, and things like that,” the author continued. “So, I think, Gerry was such a caregiver that I think that, were she alive, she’d be happy to know whatever she did on the Appalachian Trail was [contributing] to somebody’s safety down the road, potentially.”

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For Gerry’s family, however, the loss has been difficult to bear. Particularly painful, according to George, was the realization that his wife had survived for so long before finally succumbing to her ultimate fate. In a 2016 interview with The Boston Globe, George explained, “That was gut-wrenching. I knew [Gerry] was one tough cookie; I just didn’t realize how tough she was.”

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Then, ten days after Gerry’s body was discovered, her family hiked to the campsite where the wife and mother had spent her final days. And at the spot, they put up a homemade cross covered in messages from the hiker’s beloved grandchildren. One day, Kerry even hopes to return with her own kids to the remote location that remains a testament to one woman’s strength.

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Later, controversy also emerged surrounding hiking fanatic Warren Doyle, who currently holds the record for the greatest number of treks along the Appalachian Trail. Gerry had, it seems, attended one of his training courses before embarking on her adventure. Unfortunately, though, Doyle claimed that the lessons hadn’t covered survival techniques. And in 2016 the instructor told website Central Maine that Gerry’s case will likely serve as a cautionary tale for many years to come.

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Even experienced hikers have been known to simply vanish in the wilderness. And if that is true of adults, what hope could there be for a toddler? That thought undoubtedly crossed the minds of the policemen and women desperately searching for missing two-year-old Gabriella Vitale. The young girl had disappeared in a swampy stretch of woodland, and there was no sign of her anywhere. But just as the night is drawing in, concerns escalate when Gabriella’s distinctive pink coat is found discarded in the wilderness.

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In July 2019 two-year-old Gabriella was enjoying a camping trip with her family in some woods near Comins Township in Oscoda County, Michigan. The location offers visitors a taste of rural living, boasting an attractive range of lakes, rivers and forests. Nestled in the Huron National Forest, visitors can go fishing, hunting, walking and camping.

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Gabriella and her relatives had traveled to Oscoda County from near Monroe, MI, for a camping vacation. But on July 15, when the family were due to return home, the unimaginable happened. While they were packing up their belongings, they apparently lost sight of their daughter – and she vanished.

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At roughly 8:15 a.m., with Gabriella nowhere to be seen, her family alerted police to her disappearance. Local deputies subsequently arrived on the scene, and the hunt for the missing toddler got underway. The investigation would later scale up to involve voluntary search parties, Michigan State Police troopers, conservation officers, air crews and police canines.

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Announcing the news of Gabriella’s disappearance on Twitter, the Michigan State Police wrote, “MSP, the Oscoda County Sheriff’s Office and the DNR are mounting a search for two-year-old Gabriella Vitale. She wandered from her campsite on Reber Road west of M-33 this morning and hasn’t been seen since. Anyone with info should contact police ASAP.”

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Then, in a follow-up tweet, Michigan State Police provided an update on how the family were holding up in the midst of Gabriella’s disappearance. The post read, “[It is a] very emotional situation for them… and all who are searching for her.” Plus, alongside the tweet, the police department shared two images.

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One photograph showed Gabriella wearing a lifejacket and water wings. In the sweet snapshot, she is seen with shoulder-length curly brown hair and has seemingly been caught mid-sentence. The second image, meanwhile, contained a statement from the Oscoda County Sheriff’s Office, which provided some information to help the public find Gabriella.

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In the statement, the Sheriff’s Office revealed in great detail what Gabriella may have looked like when she went missing. It read, “She was last seen wearing a pink zip-up coat and pink bottoms. She is believed to be wearing tennis shoes and to have a gray shirt under the jacket. A recent photo will be forthcoming.”

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Understandably, the cops were eager to receive any information that could help bring Gabriella to safety. They asked anyone with details that could lead to the discovery of the missing child to contact the Oscoda Central Dispatch Center. What’s more, the Michigan State Police kept the public updated on the search for the youngster via their Twitter feed.

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Gabriella’s family also turned to social media in a bid to raise awareness of the search for the toddler. One relative, Sandi Vitale, urged the Facebook community to “be on the lookout for Gabby.” In her heartfelt post, the worried family member added, “And everyone please keep praying to bring this baby back home. Please someone find her…”

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Gabriella’s father, Dominic, meanwhile, was seemingly not present on the camping trip. In a July 2019 interview with WNEM-TV, he revealed that he’d only learned that Gabriella was missing when a friend had alerted him to a news story  detailing the incident. Presumably, finding out that his daughter had vanished in this way came as quite a shock.

