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Near to where her soul is: Missing hiker Melissa McDevitt is coming home

Melissa McDevitt (center) shown here with parents Tom and Maggie, went missing on Dec. 9, 2022. Maggie McDevitt photo Melissa McDevitt (center) shown here with parents Tom and Maggie, went missing on Dec. 9, 2022. Maggie McDevitt photo

Almost exactly a year after a hiker vanished in the backcountry of British Columbia the night before a trip home to Haywood County for Christmas, her remains have been located. 

Melissa McDevitt will be remembered for far more than her fearless life and tragic disappearance.

She’ll more so be remembered for how she brought together from across North America a group of selfless volunteers who wouldn’t quit until, through a remarkable set of coincidences and chance encounters, they were able to help Melissa’s parents finally bring their daughter home.

The daughter of Tom and Maggie McDevitt, Melissa, 38, was an avid hiker and naturalist who spent her life seeking solace in some of the world’s most untamed places. 

A Tuscola High School grad, she enjoyed skiing, running, reading and photography; Melissa had an eye for beauty demonstrated aptly through the stunning pictures she took of the remote places she’d sought out, places no human foot had likely ever tread before hers.

Melissa also collected mementoes from her travels. Beach glass, sand dollars, various moths, cool rocks, shells and injured butterflies she just wouldn’t let die alone still adorn the walls of her bedroom in her parents’ home in Clyde.

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Her life, however, was far less serene. Born with a rare genetic disorder called trisomy X, Melissa didn’t always fit in and endured no small measure of bullying due to her appearance and personality traits that made relationships difficult for her.

The great outdoors, Maggie explained, was the one place where Melissa felt “just like everybody else.” Nature never judged her. Nature never let her down.

And she was smart as a whip, earning her bachelor’s degree in anthropology in Montreal, her mother Maggie told The Smoky Mountain News. But Melissa ended up spending much of her all-too-short life shuttling around as a seasonal hospitality employee in different scenic resorts where she could take full advantage of her days off by exploring nature.

That was what had brought Melissa to Vancouver Island, on Canada’s west coast.

On the afternoon of Friday, Dec. 9, 2022, Melissa headed out for one last hike before her transcontinental journey home for the holidays would begin. Melissa loved Christmas — the lights, the pageantry, the cherished family traditions.

Her father Tom became worried when she didn’t answer his phone calls later that night.

By morning, he and Maggie began to sense something was wrong.

Searching for a seeker

That morning, with Melissa’s phone now going straight to voicemail, Tom was able to reach an emergency contact at Melissa’s condo. Her car was gone. Her door was unlocked. Her passport was sitting right there, on her bed. The ferry operator hadn’t seen her. Neither had the airline. Tom called the police.

He directed them to a small nearby town not so different from those of Melissa’s Western North Carolina home in the Great Smoky Mountains — modest settlements flanking vast, unforgiving areas of rugged wilderness — where they found her car parked near an entrance to Sooke Potholes Regional Park.

All her survival gear was still in the car.

Video cameras at the Jack Brooks Hatchery on the Sooke River captured Melissa’s steady gait near a trailhead just before 2 p.m., beneath overcast skies and with temperatures lingering in the mid-40s. She didn’t look like she was prepared for an extended journey, especially with the setting winter sun racing toward the horizon and bags to be packed and ferries and planes to be caught. She wore only an olive-green knit hat, a burgundy fleece jacket with no hood, dark blue hiking pants and boots.

The weather subsequently deteriorated as night fell.

Strong winds blew. Heavy rain crashed from the skies. Temperatures dropped into the 20s.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police established a command center, and with other groups including Juan de Fuca Search and Rescue, began to look for Melissa.

Right around that time, Marsha van Rhyn Henderson was walking into a room in her Victoria, British Columbia home where her husband was watching the news. A story about Melissa was on the screen and featured the video footage from the hatchery.

“I was mesmerized,” Marsha said. “A solo female hiker had gone missing, and it struck something in me.”

Marsha said she couldn’t explain why.

“There was just something about watching her walk across the screen,” she recalls. “I said to my husband, ‘I have to do something. I don’t know what. I have to do something. We have to do something.’”

