FOR THREE DAYS, searchers combed grassy fields and traipsed through thick forest. Some took to the sky in a helicopter, scanning the rolling hills and valleys below, while others boated along the nearby Yukon River. Everyone—Yukon RCMP officers and their search dog, Duke; members of Yukon Search and Rescue; more than 100 concerned residents—was looking for Sarah Kruse.
Kruse’s farm along the North Klondike Highway, about 2.5 hours north of Whitehorse, was ground zero for the search effort. It wasn’t like her to vanish. Occasionally, when the 36-year-old wanted to clear her head, she’d saddle up her horses, round up her two dogs and ride into the bush for a few days—but she’d tell someone where she was going.
When Kruse’s family realized she was gone—but had left behind her dogs, purse and other belongings—alarm bells went off. Two days after she was last seen, in May 2019, they filed a missing persons report and, along with the police, organized a search. About 140 volunteers looked for Kruse that first weekend, one of the largest turnouts in a missing-person search in recent Yukon history, putting in nearly 1,800 hours and 60 ground searches that covered hundreds of kilometres. Her family set up a tent and prepared food for the crews. The weather was muggy and rainy, accompanied by unrelenting mosquitoes and blackflies. Volunteers and Yukon Search and Rescue scaled back their effort after that initial three-day peak, but the RCMP continued to search for Kruse over the following four weeks.
As time went on, some family members assumed she was dead. Her sister Rebecca DesRoches remembered a conversation she’d had a few days before Kruse went missing: Kruse said there were days she felt like walking down her driveway and leaving everything behind. Perhaps, DesRoches thought, she’d hitchhiked south. DesRoches sent missing-person posters to friends in Alberta and B.C. On Facebook, some Yukoners wondered if she’d been kidnapped off the highway by a trucker.
When John Lenart drove the North Klondike Highway that summer, travelling from his home in Dawson City, Yukon, six hours south to Whitehorse and back again, he thought of Kruse each time he passed her farm. Also a farmer, Lenart knew her parents through the territory’s small agricultural community. As he looked out at the mountains along the highway, he wondered if she might have gone off into the bush to be alone. “When I’ve been confused in my life, spending time out for a hike is a thing that I would do,” he says.
On July 5, 2019, Lenart was about five kilometres from Kruse’s farm, on his way home to Dawson City with his partner, when he saw a figure step out of the bushes along the highway and stick out a thumb. As he pulled over, he realized with a jolt who it was: “We just picked up Sarah Kruse.”
While Kruse had been missing, she wasn’t lost. Instead, she says God led her into the wilderness and, for 40 days, she prayed, fasted and reflected on her life. Her survival, she says, is thanks to God.
SARAH KRUSE NOW goes by Sara Rose; she says God told her to change her name. She was one of 11 children in a home-schooled, blended Christian family who lived on a farm about 40 minutes from Pelly Crossing, a small First Nations community of about 300 people, located three hours north of Whitehorse. She grew up outdoorsy and bush-smart, riding horses, dogsledding, trapping and hunting. She says she’s heard God’s voice throughout her life, since her early teens. And she says she’s witnessed miracles, like the time one of her packhorses got stuck in a frigid swamp, then, in the blink of an eye, was safe on dry land, as though God had heaved him there himself. “I have seen a few things—most of them have been in the bush,” she says. “And that’s really where my faith comes from.” Rose no longer calls herself a Christian, however, preferring the term “believer”; she finds it a more meaningful identifier. “I think in society nowadays, Christianity is more of a thing than really a relationship with God,” she says.
For years, Rose volunteered as a Canadian Ranger, a branch of the Canadian Armed Forces whose members live in isolated parts of the country and assist with public safety or national security issues. She also worked for the Selkirk First Nation, managing a rural tourism resort near Pelly Crossing in the summers, and bred horses on her farm.
Rose’s life wasn’t without its challenges—she was in an unhappy marriage, miscarried a child and, in 2016, got divorced. By 2018, though, she’d met someone new: a man from England who came to work on her farm as part of the Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms program. They dated long distance—he visited her in the Yukon, and she travelled abroad to spend time with him. He, too, was a believer. At the end of May 2019, Rose says she received an email from him, breaking up with her without explanation. Throughout her life, she says, she’s dealt with rejection and feeling like she’s not good enough. “You think that there’s something wrong with you, that no one’s ever going to love you . . . and all these things build up.
