EDMONTON – It’s been a decade since 70-year-old Stephanie Stewart vanished while working alone at a wildfire lookout in dense mountain forest in northwestern Alberta.
So what happened?
The healthy and adventurous senior was reported missing on Aug. 26, 2006 from the Athabasca lookout, located about 25 kilometres northwest of Hinton, an industrial town about 280 kilometres west of Edmonton at the edge of Jasper National Park.
Stewart had last talked with a family member the night before, but the following morning failed to make her routine radio check-in, a task performed at least three times each day.
When she couldn’t be reached, another fire spotter was sent to see if she was OK.
She was gone.
Stewart isn’t thought to have just walked away. A pot of water had been left boiling on the stove and her truck was still parked outside. Some items were missing from her cabin: two pillows with blue covers, a burgundy bed sheet, a Navajo-patterned duvet and a gold watch.
Stewart, 5-foot-2 and 105 lbs., was considered very active and healthy for a 70-year-old, according to the Globe and Mail.
For 18 years, she spent each summer working as a fire spotter. The last 13 years of her career placed her every April through September at the Athabasca watch tower, which also had an onsite cabin to live in.
Each day, alone in the woods, she climbed the ladder to her observation post. Armed with binoculars and a radio, Stewart scanned for signs of smoke and routinely checked in with her supervisor.
Friend Robin Slater says Stewart, who was from Canmore, Alta., was a phenomenal woman who cycled solo across Canada and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. But her perfect place was the lookout, where she tended a huge garden, embroidered, painted and read stacks of books.
Mounties believe the senior was the victim of a homicide, although her body has never been found.
Spokesman Cpl. Hal Turnbull says tips continue to come in about the case, but there have been no arrests.
“It’s a very puzzling thing,” Turnbull says.
“We’re moving forward the best we can on what we have. Some cases are more difficult than others. And this is just a very difficult case.”
Turnbull says forensic evidence and other information gathered during the early days of the investigation led officers to rule out that Stewart was attacked by an animal, died in an accident or suffered a medical episode that caused her to wander away.
They concluded she was killed by someone.
Marc Symbaluk, a volunteer with Hinton Search and Rescue, managed the initial search for Stewart. It was one of the largest undertaken in the province, he says, and the group remains ready to help investigators if it gets the call.
“Stephanie has a special place in my heart,” says Symbaluk, who adds that from the back deck of his home he can see the lookout tower where Stewart worked.
He thinks of her often, he said.
The provincial government added safety features to its 127 lookouts after Stewart went missing. Signs that used to point visitors toward popular lookouts have been taken down. Lookouts with road access now have locked gates. Cabins have been reinforced with new locks, steel doors and shatterproof glass. Brush has been cleared away to increase line of sight.
Staffers wear radios, personal locator beacons, have panic buttons and check in more frequently. They have covert radio codes that can be used to discretely indicate they are in distress. Staff are also now required to take self-defence training.
Dennis Malayko with the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees said he’s received no complaints from lookout workers. He said they have told him that they feel safe in the remote jobs.
“Stephanie — I give her this legacy — it’s a terrible thing that happened, but as a consequence there was some very positive measures taken,” Malayko said.
A $20,000 reward is available for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or people responsible for Stewart’s disappearance. The AUPE contributed $10,000, with the other $10,000 comign from Alberta Environment and Parks, the government ministry Stewart worked for.
“Stephanie’s disappearance might have improved safety for her coworkers, but it came at a high cost,” said AUPE president Guy Smith.
“On this sad anniversary, we are asking anyone with information about Stephanie to please come forward. Her family, friends, and coworkers deserve answers.”
Former government forestry worker Bob Young remembers Stewart as a kind and gentle soul, who welcomed the many visitors who came to her lookout.
Young retired a few years before Stewart vanished, but before that had stopped often to see her as he sketched maps and took photos of all the province’s lookout areas.
He hopes reminding the public of her case will trigger someone’s memory and finally solve the mystery.
“There’s someone out there who knows.”
— With files from Karen Bartko, Global News