An experienced solo hiker herself, Marsha had never been to Sooke but said it was on her list.

“Someone posted a question in an internet hiking group and said, ‘Does anybody else just want to go out there and start to look?’ And I read that and said, ‘Yes!’ So the two of us met out there,” she said. “The enormity of what we were thinking of doing was beyond ridiculous. You know the expression, ‘How do you eat an elephant?’ It’s one bite at a time.”

Two days after Melissa went missing, Sooke residents Heather and Vince McDonald were out for their regular Sunday hike when they happened past the hatchery, where the RCMP had set up their command post. It wasn’t until they returned home later that day that they found out what was going on, from the television, like Marsha had.

“It was sad to learn that,” Heather said. “We felt we could help, but we didn’t know how.”

As the Mounties and other professional search and rescue groups continued to come up empty, dozens, if not hundreds, of volunteers began to take their own small bites out of the elephant in what was called the largest search and rescue operation in Vancouver Island’s history.

By Dec. 19, 2022, nine days had passed since Melissa was spotted on the hatchery camera. Dogs and helicopters and Mounties and volunteers from as far as 400 miles away had spent more than 7,000 hours looking for her. The search was called off, but Melissa’s disappearance remained an active RCMP investigation.

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Heather McDonald (left) and Marsha van Rhyn Henderson try to keep warm during the search for Melissa McDevitt. Donated photo

The cold Canadian winter set in, along with its cruel reckoning, and Tom expressed the hope that Melissa’s remains would be found so that he and Maggie could in time be eternally reunited with her at the old family burial plot in Virginia.

Marsha estimates that once the snow melted in February, she’d taken the hour drive to Sooke weekly. Sometimes thrice weekly.

Like before, she wasn’t alone even though tips, leads and law enforcement activity had dwindled.

On March 12, Vince and Heather ran into Marsha on the trail. She was handing out flyers.

“We went home that night and joined the [Mindful of Melissa Instagram] group, talked with Marsha and made plans the following Sunday with Marsha to do our first hike together,” Heather said.

Back in Haywood County, Jamie Cogdill was monitoring the situation closely. Jamie, who at one time owned the Deja View gallery on Waynesville’s Main Street, had known Melissa since Melissa was a child and spent many an afternoon entertaining Melissa there as they waited for Maggie to finish work. The two were close and kept in contact even through Melissa’s college years, meeting up for an occasional hike or cup of coffee when Melissa came back through town.

When the search began, Jamie served as an intermediary between the Canadians and Melissa’s parents, even sending friendship bracelets made of thin black twine to Heather and Marsha.

Melissa will be found, Jamie told them, the day the bracelet breaks.

Tom and Maggie spent a considerable amount of time on Vancouver Island through the spring and summer, helping volunteers continue to search for Melissa. The volunteers were so numerous that it became apparent a more systematic approach would be needed.  

Clive Webber, another Victoria resident, was out on a trail run when he stumbled upon a poster noting Melissa’s disappearance, and her appearance.

“That’s an area where I like to do my hiking and trail running, so I have to say It bothered me quite a bit to find out that someone was missing up there because it is a large area, but to me, it feels kind of small, because I’m just so used to being out there,” he said. “But it is an easy place to get lost.”

Like most on the Vancouver Island, Clive already knew about the case.

One thing on the poster, however, caught Clive’s eye.

“It was Melissa’s activity-tracking watch, which I also wear and was wearing at the time. I know a lot about how these watches work,” he said. “I noticed that [a group of hikers] had been going on their unofficial searches, and I asked, ‘Well, have you been taking tracks of your hikes and then putting it into like a comprehensive map so you’d be able to tell where you’ve been and where you have not been?’”

They hadn’t, so Clive helped everyone get set up to track their hikes and forward the data to him. He created a digital map, so that the various waves of volunteers — many of whom had never met each other — didn’t inadvertently follow in each other’s footsteps.

All they knew at the time was where Melissa went in, and what direction she was heading. Data in hand, volunteers spotted areas that hadn’t been searched and embarked with renewed hope.

In the end, Webber had collected 229 individual tracks totaling more than a thousand miles.

