On a mission to Nicaragua with her church and an organization that provides land for housing and cash-crop gardens to impoverished residents of Central America and Mexico, Karen Colclough helped families become self-reliant. But a life built on service was cut short during that April trip when Colclough, 37, was found dead near a beach in Montelimar, where she had gone to take photographs. She had been robbed and murdered by a local man.
From childhood, her life was one of humanitarian service and love of the natural world says her mother, Janet Colclough. “She was always sensitive to others’ feelings, happy, upbeat, and tried to see the good in everyone.” Karen cut her long hair for Locks of Love, a nonprofit group that provides wigs for cancer patients, and during high school and college breaks she volunteered with Habitat for Humanity.
At UNH Colclough majored in environmental conservation and outdoor education and was a leader in the Outing Club. There she met Heather Townsend Layton ’00, who became a close friend. After Layton graduated, the two women set off on a six-week road trip in a car so stuffed with belongings they christened it “The Abyss.” An experienced wilderness hiker, Colclough wasn’t fazed by the sight of nearby bear tracks when they camped and canoed in Glacier National Park. Remembering her friend’s adventurous spirit, Layton says, “Many people dream big but don’t pursue their dreams. Karen did.”.
Colclough’s enthusiasm spurred other friends and family to pursue life to the fullest. “If it weren’t for her, I wouldn’t have had the courage to live my lifelong dream of backpacking in Alaska,” says another friend, Cathy Coletti ’00, recalling their hiking trip in Denali National Park. When Colclough’s older brother, Mike ’04, found himself at loose ends after dropping out of his first college, she convinced him to apply to UNH, focus on his studies and join the Outing Club. “Karen encouraged me to stop staying put,” he says.
EMT-certified while at UNH, Colclough joined the ski patrol at Gunstock Mountain in Gilford, NH, after college. In 2003 she moved to Jackson Hole, Wyo., where she guided tours on the Upper Missouri River in Montana, worked with a state program assisting individuals with special needs, and taught adaptive skiing. Susannah Woodruff, who interviewed Colclough for a position with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Wolf Recovery Program, recalls telling her that the predation study entailed skiing or hiking more than 20 miles a day tracking wolves, collaring sedated animals, and crawling into abandoned, often flea-ridden dens. “Karen’s smile kept spreading wider and wider,” she says. “I knew she would be perfect for the position.”
When the circumstances of her death were announced, outraged Nicaraguan citizens and officials assisted police in finding her killer. Traced through the sale of her camera, a local man was arrested three days after her body was found and ultimately sentenced to 30 years in prison, the maximum sentence in Nicaragua.
Born on Christmas Day 1976, Colclough was memorialized on Easter Sunday 2014 by about 300 friends and family in Jackson Hole. The National Ski Patrol held a teleconferenced nationwide moment of silence. Massachusetts State Police escorted her body from Logan Airport to a second funeral attended by more than 200 people in Reading, Mass., near her hometown of Lynnfield. When the funeral procession passed the Lynnfield firehouse, department members stood at attention.
Originally published in UNH Magazine—Fall 2014 Issue