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Dominic explained to the Michigan-based TV channel, “I got a message from my friend saying, ‘Did you find your daughter?’ I didn’t know what she was talking about at first – until I saw a link.” He added, “When I saw the link, my heart just dropped. I didn’t really know what to think. All I could think of was holding onto the hope that she’s okay.”

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Unfortunately, the first major development in Gabriella’s disappearance did nothing to ease her family’s worry. Hours into the search, police discovered a piece of the toddler’s clothing several hundred feet from the spot where she had last been seen. And yet there was still no sign of the little girl. That same day, Michigan State Police reported the find on Twitter and updated the description of Gabriella’s outfit that they had shared previously.

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The tweet from the Michigan State Police provided some information that they presumably hoped would be crucial to finding Gabriella. It read, “She’ll [now] be in the gray shirt. Thanks to neighbors who are on the lookout. Call dispatch with info. If you find clothing, please don’t touch (to keep your scent off).”

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Meanwhile, Michigan State Police Lieutenant Travis House reiterated this request in a statement obtained by 9&10 News. He said, “I know we have a lot of public out there that want to help, and we may get to that point. But right now, we’re asking people to stay out of the woods in this area because we have active canines working, and we want to make sure the area is [as] clean as possible when it comes to scent.”

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What’s more, Michigan State Police advised volunteers about what to do if they came across an item that they believed could be linked to Gabriella. The department tweeted, “The best thing to do if you find something is to note the location and back out. This will keep the area as fresh as possible for our canine helpers.”

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With no further developments, however, the search for Gabriella continued. And as darkness descended over Oscoda County, there was still no sign of the missing toddler. As a result, it looked likely that the efforts to find her would spill over into a second day. Although police promised to keep searching for the two-year-old through the night, the thought of her wandering alone in the dark worried some of those who were following the search on Twitter.

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A concerned post from one Twitter user read, “Really hoping to hear good news on this. I won’t be able to sleep thinking of this little one out there tonight. Please keep us posted!” Meanwhile, another person tweeted, “[Gabriella] is two years old; she couldn’t have wandered that far. She [probably] sat down and cried herself to sleep. Hopefully she is found soon and in good health!”

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Of course, for parents following the search, the situation was terrifying. One mom with a child the same age as Gabriella tweeted, for instance, “I was just checking for an update, hoping they had found her. My two-year-old is laying in my bed, and I’m just thinking how scared he would be alone in the woods. And now it’s dark, too.”

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In the early hours of July 16, Michigan State Police provided another update. It came in the form of a video, which had apparently been taken at the search area. The clip shows a group of people wearing hi-vis vests standing beside a large police truck. By the looks of it, the individuals in the footage are cops and volunteers getting to work before dawn.

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The caption that accompanied the clip on Twitter read, “The amount of volunteer search and rescue teams who’ve reported to the command center is remarkable. Plans are being made for overnight and first thing in the morning. Keep Gabriella and her family in your thoughts as the search continues.” And it wasn’t just volunteers who were aiding the police in their search efforts.

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In a true display of community spirit, one local fast-food outlet had been keeping those involved in Gabriella’s search fed and watered. A tweet from the Michigan State Police revealed, “The MSP Mobile Command Center has arrived and will become the incident command post. Thanks to the Mio McDonalds for all the food and drink they’ve provided to the search teams and staff.”

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The search for Gabriella was largely confined to the woods where she had been camping in when she went missing. But despite the efforts of volunteers, police, a helicopter and sniffer dogs, 24 hours after the toddler disappeared, there was still no sign of her. And in the end, none of these resources would prove to be successful in the search for the child.

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However, that’s not to say that there wasn’t a happy ending for Gabriella and her family. Approximately 27 hours after the toddler was reported missing, she turned up on the porch of a cabin. The property is located half a mile away from where the youngster disappeared. And at the time, it was being used by an Oscoda retreat group, who had been following the search for Gabriella via the news.

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The Michigan Department of Natural Resources later revealed that the individuals using the cabin had assisted in the search for Gabriella. The department told The Detroit News, “The group of people that found [her] was a retreat group who had let law enforcement agents search their cabin’s property for the missing girl [on] Monday night.”

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As a result, when the retreat group spotted a little girl outside of their cabin, they were confident that she was indeed Gabriella. They subsequently alerted the Department of Natural Resources. And when Lieutenant Brandon Kieft – a conservation officer – arrived on the scene, he knew that the search for the missing toddler was finally over.