Eventually, searchers were able to access the data on Melissa’s watch. Although it didn’t provide an exact location, it did reveal some patterns in Melissa’s prior hiking activity, including average distances and times of day.

It also revealed that Melissa had been in the same area the day before her disappearance — a tantalizing hint that she may have been exploring a specific spot within the park.

The spot was hilly, pierced with exposed rock covered by thick green moss. Douglass fir and western hemlock towered above. Below, large dense patches of a shrubby evergreen called salal formed a canopy of their own, often taller than a person. Sumptuous ferns unfurled feathery fronds, making it difficult to see one’s own feet. So dense with vegetation was the area that Heather and Vince, using Clive’s maps, would occasionally spook deer that had bedded down calmly beneath it.

“We heard from a hunter that it was a good omen to see deer out in the wild like that,” Vince said. “The day we spotted the first one, a huge buck with a giant rack, was the day Heather found the cell phone.”

In a dim off-trail ravine, under a crown of western red cedar, Heather happened to look down and was astonished to see Melissa’s black cellphone laying on the ground, backdropped by and nearly indistinguishable from the dark brown soil.

“It was miraculous that she found it,” Vince said of the Nov. 12 discovery.

The phone, however, wasn’t much help other than the fact that it suggested they were close to finding Melissa. Eight days later, Heather found a sock, ratcheting up the intensity of the searches, along with the hopes of searchers. Everything they ultimately found, Heather said, was within a 200-meter radius.

On Thanksgiving Day, a dog brought in from the mainland by the Mounties found Melissa’s hiking poles and a lone boot. A few days later Heather found the other boot and an emergency whistle.

At work on Dec. 6, Heather removed her bracelet, weathered and worn, for the first time since she’d got it from Jamie. It was about to break, and she feared she would lose it. 

A few hours later, Heather got the call.

Volunteers from SARDAV, the Search and Recovery Dog Association of Victoria, had found Melissa about two hours’ hike from the hatchery.

What really happened on that cold December night in Sooke will likely never be known, but suicide and foul play have been ruled out.

“I’m not quite sure if I’d use the word ‘happy’ to have confirmation of your daughter’s death,” Tom said. “But not knowing her status for 362 days, it was just such a relief to be able to know she hadn’t been abducted or whatever, just knowing that things that frankly are worse than death did not happen.”

Last Christmas was particularly painful for Tom and Maggie.

They fretted with uncertainty over their daughter’s fate, while memories of the family’s traditional holiday trips to Gatlinburg, to James Island, to the old Shenandoah home place and to the family cemetery where Melissa’s grandmother had played became ever dearer.

Christmas gifts Melissa would never get the chance to open continued to arrive in the mail.  Twinkling holiday lights, guarding with vigilance Melissa’s bedroom full of mementoes — the very proof that she had ever lived at all — waited to shine once more upon her.

They never will, yet they sparkle still.

Last week, well after Melissa had been located, Tom and Maggie took that holiday trip.

“We went to Charleston on Thursday and went to the same restaurant we would have gone to with Melissa, and then we went to the park, and then we waited until it got dark and drove around a couple of times seeing the James Island County Park festival of lights that Melissa just adored. We did that, and we felt good about it,” Tom said. “It was a bit somber, but we enjoyed it because we felt we had Melissa with us.”

This week, Tom will travel to Virginia to complete arrangements for Melissa’s burial in the family plot. The funeral home operators, upon learning Melissa’s story, told Tom they would not take his money.

A few days after that, on Christmas, Heather and Vince and Clive and other volunteers involved with the search who came to feel they knew Melissa will hike back out into the wilds of Sooke.  They’ll bring with them garland. Ornaments. Twinkling holiday lights, powered by batteries.  They’ll decorate trees. Recite poems. Read letters. They’ll share memories of the person who, at the culmination of her remarkable life, had both united them and changed them all forever.

Vince said they’d take a video for Tom and Maggie and send it to them as a Christmas present.

“Melissa would just be tickled, with the challenges she had making friends and keeping friends, to know that in her passing she brought together a collection of people from all different walks of life with a common bond of wanting to find out what happened. Little would she have known that they have formed lifelong bonds,” Tom said. “There’s nothing Melissa would have loved more than for someone to come out and decorate, near to where her soul is.”

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