Rose says she knows it sounds odd, but she truly believes that she shut down, and God led her to a safe place.
She says her memory is spotty after reading the email. The next thing Rose remembers clearly is being in a valley. Sunlight filtered through the clouds. She had her backpack with her, an emergency go bag with a waterproof poncho, inflatable mattress, sleeping bag and small knife, but no cellphone, matches, water bottle, tent or food. To this day, she says she doesn’t remember leaving her farm.
Rose knows it sounds odd, but she truly believes she shut down, and God led her to a safe place. She says it was like a story in the gospel of Matthew, when the Holy Spirit led Jesus away into the wilderness to fast for 40 days. “The only conclusion I can come up with is that must’ve been what happened.”
Some of the earliest recorded instances of religious experiences are in holy books. Muhammad is said to have retreated to a cave in the mountains, where the angel Jibrīl visited him. In the Bible, Moses spends 40 days on Mount Sinai, fasting and talking to God before returning with the Ten Commandments. And since 1969, the Alister Hardy Religious Experience Research Centre in Wales has collected nearly 7,000 accounts of spiritual events, including people’s near-death experiences, miracles, seeing the ghosts of deceased relatives and hearing the voice of God.
But likely for as long as people have been reporting religious experiences, they’ve been met with skepticism and derision, and sometimes dismissed as being mentally unwell. While it’s true that some conditions, such as schizophrenia and temporal lobe epilepsy, are associated with religion-related hallucinations, these can’t account for all spiritual experiences.
Whether you believe in a god or not, there’s no real proof that someone has communed with a deity. It comes down to faith—what you believe is possible. The same goes for Rose’s time in the wilderness. Whether you accept her account will depend on your beliefs.
BASED ON THE spruce trees and low-lying mountains around her, Rose knew she was still in the Yukon. She hiked up the nearest mountain and realized she was near her farm, maybe 10 kilometres away. During this time, she says God illuminated things about her and her family. She says she realized that she’d grown up witnessing and being subjected to verbal abuse—something she thought was normal. It was an epiphany, Rose says, understanding how this affected her and how she could move on from it: by putting her faith completely in God.
Rose says she then heard God’s voice, telling her he wanted her to pray and fast for 40 days. When he told her he wanted her to move to a different location, she hiked southeast.
One sunny day, as she napped near the top of a mountain next to a large boulder, Rose awoke to the whirring of a helicopter above. She’d been missing for about a week, and it occurred to her that the helicopter was looking for her. But by then, she’d committed to what God was asking of her, so she remained where she was. “It was incredibly hard to bear,” she says. “I was crying out. . . . That was my internal fight in the beginning. Once I made up my mind, there was no turning back.”
Not all of Rose’s siblings are firm believers in God, but DesRoches is. When she learned her sister was missing, she prayed for hours. Like Rose, she says she’s heard God’s voice before. As she prayed, she heard: “She’s safe. Peace, be still. Do not believe the lies of fear.” DesRoches felt relief wash over her. She didn’t know where Rose was, but she believed she was well. A few days later, when Rose still hadn’t been found, DesRoches sat down on her couch and flipped open her Bible. On the page before her was the passage in which Jesus goes into the wilderness for 40 days to fast and be tested by the devil—“a confirmation of peace,” she says.Sara Rose walks barefoot through the Yukon forest, using a wooden walking stick. She carved a notch into the stick for each day she was in the forest—40 in total. (Photo: Cathie Archbould)
Meanwhile, Rose continued hiking to a second mountain range, about four kilometres away, over the next week. At one point, she bent down to tie her shoelace at the foot of a rocky outcrop and noticed a spring bubbling up from under a rock. This was a sign to stay. She drank from the spring, then climbed up the outcrop, where she found a grassy spot. It looked like a moose had bedded down there. Rose stayed in that spot for the next two weeks, looking out over the valley, praying.
She also says she didn’t eat for 40 days. Fasting is spiritually symbolic—it signifies stripping away bodily needs. In wilderness survival, the “Rule of Threes” outlines what the human body can usually endure: three days without water, three minutes without oxygen, three hours without shelter in adverse weather, three weeks without food. When you stop eating, your blood sugar, mood and energy drop. You become weak.
