Lost & found: How Carol Kiparsky and Ian Irwin survived without food, water or phones until being found by a cadaver dog.

Story by Sue Dremann / Photos by Magali Gauthier

Ian Irwin and Carol Kiparsky in their backyard in Palo Alto on Dec. 2, 2020. (Photo by Magali Gauthier)

The late afternoon hike from their vacation cottage wasn’t supposed to take more than 15 minutes. For Palo Altans Carol Kiparsky and Ian Irwin, the idyllic sunset walk along a narrow Marin County trail instead became a nine-day walkabout and a fight for their very survival.

Their disappearance on Feb. 14 set off a massive search-and-rescue mission, which took helicopters and ground teams over and through the rough terrain near Seahaven/Inverness. Given their ages — she, 77, and he, 72 — the length of time their absence and weather conditions, authorities at one point declared that the rescue had turned into a recovery mission and started searching Tomales Bay for their remains.

But Kiparsky and Irwin did survive, living off fiddlehead tops of ferns and a few seeps, or puddles, containing muddy water. They were found safe by a search-and-rescue team on Feb. 22. Now recovered but still processing their journey, they agreed to talk to the Six Fifty’s sister publication—the Palo Alto Weekly—on Nov. 25, their first interview since their rescue.

The Marin County Sheriff’s Department Dive Team brings diving gear to the edge of the pier at the Inverness Yacht Club in Inverness on Feb. 19, 2020. (Photo by Magali Gauthier)

Theirs is a story of survival, but don’t call what they went through an “ordeal,” they said. Their experiences amounted to much more than that, with deeper insights into the importance of love and companionship, universal human experience and of never giving up.

Irwin and Kiparsky weren’t novice hikers the day they disappeared. The couple has trekked many places over the years, and they were acquainted with the area around their vacation retreat in Seahaven/Inverness, they said. Irwin was an experienced backpacker, spending weeks at a time in the Sierra Mountains.

Having arrived earlier in the week, they set out on a narrow trail near their cottage to find a commanding view of their surroundings, including Tomales Bay.

“We thought it would be lovely to see the sunset and come back and have dinner,” Irwin recalled.

As the sun descended in the sky, they worked their way back toward the cottage. Seemingly in an instant, the beauty and grace of the setting sun fell away into a black, moonless void. Coastal mist enveloped them.

They became disoriented. They were walking the trail “by Braille,” Irwin recalled, tapping their feet on the ground to figure out what was the trail and what was off-trail. “I tripped and fell and I banged my head and broke my glasses,” he said.

Irwin balanced the cockeyed pieces on the bridge of his nose. He had blood dripping from a gash on his forehead, and later he found blood had dripped down his glasses that had obscured his vision, he said.

The trail was covered in thick vegetation along many stretches. With Irwin injured and the dark upon them, they realized they could not travel farther. They decided to spend the night where they were.

Normally on hikes, they carry a small pack with essential supplies, but they were only on a brief stroll.

“We had nothing with us. No phone, no light, no water, nothing,” Irwin said.

“Not even a candy bar,” Kiparsky added.

They were also dressed for a short evening outing. She wore corduroy pants, a favorite sweatshirt with a jacket on top, a hat and comfortable shoes; Irwin had a light down sweater jacket, flannel shirt, corduroy pants with a small tear in one leg and hiking boots.

Alone in the cold and darkness, they piled up ferns on which to rest their heads. That night would be the first of many without much sleep. With temperatures in the low- to mid-30s, the nights were “bone-chilling,” Irwin said. They huddled as best as they could to keep each other warm.

“We would take turns to warm each other up,” Irwin added. As they tossed and turned through the night, they alternated holding the other’s back for warmth.

By 10 a.m., the sun was high enough and the shadows had receded so they could warm up and catch a little sleep. The first day, they were high on the hillside and could hear cars and voices. If they followed the sounds, they would find their way out, they thought.

“I could see Tomales Bay in the distance. The trails are narrow here and tend to come and go, so we wandered most of that morning. We thought if you can navigate downhill we would get to Tomales Bay and to civilization. It was really hard going. We were beating through dense, dense underbrush,” Irwin said.

The Marin County Sheriff’s Department Dive Team heads out to search the waters of Tomales Bay in Inverness on Feb. 19, 2020. (Photo by Magali Gauthier)

He threw himself backward over the dense vegetation to flatten it with his back so they could walk on top.

