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It was a bright and beautiful morning when Bonny Senger and Mike Petersen, of Bismarck, posed for selfies at a trail head near West Yellowstone.

No stranger to the area, Petersen was geared up in a bright orange vest and waders. He packed food, bear spray and a sidearm in case of an emergency in the Montana Rockies.

Around 9:30 on June 4, a Sunday, Petersen took off down the trail.

"I never wanted him to go alone. That always scared me. But you don't question. I guess I didn't really know how dangerous it was," Senger, 53, who was his girlfriend for the past three years, said in an interview.

"The last thing I said to him was, I don't know why I said it, I said Philippians 4:13. I can do all things through Christ," she said.

Those words of strength — her favorite in the Bible — would turn out to be needed when the 42-year-old welder disappeared into the woods that night. The father of four drowned in Beaver Creek along his hike in an incident family and law enforcement hope will bring attention to the dangers of hiking alone and in areas with rushing water. 

"Bad things happen to good people, and nature doesn't care that 99 times out of 100 it went OK," said Gallatin County Sheriff's Capt. Jason Jarrett. 

Jarrett said Petersen likely died attempting to cross the creek on his way back to the trail head in the afternoon. Due to the spring snow melt, the creek was much higher than it was when Petersen crossed it in the morning. The Gallatin County rescue team has responded to three drowning deaths this spring, according to its media releases. 

"Water in itself needs to be respected," he said. "Moving water is deceivingly powerful."

Before his disappearance, Petersen texted Senger throughout the day — he'd hiked the trail several times before and knew where to get bits of cell reception — as she and her 14-year-old son, Jace, drove to nearby Yellowstone National Park to watch the roaming buffalo and Old Faithful geyser. 

She planned to pick Petersen up around 6 p.m. at the trail head. The idea was to go to dinner and make a fire before bedtime.

But 6 p.m. came and went with no sign of Petersen. At 7:20 p.m., Senger heard four gunshots in the woods. Senger thought it might have been a signal he was on his way, but then nothing. She panicked and drove to find cell service so she could call the Gallatin County Sheriff's Office.

At first the sheriff didn't sound too worried, she recalled, but around 10 p.m. they started a search. Senger and her son waited at a hotel with a chaplain while the search-and-rescue team scoured the area with search teams, dogs and helicopters.

"It was top-notch search and rescue," she said, after seeing the operation that Tuesday, the day rescue volunteers found Petersen with the help of a K-9. "They were all so amazing."

Petersen was a welder living in Bismarck, who left behind four kids, ages 17 to 23. A "storyteller" and a "positive person" Senger recalled, he enjoyed cooking and being outdoors. 

"He was revived by the wilderness," said Senger, a physician recruiter.

His brother, Mac Petersen, a 27-year-old cook and server at Rolling Hills in Mandan, drove to southern Montana to join the search when he learned of the incident the day after Mike Petersen went missing. 

As he watched the rushing river weave in and out of the road, he said he felt a "looming presence of defeat."

"I had this sinking feeling as we got closer and closer," he said.

It turned out to be justified, as authorities found Mike Petersen's body just an hour before he arrived. 

Mac Petersen said he last spoke with his brother three days before his death. Knowing Mac Petersen worried about his safety hiking alone, Mike Petersen said he was going to a wedding in Denver.

"He wasn't necessarily the most honest with people, but it was because he was always trying to make everybody happy," said Mac Petersen, who is now trying to help his brother's kids, who live together in an apartment. 

Though the Gallatin County Sheriff's Office has completed its investigation, there will always be some question about what happened to Petersen in the woods. 

During their search, rescue volunteers found Mike Petersen's vest and bear spray canister away from the river. In his backpack, they found the gun. It's possible Petersen encountered a bear, but tracks were never discovered.

Senger, who has three kids of her own, seeks some refuge from her grief in her Catholic faith. Outside the Ground Round shortly after his death, she found on a bench a white bandanna, just like the one Petersen wore when he left on the hike. 

Written in Sharpie around the edge, it said: "Deuteronomy 31:6. Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God is with you. He will never leave you nor forsake you."

"I took it. I put it in my purse. And my son goes, 'Mom, you're stealing,'" she said, crying and laughing at once. "I don't care. I think that was for me."

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Reach Caroline Grueskin at 701-250-8225 or at caroline.grueskin@bismarcktribune.com

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