Rose says this didn’t happen to her. After 38 days, she began the 12-kilometre trek back to the North Klondike Highway. It was challenging terrain, with rocky, mossy ground and deadfall from a forest fire years prior. By her account, she covered the distance in only two days. “[God] gave me the strength to just do it.”
WHEN JOHN LIONBERGER tells people the story of his 1995 religious experience, he prefaces it with a disclaimer: “I know how this is going to sound.” Lionberger was agnostic—fairly certain of God’s inexistence, but aware that it was impossible to know for sure—when he went on a ski trip in Minnesota. As he stood on a frozen lake at twilight, he put his arms up and said thank you to the universe. Suddenly, the then-50-year-old felt bathed in warmth, as though a shaft of golden light were beaming down on him. A thought came to him, unbidden: “It’s God.”
After Lionberger returned home, he kept thinking about the experience. He also felt a strong, baffling urge to become a church minister. “A voice very clearly said, ‘You idiot! Take people to the wilderness for what you found.’” In 2002, Lionberger incorporated Renewal in the Wilderness, a non-denominational organization that took hundreds of people on trips into nature. He also became a United Church of Christ minister.
Some people were shocked by his abrupt new path. A friend of his late parents told him she thought they’d be horrified. And yet Lionberger’s wife seemed pleased that he’d finally “gotten it”—whatever “it” was.
“To me, faith is a heart thing . . . . It’s belief in something you cannot prove,” he says. “I hated not having answers to all these big theological questions, but somewhere along the way, I’ve come to the conclusion that I kind of like that.”
Jennifer Ostlinger knows faith is incompatible with certainty. She’s a registered psychologist in Edmonton, who believes in God and offers faith-based counselling. Some people, she says, use God to justify their actions. “God’s one of those ideas or concepts that you can use for anything,” she says. “God was used for and against slavery, God was used for and against capital punishment. You can use it however you want.”
That’s why religious experiences can be so easy to dismiss. Dr. Andrew Newberg, director of research at the Marcus Institute of Integrative Health and a physician at Philadelphia’s Thomas Jefferson University and Hospital, has analyzed brain scans of meditating Buddhists and praying Franciscan nuns to see what happens neurologically when people report spiritual experiences. His research found that when the brain focuses intently on something, such as the image of Christ during prayer, the mind can perceive Jesus as real. “[This] would, in fact, provide a neurological explanation for any mystical encounter in which the presence of a personal deity is perceived,” he writes in his book Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science & the Biology of Belief.
Newberg notes the prevalence of religious ideology in psychotic states, but says there are typically some distinct differences between delusions and spiritual experiences. The former are usually frightening and distressing, involving an angry, unforgiving God, whereas the latter are joyful.
Ostlinger has seen this distinction. She counsels people who’ve been in conflict with the law, and some have diagnosed mental health issues and experience hallucinations, telling her they hear or see God sitting right next to her. “Usually, God’s telling them to do something to themselves that I don’t think God would be telling them to do,” she says. “It’s happening for them, but it’s different.”
As Rose got into Lenart’s back seat, he looked at her in the rear-view mirror. She was thin, but looked fit and carried a wooden walking stick with dozens of notches carved into it—one for each day she was gone. Rose told him she was headed to a friend’s place just up the road, but he knew it was her farm. He didn’t want to spook her, so he didn’t let on that he knew who she was, instead asking gentle questions about where she’d been hiking. Rose didn’t give anything away. When they arrived at her driveway, Lenart pulled over and she dashed across the highway. Since there was no cell service in the area, he immediately drove to her parents’ house farther down the road. There, he ran into one of Rose’s sisters and told her she was back.
An RCMP officer showed up at Rose’s house and sped her to the health centre in Pelly Crossing, where, her records show, she reported nausea and vomiting for 48 hours. Rose also told the nurse she hadn’t eaten since May 25. Tests showed that her urine was high in ketones—a sign of malnutrition or starvation. Rose says she lost 50 pounds.
“I did in my heart what I believe God wanted me to do,” Rose says.
At the top of the assessment form, the nurse wrote, “? Psychotic break” and, at the bottom, a note that an RCMP officer told her Rose had said “that demmons [sic] were coming after her & scared that they are going to find her.” One of Rose’s other sisters who was at the health centre told the nurse it was Rose’s fourth episode of “vanishing,” and she worried the next time might be her last. The sister added there was no history of mental health issues in the family. (The RCMP says it cannot comment on Rose’s case.)