“It was very slow progress. Imagine it was really big and dense like a Brillo pad and you are in the middle of it,” Kiparsky said. “It’s kind of hard to find your way through. And in any direction you go, there’s more Brillo.”

In many places, they would fall through the vegetation, which had grown over a creek about 5 or 6 feet beneath, soaking their feet and legs. But they could not drink the water; it smelled of sewage. They decided they wouldn’t take a chance. Getting sick on top of being lost was unthinkable, Irwin said.

Hope came in the form of a few distant summer homes, but these were closed up, uninhabited for the winter, they soon realized, with no one inside to see or hear them.

“By day two we did a lot of screaming,” Irwin said, trying to attract attention.

At first, they weren’t frightened. The couple has done much backpacking. They felt comfortable in the woods, Kiparsky said. Kiparsky remembered hunting for fiddleheads, the spiral, young fronds of Ostrich ferns not yet unfurled that people would pick and eat on the East Coast where she grew up. The tops would usually be sauteed in olive oil and garlic. The couple sustained themselves on uncooked fiddleheads and a few other recognizable edible plants, she said. The fiddleheads are low in calories — only 34 calories per about 100 grams — but they are high in antioxidants, vitamins A and C and essential fatty acids. But they had nothing to drink.

By day four, they became delusional from the lack of water.

“We had nothing with us. No phone, no light, no water, nothing.”—Ian Irwin (Photo by Magali Gauthier)

“We saw imaginary people. At one point Carol thought we were in the bedroom. All we had to do was go to the closet and get a blanket to keep warm,” Irwin said.

Her delusions became treacherous at times. She didn’t recognize her own jacket and took it off, thinking it belonged to someone else; she left a shoe behind that came off in the mud, then saw no need to keep the other.

One saving grace: As the couple drifted in and out of confused states of mind, at least they did it at separate times, they said.

“There was always someone with an ounce of sanity,” Kiparsky said.

Irwin said that, just like the spots one sees floating in one’s field of vision, thoughts of people he knew passed by, and being alone for so long gave him the chance to remember them more deeply.

“It was an opportunity to think of everyone I’ve ever known,” he said. “I wondered if something did happen to us if they would find out about it and how that would affect them.”

“There were all kinds of moments in the day,” Kiparsky said. “Definitely, we thought we might die. We thought about grandchildren and children and other people and my cat and I thought, ‘There’s no way I’m ready to leave these beings. So I’m sorry, I’m not dying.’”

Thoughts of death didn’t consume them, though, Irwin said. Their goal was to keep moving and not to give up. And they knew the key was having each other.

The Marin County Sheriff’s Department Dive Team preps diving gear at the Inverness Yacht Club in Inverness on Feb. 19, 2020. (Photo by Magali Gauthier)

“Being close was indispensable,” Kiparsky said. “I think I would’ve not gotten out of there if I had been there by myself.”

Because Irwin was injured, at one point she tore pieces of a silk scarf and tied them onto trees so that Irwin could follow her to the next clearing, but even at 20 feet away they couldn’t see each other. Although she lost her shoes, Kiparsky’s feet were in better shape than Irwin’s. Irwin, with boots and wet socks, developed foot problems from the lack of circulation — sort of like trench foot that soldiers developed during World War I, he said. He was afraid to take his shoes off to look at blisters.

When end-of-life thoughts did creep in, they managed them with humor at times.

“At one point we had been talking about planning our estate and the possibility of doing — instead of … being incinerated or buried — that we would want to be compost. And we were sitting there amid piles of vegetation and everything, and he says, ‘You know about that compost burial? We might be accomplishing it right now,’” Kiparsky said.

After the fourth day without water, they resolved they had to drink whatever they could. If not, they knew they would die. They found small seeps — puddles created by water oozing up through the ground — and places where a deer might have put their hoof print. The water there didn’t smell like a septic system. They tried to absorb the water with a sock, squeezing handfuls into their mouths. Sometimes, they would lay down and sipped from the small puddles, they said. The water seeps contained bioluminescent fungi. At night, sticks around the water margins would glow in the dark, Irwin said.

They always had the expectation they would be rescued. At nights, a helicopter flew overhead. Irwin could see its green and red lights. He took off his shirt, hoping his skin would give off a heat signature detectable by infrared sensors.

“It flew right over us. We waved and screamed constantly,” he said.

Sometimes they sang songs to lift their spirits. Old favorites turned into ballads about their circumstances, such as songs about drinking muddy water, they said.

