October 16, 2011Where is Noah Pippin?
Suttons Bay grad has been missing for more than a year
BY MARTA HEPLER DRAHOS
LAKE ANN — Noah Pippin looks out from a photo on his parents' dining room wall, serious in Marine dress uniform. His old dog tags lie atop a guestbook on a nearby table.
Rosalie and Mike Pippin are in mourning of a sort. The Lake Ann couple hasn't seen or heard from their oldest son since he went missing in August 2010 after a visit home.
Noah, a 1998 Suttons Bay High School graduate and a former Marine who served three tours in Iraq, had recently quit the Los Angeles police force and was serving with the California National Guard. He was expected to be deployed to Afghanistan soon.
"He needed to shake his mind off and decide what he wanted to do with his life," said Rosalie. "His plan was to stay a week with us and then go back to San Diego ... until he picked up his orders."
During their week together the family fished, practiced at a shooting range, and visited their favorite beach and restaurants, Rosalie said. A noticeably depressed Noah, 31, stored his belongings in his parents' basement and closed out some online accounts. Then, on Aug. 25, he said goodbye in the family's driveway and rode off in a taxi for Traverse City, where he planned to rent a car for the trip back.
It wasn't until weeks later, when they got a call from the National Guard telling them that Noah failed to report for duty, that Mike and Rosalie learned their son was missing.
After another weekend went by without Noah reporting, the couple called the Michigan State Police. It was mid-October when the police got permission to investigate, Mike said. Michigan law prevented them from placing Noah on the National Crime Information Center, the central database for tracking crime-related information.
Finding a trail
Police did learn that Noah had dropped off his rental car at Glacier Park International Airport near Kalispell, Mont. It's the county seat for Flathead County, near the vast Bob Marshall Wilderness and two national forests, 30 miles from Glacier National Park.
In November Mike made the first of several trips to the area, where he spoke with police officials and posted fliers. He also gave the first of many media interviews.
Since then, Noah's cellphone records and sightings confirm that he bought pizza at a shop in Columbus Falls and stayed at a hotel in Hungry Horse.
Then, carrying only water and a backpack, he hiked on foot to a trailhead of the Continental Divide Trail in the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
In the wilderness
Over subsequent days in the wilderness, the Pippins would later learn, Noah was spotted by and talked to everyone from forest rangers to hikers to hunters.
"He had plans to follow the Chinese Wall when the trail turned east," said Flathead County Detective Pat Walsh, referring to a 22-mile-long, 1,000-foot-high limestone outcropping. "When he was last seen in September he was at a spot that was at least 20 miles from the closest trailhead."
An early winter prevented an extensive search for Noah, whom Walsh believes may have been trapped by the weather. He said the most logical conclusion is that Noah was overcome by hypothermia -- those who saw him say he was fit but underequipped -- or had a fatal encounter with a grizzly bear.
"He was carrying a .38 caliber gun, which is not a big enough gun if you run into a grizzly," Walsh said.
Back to Montana
The Pippins returned to the area in June for a fruitless search with forest rangers. In September more agencies mounted an exhaustive search-and-rescue effort. It, too, failed to turn up anything but decomposed material near the Chinese Wall, where a group of Boy Scouts claimed to have found some of Noah's clothes this summer. Three bones that also were found turned out to be those of an animal.
Walsh isn't surprised and said that the Pippin family may never learn what happened to their son. Because of the vast and rugged terrain, "we have a lot of missing people over the years that have never been found," he said.
The Pippins take comfort in knowing that the search for Noah led to the wilderness rescue of another young man -- Kevin Latshaw, 22, of Lake Orion -- who was in danger of diabetic shock after his insulin pump broke. Rosalie said she draws additional strength from talking to those who knew or last talked with Noah and from comments posted on the family's Facebook pages, "Have You Seen Noah Pippin?"
The couple, who have two younger sons, Caleb and Josiah, also are attending a "grief share" program together at their church.
"It's hard, but it's drawn us together as a family," Rosalie said.
Mike, who tracks Noah's progress through the wilderness on maps with thick red marker, plans to search again in November.
"We went from knowing nothing a year ago to knowing a lot now," he said. "At this point on the trail there are still doors to open. As long as there are still doors to open, we'll knock on them."
The Pippins' efforts to find their son have attracted the attention of national media including "Outside" magazine and the Discovery network. Noah's disappearance will be the topic of a "Disappeared" episode on the network's upcoming season.
Meanwhile, the couple continues to talk with everyone from survivalists to post-traumatic stress disorder experts in the diminishing hope that their son merely went off the grid and eventually will surface alive.
"I would hope that he faked his disappearance. That would be the best case scenario," Pat Walsh said.
But there's another possibility-- one that Rosalie chews on, but believes unlikely.
"Why would he go 2,000 miles away and spend all that time and money to go to the wilderness to kill himself?" she said.
Rosalie said she's haunted by her final week with her son, when obligations prevented her from making a bigger fuss over him.
"I keep thinking, 'Next time I'll do better,' and there isn't a next time," she said. "I'm insane I didn't make more of an effort to honor him."