A man from Irving got lost in a wooded area of the Bergen Swamps yesterday, and if not for the swamps' caretaker becoming concerned for his safety and the trained nose of K-9 "Destro" his off-the-trail hike could have turned out very badly.
The caretaker, Mike Merritt, said he noticed a person park at a trailhead and get out of his car and walk into the swamps about 3 p.m., yesterday. Since he had never seen the man before, and he was alone, he was a little concerned right off the bat about his activity.
When the man hadn't returned after two or three hours, his concern grew, he said.
"It was too hot, too muggy and too buggy to be out there that long," Merritt said.
So Merritt walked the entire trail himself and didn't find him.
At 10 o'clock, Merritt thought, 'well, if he's still out there, now he's trespassing' and 'I can call law enforcement without them coming out here unnecessarily.' "
Deputy Rachel Diehl and Trooper James Moran arrived on scene and ran the plates of the unattended vehicle. They were able to contact family members, who expressed concern that they hadn't heard from Neil Gates for several hours.
Deputy Chris Erion and "Destro" were called to the scene, along with Byron's ambulance and some volunteer firefighters also responded.
With Merritt, who knows the area well, providing guidance, Erion and Destro commenced a search of the woods.
It took more than two hours, but Gates was located curled up in some cattails where he had apparently gone to try and get water.
He was dehydrated and had a minor knee injury, according to Chief Deputy Gordon Dibble.
Merritt said the Gates told officials he was a diabetic.
He was treated by Byron EMTs at the scene and released.
The incident wrapped up at about 1:30 a.m., Merritt said.
Merritt noted that there are signs warning visitors to the swamps not to leave the trails.
"You can get 20 feet off a trail, get turned around and you think you know which direction to go to find a trail, but you won't find one," Merritt said.
Merritt said the concern and professionalism of those who responded last night was impressive. There was no hesitation by law enforcement to take on the search.
"I couldn't have gone out there without them," Merritt said. "With my cell phone dead, out there alone, I couldn't have helped him. He wouldn't have made it much longer."