Ann Baribeau points to a map while discussing her 1993 rescue after a weekend missing in the Maine woods. (Troy R. Bennett photo/Times Record)
Thirty years ago, Ann Baribeau fell through a crack. She was on her way from Brunswick to Jackman to visit her niece’s family on a Friday evening when she took a wrong turn. She kept driving until she ended up on an unpaved road that petered out in the woods. When she tried to turn around, her car got stuck in the soft ground.
Baribeau has cerebral palsy and couldn’t walk to safety. But even though her family quickly realized that she needed help, the state’s search-and-rescue teams didn’t act. Law enforcement agencies told the family there was nothing they could do. Because Baribeau was an adult, she was merely missing, not lost.
Baribeau fell through a crack between missing and lost. An adult can leave without telling anyone where they are going. Police would consider them missing. Only when there are suspicious circumstances, or after a couple days have elapsed, would law enforcement declare them lost.
At the time, Gary Anderson, of Harpswell Center, was the state’s search-and-rescue coordinator at the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. He says he had worried about a case like this happening, and that his hands would be tied if it did. So when he got a call from a friend on Saturday afternoon asking to help find Ann, he says, “There was no way I couldn’t do it.”
Rescuers found Baribeau, weak but healthy, on Monday afternoon, about 72 hours after she started her journey. For Anderson, Baribeau and her family, and others across Maine, that weekend has had lasting reverberations.
Baribeau and Anderson formed a strong bond in the wake of the ordeal. In a 2005 column for the Harpswell Anchor, Anderson recalled that Baribeau visited him after she recovered to deliver a bouquet and, as he put it, “a very ladylike kiss!” That summer, he accompanied her when she received an award from the organization Disabled Outdoor Experiences.
They reunited this past Easter to mark 30 years since her rescue, at the Brunswick nursing home where Baribeau now lives. She could not speak to the Anchor for health reasons, but her sister-in-law Maggie Baribeau, who lives on Harpswell Neck with her husband, Ann’s brother David, says Anderson brought her a walking stick and duck decoy he had carved, among other gifts.
Anderson has become a regular in David and Maggie’s lives as well. “He makes it his business to stop by and see how she is doing from time to time,” Maggie says.
Ann Baribeau’s successful rescue and Anderson’s advocacy changed the way Maine treats missing people. Soon after the incident, the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife started evaluating each missing person on a case-by-case basis to decide if a search-and-rescue operation is warranted.
The Baribeau family got right to work when they realized Ann was missing. On Saturday, they hired a pilot to search the route from Brunswick to Jackman by air for any sign of her. Friends and family were canvassing the area. David and Maggie drove north from their home in New Jersey to help.
Anderson called the Bolduc family in Skowhegan, whom he’d worked with before on a hunter safety program. He recalls Christine Bolduc insisting that he use their living room as a command center for the search effort. Anderson also recalls walking into the house to find she had freshly baked blueberry muffins waiting for the searchers.
Family, friends and other volunteers distributed flyers with descriptions of Baribeau — “Brown hair. Brown eyes … wearing a white turtleneck and brown cords” — and her car, a Dodge Omni in white, which unfortunately made the car harder to spot from the air.
Finally, on Sunday, a woman reported to Skowhegan police that a person matching Baribeau’s description had stopped at her house in Embden on Friday to ask directions. That confirmed that Baribeau had mistakenly driven up the west side of the Kennebec River, rather than the route on the east side that would have taken her to Jackman.
Gary Anderson, of Harpswell Center, visits Ann Baribeau, of Brunswick, on Easter to mark the 30th anniversary of Baribeau’s rescue. Anderson led the search effort when Baribeau went missing in the Maine woods in 1993. (Maggie Baribeau photo)
Anderson had Easter weekend off, and to this point was working as a volunteer. He was doing his best to marshal his usual search-and-rescue resources even though it was not an official search. He asked two game wardens, Daryl Gordon and Al Later, to help with the search, but told them to stay off their radios since the search was off the books.
David Baribeau knew they wouldn’t have Anderson for long. On Monday, he and Maggie drove to Augusta to petition first Anderson’s supervisor and then his supervisor’s supervisor to let Anderson continue directing the search in an official capacity.
Anderson wasn’t thinking about that. “I would have stayed all week,” he says. And if his bosses didn’t like that, they could fire him.
It didn’t come to that. On Monday afternoon, Gordon and Later found Ann’s car on a logging road that had been washed out after she drove in. In newspaper accounts at the time, Baribeau says one of the wardens had to hug her before she believed her rescuers were real.
Her family says Anderson’s involvement was crucial to her rescue. “Our feeling is, without him, she wouldn’t have made it,” says David Baribeau.
Anderson, on the other hand, credits the family and other searchers. “I had very little to do with it,” he says.
But both agree that Ann herself did everything a person could do to survive the circumstances. In the car she had an Easter basket she was bringing to her niece, and what was left of a stop at McDonald’s. She told reporters after her rescue that she rationed her jelly beans, eating one in the morning and one at night, and even ate some toothpaste.
Baribeau ran the car briefly a couple times a day to warm up and listen to the radio. Although she couldn’t walk far without crutches, she rigged a kind of signal flag from a shirt that she thought might make her more visible from the air. “She’s a smart girl,” says Anderson.
David and Maggie say the resourcefulness, determination and patience that kept her going that weekend are a result of her experience living with cerebral palsy. Ann Baribeau went to school through eighth grade before getting a high school equivalency degree. She lived independently in Brunswick for most of her adult life.
“She was very strong, very determined,” David says. “She’s an inspiration in the family.”
One thing she was determined to do was to learn how to drive, says David. She had gotten her license a few years before the Easter trip to Jackman, although she had been to the house often. Before that, her biggest drive was to Portsmouth.
In the wake of Baribeau’s rescue, Anderson resigned in protest of the department’s search-and-rescue policy. As he tells it, when the department asked him to come back, he presented his demand for a new policy. From now on, a supervisor would visit the scene in any case of a potentially lost person. Such cases would now be judged by a ranking system of risk factors rather than the binary missing or lost. The department agreed.
A spokesperson for the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife did not respond to questions about the department’s search and rescue policy and how it has changed since Baribeau’s rescue, but other state agencies are handling these kinds of cases more holistically.
“We really don’t differentiate,” says Maj. Scott Gosselin, of the Maine State Police. “They both elicit the same kind of response from us.”
When two developmentally disabled Topsham women failed to return home from a car trip to South Portland in February, the response did not depend on whether they were missing or lost. A game warden, from the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, found the women in a remote area of Hancock County.
Anderson is sure the policy change — and, by extension, Ann — has saved lives. “She was the most important missing person we ever dealt with. She changed everything for the better.”
Sam Lemonick is a freelance reporter. He lives in Cundy’s Harbor.