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In a statement obtained by USA Today, Kieft revealed Gabriella’s joyous reaction to being found. The first responder said, “I asked her if she wanted to go see mommy, and she lit up. She came right to me and gave me a big hug.” Kieft subsequently transferred the little girl to the natural resources station, where she was given a cookie and some water.

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And although Gabriella wasn’t in tip-top shape – she had showed up at the cabin without her pants and footwear and with only half of her shirt – she had nevertheless survived her overnight stint in the woods with just a few bruises and cuts. What’s more, the little girl was in high spirits and seemingly hadn’t suffered any obvious emotional trauma from her ordeal, either.

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Just to ensure that Gabriella was well, though, authorities took her to the hospital for a check-up. Giving an update to WNEM-TV, her father, Dominic, said, “Right now, she’s getting fluids and vitals, [and doctors are] making sure everything is normal. She’s a little distraught from not seeing her family for so long – for about 24 hours – but she’s definitely accepting all the love. She wants hugs, [and] she doesn’t want to be let down, so she’s doing good.”

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Before arriving at the hospital, Gabriella had enjoyed a spirited reunion with her family at the natural resources station. The hunt for the toddler had involved over 50 searchers, ten dogs and a helicopter. So, given the happy outcome, Gabriella’s relieved mother, Alyssa Bijarro, thanked the many agencies that had tried tirelessly to locate her daughter.

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In a statement obtained by The Detroit News, Alyssa said, “We would like to express our thanks to God for keeping our sweet Gabriella safe.” And while the mother’s ordeal was thankfully over, she nevertheless asked people to keep her in their thoughts. She said, “Please continue to keep our family in your prayers as we hold Gabriella in our arms.”

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Police later revealed that Gabriella had turned up at the cabin at around 11:30 a.m – just after authorities had resumed their hunt. Since the property was on the edge of the search area, officials were apparently due to check it next. That said, it was nevertheless a surprise that Gabriella had wandered so far. Lieutenant House told The Detroit Post, “She covered quite a bit of ground.”

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Meanwhile, Michigan State Police celebrated the happy news that Gabriella had turned up safe and well on its Twitter account. On July 16 the department wrote, “Great news! Gabriella has been found alive. Details to follow when available.” And the tweet was followed by an image of Gabriella enjoying a cookie and a drink of water.

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Commenting on Gabriella’s seemingly upbeat attitude, the accompanying caption from the Michigan State Police read, “What a trooper! The searchers are all clearing, and the command center is packing up.” And perhaps unsurprisingly, the update was received positively by the public, attracting close to 450 likes and almost 100 retweets.

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Plus, the comments that the photo of Gabriella inspired seemed to capture the sense of relief that many were presumably feeling. One user wrote, “She’s never eaten a cookie that tasted [so] good! Outstanding job to all!” Meanwhile, another user said, “Best news story of the year! She is a miracle. Hugs for the family.”

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But while there was widespread happiness that Gabriella had been safely located, some mystery remained around her disappearance. You see, those who’d searched for the little girl seemed surprised that she’d emerged from her ordeal practically unscathed. As Lieutenant House later explained to The Detroit News, “[Gabriella] seems relatively unfazed for a two-year-old who’s been in the woods overnight.”

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In a separate statement, which was given to WNEM-TV, House confessed that those searching for Gabriella had been concerned for her safety. He said, “We were all very worried about her wellbeing, and for her to pop up relatively healthy and even in good spirits, we couldn’t be happier.”

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It’s worth noting that the woods in which Gabriella got lost could have posed a number of risks for her. They contain wetland areas and swamps, after all. That said, Gabriella did get lucky with the weather, which was apparently unusually warm for northern Michigan at that time of year: overnight temperatures only dropped to 72°F rather than the average of 56°F.

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So, the warmer-than-normal weather certainly aided Gabriella. But the fact that she’d survived overnight in a forest and come to minimal harm was remarkable for a two-year-old. And we’ll likely never know just how she managed to keep safe. Lieutenant House explained to The Detroit News, “She’s only two and not overly verbal. So, exactly what she experienced might be a mystery.”

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However, those searching for Gabriella were just glad to have found her before she did come to any harm. And, given her astonishingly young age, she deserves credit for approaching the cabin where she could be spotted by concerned adults. Lieutenant House told The Detroit News, “We are ecstatic she’s been found. She certainly helped by finding a residence.”

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