Missing hiker, wildfires tax national park

Hazel Zinn-Day
The view from Woodville: Looking at Old Rag, Hazel Zinn-Day photographed smoke from the wild fires in Shenandoah National Park. Hazel Zinn-Day

UPDATE: Sad ending to Mittendorff story

As 100 federal, state and volunteer search and rescue teams look for a missing woman hiker in the Shenandoah National Park, a Rappahannock County hiking guide who, for 30 years has hiked the popular White Oak Canyon, shared some insights into one of the park’s most spectacular waterfall hikes, now the scene of a challenging rescue.

It’s there at White Oak trail’s parking entrance in Madison County that a U.S. Park Ranger found an abandoned vehicle at 8 p.m. last Saturday. It was a 2009 cream-colored Mini Cooper belonging to 31-year-old Nicole K. Mittendorff of Woodbridge, a Fairfax County career firefighter/paramedic who enjoyed hiking, and as her father, Robert Clardy, has said, the avid runner and triathlete may have gone there to train for a race.

Nicole Mittendorff, who has been with Fairfax County Fire and Rescue since 2013, is described as a 5-foot-6-inch woman with blond hair and green eyes weighing about 125 pounds.
Nicole Mittendorff, who has been with Fairfax County Fire and Rescue since 2013, is described as a 5-foot-6-inch woman with blond hair and green eyes weighing about 125 pounds. find-nicole.com

Hunt Harris, who lives in Woodville, has been hiking White Oak for three decades and is well-known in the hiking world around the park. He said that volunteer rescue workers have been contacting him about the missing woman and he has supplied maps and hiking information to assist.

“I know White Oak Canyon like the back of my hand,” said Harris in an interview yesterday. “It’s my favorite place to hike in the whole world. I’ve hiked it more than any other place in the park.” He said he has hiked it “hundreds of times” not only in daylight but also moonlight hikes.

Harris said there is little-to-no cell coverage at White Oak and it is very steep terrain. While it typically takes about four hours to do the hike, he said a fit person could do it in three hours.

“It depends, if you go there for solace, it’s one kind of hike,” he said. “If you go there to work out, she probably would have done the loop of White Oak and Cedar Run which is more strenuous and about eight miles.”

Clardy wrote in a Facebook post that his daughter’s last contact with family was a week ago Wednesday morning (April 13), and her last known location was Warrenton. Adding to the mystery, Fairfax County fire officials revealed yesterday she called in sick April 13. Her husband, Steven Mittendorff, a Virginia State Police officer, reported her missing after she failed to show up for work last Friday.

Park anniversary marred by fire

As the National Park Service, including Shenandoah National Park, celebrates its 100-year-anniversary, not only is it contending with a missing hiker but some 5,600 acres, about 30 miles from White Oak Canyon have been on fire. Over 200 personnel, two helicopters, one aircraft and eight fire engines are working to contain the wildfire that started last Saturday, according to the park service. Officials are not sure what caused the fire but think it may have been caused by hikers.

For firefighter and visitor safety, Skyline Drive, the scenic roadway that runs through the 105-mile park, is closed between mile 65 around Swift Run Gap to mile 79, Loft Mountain. In addition 12 miles of the Appalachian Trail are closed indefinitely as well as 14 other Shenandoah trails, according to the park service.

The fire is expected to spread further; rainfall is not expected until Thursday night.

White Oak hike

The White Oak Canyon – Cedar Run loop that Nicole Mittendorff may have hiked “is a great hike for athletes and nature lovers alike, though the full hike is not for couch potatoes out for their nature fix,” said Harris. “I use this loop for staying in shape for tennis and general conditioning.

“The trails are in very good shape, well maintained,” said Harris. “The wildflowers along the trails are spectacular, especially at this time of year. Trillium, jack-in-the-pulpit, wild geranium and many others are to be found along the trail.

“There are some interactions with animals, copperheads and timber rattlesnakes from times to time, water snakes, black snakes, and occasionally you might see a bear, but there is often no other animal sighting on an entire hike.”

There are steep banks on either side of the middle sections of both White Oak Canyon and Cedar Run, said Harris, “and to stray off the trails is a not recommended. There’s plenty of poison ivy and poisonous snakes, and one can get easily thrown off-course when deep in the woods in a wilderness-like area such as this. “

Whether Mittendorff told anyone where she was going officially has not been released.

“Letting someone know where you are intending to go is always a good idea when heading out into a hiking area where there is little or no cell service,” said Harris. “I’ve been deep into the canyon and had a couple of incidents where I got injured, was alone, was off-trail and had not told anyone where I was, and thankfully I was able to get out safely. I still go out hiking alone, though now I usually let someone know that I’m doing so, and where and when I’m heading out.”

As the search continues with aircraft and dogs for Mittendorff, park rangers have closed the following trails indefinitely in the White Oak Canyon area: White Oak Canyon, Cedar Run, Limberlost, Crescent Rocks, White Oak Canyon Fire Road, Cedar Run Link Trail and the Skyland to Big Meadows Horse Trail between White Oak Canyon Trail and the Old Rag Fire Road.

Mittendorff, who has been with Fairfax County Fire and Rescue since 2013, is described as a 5-foot-6-inch woman with blond hair and green eyes weighing about 125 pounds.

Virginia State Police are treating this as a missing-person case even with the passage of time and have said there is no evidence of foul play.

The family has set up a Facebook page and web page to aid in the search. Click on find-nicole.com

The Virginia State Police is asking that anyone with information call 703-803-0026 or email questions@vsp.virginia.gov

1 Comment

  1. It’s 2016. It’s time to have phone service in the Shenandoah National Park. Citizens should be able to contact 911 when they need help.

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