Mary O’Brien, exhausted, bruised and covered in scratches stepped onto their boat ending a five-day treacherous hike through Washington state’s wildest territory.

When a couple out for a leisurely boat ride on Lake Millis in Olympic National Park spotted a hiker waving to them from the shore Saturday morning, they had no idea just how glad she was to see them.

Arlington resident Mary O’Brien, exhausted, bruised and covered in scratches stepped onto their boat ending a five-day treacherous hike through Washington state’s wildest territory. Elsewhere in the park, looking for her, were 46 searchers, three tracking dogs, two helicopters and a Washington State Patrol aircraft with infrared equipment designed to detect body heat. In the end, however, O’Brien found her own way out.

After calling authorities from a phone at a nearby boat ramp, O’Brien was taken to safety. She asked for chocolate, tea and a chance to tell the family that never gave up on her that she was OK.

Losing her way

A former Washington resident, O’Brien took a trip to Olympic last Monday intending to take a day hike. But a snow-covered trail and thick cloud cover soon obscured the trail. She found herself facing a hiker’s worst nightmare — lost in unfamiliar territory.

“I have a rule not to hike a trail alone that I have not hiked before with somebody else,” O’Brien told the Peninsula Daily News of Washington Saturday just after finding her way out of the park. “I broke that rule.”

But O’Brien’s story of bushwhacking for five days through rugged mountain terrain may not be your typical story. O’Brien had experience and some luck — and she used them. Rationing her food, she concentrated on trying to make her way to a waterway.

“My goal was to fly out on Wednesday,” O’Brien said. “And every day after that, my goal was to get out on that day.”

But Wednesday — the day she was scheduled to fly back to Massachusetts — came and went. As did, Thursday and Friday. Sleeping with a tarp for only a few hours most nights and eating energy bars and a single rehydrated dinner, she struggled to find a trail or landmarks. Meanwhile, her family, some of whom had flown in to help in the search, remained confident.

During the search last week, O’Brien’s brother, Neil, a Tacoma resident who was visiting the rest of the family in Malden, where he was supposed to meet Mary and other family members for a family reunion, told the Advocate that his sister was a hiker with more than 20 years of experience who had hiked all 48 of New Hampshire’s high peaks. Confident his sister would make it, Neil O’Brien said, “She’s in her element.”

As she helped the park service search, Mary’s sister, Anne O’Brien wore her hope proudly — a dark blue T-shirt her sister had given to her in 2004 — A Boston Red Sox shirt with the word “Believe” written across the front.

“I think she’s working her way out,” she told the Peninsula Daily News.

Tough terrain

But working her way out involved navigating through some dense and treacherous terrain. For O’Brien, it wasn’t just a matter of being lost, it was where she was lost that was so difficult.

“The river basin I ended up in was a pretty nightmarish hike,” O’Brien recalled. “It’s just a tightly packed bunch of trees, needles and shrubs. That was probably the most frustrating and downright demoralizing — just trying to make my way through. That was incredibly frustrating.”

Unable to see very far and squeezing her way through the brush, more than once, O’Brien said she did think about the dangers that surrounded her in the more than 900,000-acre park.

“The couple of routes I was trying to make were pretty steep and I knew if I slipped I was going down with the whole pile of rocks. I felt like ‘I’m going to go careening into this creek and that will be the death of me and they’ll find me in five years.’”

But O’Brien said pacing herself and keeping her mind on the friends, family and searchers that she suspected were looking for her, kept her going.

“I was focused on ‘I‘ve got people worried about me,’” she said.

Coming home

O’Brien’s last night on the mountain wasn’t easy. Trying to get to a higher elevation to get her bearings, she ran into cold temps that forced her to stay awake and keep moving, flashing her light at a piece of reflective foil every 45 min. in the hope that someone would see. At 2 a.m., she finally decided she’d better hike down.

Then she saw it.

“I saw these little lights,” O’Brien recalled.

Lights and a lake.

“My spirits were ecstatic when I had that view,” she said.

Out of food she decided to stay at the lake and wait. When a boat with a couple out for a cruise drove by, O’Brien met what were likely the only two people in the area who didn’t know who she was at that point. They soon found out.

Back in the arms of her family, O’Brien caught a flight to Logan International Airport Monday. Her feet swollen and a candidate for infection, she was examined by a physician and is nursing a few minor wounds. By Tuesday, she was on the Cape celebrating with family both her return and the 50th wedding anniversary of her parents, Malden residents Margaret and Leo O’Brien.

As for Mary, she says she’s done with Olympic National Park for a while.

Noah R. Bombard of The Arlington (Mass.) Advocate can be reached at or at 781-674-7726.