A 43-year-old woman who had been lost in the 300,000-acre Big Bend Ranch State Park for more than four days with little water and no food has been located by a search and rescue team made up of State Park police officers, Texas game wardens, other game wardens assigned to the newly created Game Warden SAR Team, and volunteer TX SAR members. The rescue occurred shortly after noon Sunday.
Suffering from dehydration and exposure, Katheline Elizabeth McFarland of North Little Rock, Ark. was evacuated from a remote area of the park by a U.S. Border Patrol helicopter and taken to the landing strip on the state park. From there she was flown by a Midland-based air ambulance to University Hospital in El Paso where she was reported in fair condition.
The woman and her 58-year-old husband, Ricky Lee McFarland, had been visiting Big Bend National Park when they were told on Tuesday that they had to leave the park because of the government shutdown. A park ranger gave the couple a map of Big Bend Ranch State Park and suggested they go there, which they did.
The couple arrived at the state park Wednesday, set up their tent at one of the park’s camping areas and then drove to what they believed was the trail head for the park’s Chilacota Trail, one of the park’s most popular hikes.
Misinterpreting the small-scale map they had, the couple hiked farther than they had anticipated, eventually reaching a scenic overlook in the general vicinity of Mexicanna Falls. Tired and out of water, they decided to spend the night on the high ground.
At sunrise Thursday, they found the correct trail and hiked into Arroyo Mexicanna, the drainage area above the falls. However, they lost the trail again and walked into the center of the arroya. When they stopped at one point to rest, Mrs. McFarland removed a fanny pack that contained food and forgot to pick it up when they moved on.
Eventually, the couple discovered a live spring. They refilled their water bottles and washed their clothes, pulling from their clothing and skin numerous cactus thorns they had collected.
That night, the temperature dropped sharply. In their still-wet clothing and with nothing to start a fire with, the McFarlands experienced some symtoms of hyperthermia.
Friday morning, they headed north from the spring and reached the vicinity of the old Howard Ranch. At a point about a half-mile east of the ranch, Mrs. McFarland said she was too exhausted to continue.
About 30 minutes later, her husband headed out to get help. Hoping to get back to where he had parked their truck, he walked west from the area, stopping periodically to rest in shady spots. Later that day, he saw a reflection coming from a vehicle’s windshield in the distance and used his digital camera to photograph it and then blow up the image on his screen.
While he could tell it was not his truck, he walked to the vehicle and from there was able to find his way back to where he had parked his vehicle Wednesday.
McFarland drove to the park headquarters, and Asst. Park Superintend David Dotter immediately went with him to try to find Mrs. McFarland. When they could not locate her, Dotter returned to park headquarters and mobilized local park and law enforcement personnel to assist in the search.
The Texas Department of Public Safety, the U.S. Border Patrol, the Presidio County Sheriff’s Office and the volunteer Texas Search and Rescue Team all assisted Texas game wardens and state park police in the search for the woman.
At one point Sunday morning, 37 persons were involved in the search.
Shortly after noon, a park police officer assigned to a game warden team on high ground spotted Mrs. McFarland. A team member used his radio to direct another game warden team to the woman’s location. Game wardens cleared brush about 200 yards from the scene so that a helicopter could land and transport the woman to the park’s airstrip.
The Game Warden SAR team was organized earlier this year and became operational in mid-September. The team has 23 members and is headed by Game Warden Capt. Jason Davis, who is based in New Braunfels.