Rose says she doesn’t remember what she said to the officer on the drive to the health centre, but she does believe that Satan can commit “spiritual attacks” on people’s minds, causing them to feel depressed, anxious or suicidal. Before her disappearance, she believes she was spiritually attacked. Rose says she’s never had mental health issues, adding that, despite her sister’s insistence, she’d never disappeared before. (That sister declined to speak to Chatelaine.)
Rose was taken to Whitehorse General Hospital by air ambulance that evening, where she underwent a psychological evaluation. DesRoches was at the hospital and says she talked to Rose’s doctor. “In their opinion, she was not crazy,” DesRoches says. “But they were going to suggest to her that she follow up with a trauma counsellor, which she did.” Rose says she was discharged from the hospital on July 6 with potassium supplements and only had to return briefly the following day, so health care staff could ensure her potassium levels were on the rise.
FOR THOSE WHO believe it’s possible, feeling God’s presence can be a comfort. Bettina Schmidt, a professor of the anthropology of religion at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David and director of the Alister Hardy Religious Experience Research Centre, studies how people respond to religious experiences, rather than whether those experiences are real.
“When somebody doesn’t have the experience, it is difficult to understand, because you cannot measure it, you cannot see it, you cannot feel it, you cannot touch it,” she says. “For me, it’s not so important whether it’s real, because, for the person, it is.”
Rose says her experience changed her, causing her to look at her life and her family in a new way. “I would definitely not be as strong as I am now without going through what I did,” she says.
“I feel like God used that destructive situation to break me free from a lot of things that were generational in my family that would’ve probably just been carried on. To be free from that is huge.” She talks about her time with God in the wilderness like some people talk about their journey through therapy: with self-awareness, deep reflection and an understanding of the need for boundaries.
DesRoches believes Rose’s story. She wondered at first why her sister didn’t tell anyone where she was going, but she also knew Rose had been struggling emotionally. “When people ask me, I tell them, ‘Sara snapped mentally, but there were some crazy spiritual things that were happening as well.’ For somebody who understands spiritual things, I’ll go into that. For somebody who doesn’t, I’ll just tell them, ‘Her life was hitting her really, really hard, and she had an emotional break.’”
About a month after Rose’s return, she packed up her Subaru and drove south to the Cariboo region of B.C., where she rented a cabin and 80 acres for her horses. She says God told her to go and she felt she needed space from her loved ones in the Yukon. They wanted her to explain what had happened, but she was still figuring that out herself. She spent that winter writing a memoir. This May, she moved back to her farm in the Yukon, where she’s been breeding horses, caring for jersey cows, raising pigs and chickens and selling firewood.
But Rose’s disappearance didn’t only affect her. “People go missing all the time for various reasons,” says Jason Hudson, president of Yukon Search and Rescue. “We don’t worry about that—we simply go and look for them, because that’s what we do. But for someone to observe a helicopter and then make no effort to make themselves known is a little hard to take, considering the thousands of hours [put] and the entire communities of Carmacks and Pelly and Yukon in general.”
Some Yukoners felt they had a right to know what happened, given that the RCMP’s search efforts were taxpayer-funded. In an email, Yukon RCMP said that national policy defines a missing person as someone “whose whereabouts are unknown, whatever the circumstances of their disappearance.” Rose didn’t face any criminal charges for what happened.
“I battled for a while the guilt and the shame,” she says. “Like, ‘Look what you’ve done, look at the suffering you’ve made these people go through.’” Now, she looks at it as a necessary sacrifice for, essentially, her enlightenment.
There’s no way to prove Rose’s story—she’s the only one who knows what really happened and she understands it’s “far out.” Says Rose: “Some people are going to say, ‘You’re mean, you’ve lost your mind, you’re hard on your family, you’re inconsiderate,’ on and on. And it’ll be a long list, I’m sure. But it doesn’t matter, because they’re not me, and I did in my heart what I believe God wanted me to do. . . . My time on the mountain with him, I wouldn’t trade it for any amount of gold or money in the world.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Jennifer Ostlinger as a doctor. The story has been updated.