By day 9, however, they were beginning to feel they might truly die. The couple was hesitant to leave the water holes.

“We were pretty spent” by then, Irwin said.

But on the morning of Feb. 22, their ninth day in the wilderness, they heard faint voices. The couple called out.

“It seemed to be a call and response,” Irwin said.

On the other end were Marin Search and Rescue volunteer Quincy Webster, California Rescue Dog Association volunteer Rich Cassens and Groot, a golden retriever.

Dozens of search and rescue volunteers were “ecstatic” at the recovery of Palo Alto residents Carol Kiparsky and Ian Irwin, who had gone missing Feb. 14, during a press conference outside the Inverness Volunteer Fire Department on Feb. 22. (Groot is pictured in the lower left.) (Photo by Lloyd Lee)

Kiparksy and Irwin had been found, about 4 miles from the cottage where they’d started their sunset hike.

Cassens said they would send the dog down to the couple. The brush was too dense to get through.

“I asked, ‘Is that a cadaver dog or a person dog?’” Irwin recalled. “He said, ‘He does both.’”

The friendly, 3-year-old Groot made his way to them, but it took another 40 minutes for Quincy and Cassens to reach them after cutting through the thick vegetation. They had fresh water, Gatorade and warm clothing.

A helicopter arrived with a litter on which to carry Kiparsky and Irwin out. Irwin broke into song as he was hoisted into the sky, singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” he recalled. As he swung out over the forest, he felt a kinship with all of history: with all of the people who had been lost or traveled through forests before them; of the Coast Miwok who inhabited these lands and all of the slaves who had escaped through forests in the South and into an uncertain and often hostile environment.

“Think about all of the people who endured that for one reason or another,” he said.

Kiparsky, who is terrified of heights, said she shivered as the litter carried her into the sky. But her fear was eased. They had made it out alive.

“I looked around and saw the world,” she said.

Just as they had been inseparable for nine days, they remained together as they healed. Placed in the ambulance together, they stayed in the same intensive care unit in Marin General Hospital.

Marin County Sheriff’s Department Dive Team and other authorities debrief at the end of the pier at the Inverness Yacht Club before searching in the water in Tomales Bay for the missing Palo Alto couple in Inverness on Feb. 19, 2020. (Photo by Magali Gauthier)

Both were hypothermic, with body temperatures of about 94 degrees Fahrenheit. Of the two, Irwin was injured the worst due to hitting his head and with his feet nerve-damaged from being cold and wet in his boots and with poor circulation. Kiparsky mainly had scratched feet, she said.

The couple is immensely grateful for the outpouring of support they have received from all over the world and for their neighbors, who brought them food once they returned home. But don’t ask them to talk about their “ordeal,” they said.

“It was a much more mixed experience than that,” Irwin said. There was “good conversation, good company and some beauties of nature.”

The experience was also transformative: “The commonality of all humanity, even across time and even across individual experiences. We share an awful lot across time, history and as a nation,” Irwin said.

Kiparsky said she was most struck by “truly being present. Really present and immersed, even for a moment, was something I learned out there.”

Carol Kiparsky and Ian Irwin in their backyard in Palo Alto on Dec. 2, 2020. (Photo by Magali Gauthier)

Kiparsky and Irwin now savor each taste of food, each encounter with a person, the sound of music — and nature. Looking out at the finches at their backyard bird feeder, Kiparsky said, “Before, it was a fleeting, ‘Oh, we’ve got birds. Isn’t that nice?’

But now, “There’s so much more capacity to know who’s who and how many different kinds they are and their behaviors and seeing them from different angles,” she said.

There are flashbacks. During a visit to a garden store in Redwood City, Irwin came across benches made out of twisted willow branches. It brought back unpleasant memories of the thicket of brambles, he said.

The couple has been doing much writing about their experiences since returning home.

“We’re definitely processing,” Kiparsky said of their time in the wilderness, which is still vivid to her. “I feel there’s a lot to be learned from it. … When I stop and think about it, things come up.”

They also haven’t shied from revisiting the place where they became lost. In August, they went back to those woods to find where they had started. They were accompanied by two of their rescuers, and they shared all of the events, including what was involved in their rescue.

About 1,400 or 1,500 people get lost in national parks each year, Irwin said he has heard.

Looking back on their experience, Irwin said when taking even a short walk in the wilderness now, he will take a cellphone, as much as he dislikes mobile devices.

Kiparsky said that what stands out to her most is a new perspective: “You are just more aware of being alive. Alive.”

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