October 6, 2007
I was sitting on a large rock heating water for tea when the hunter first showed up.
Along with 12 participants of a National Outdoor Leadership School course, I had been dropped off at the Scab Creek trailhead four days earlier, which now was more than 18 miles away and 3,000 feet below our current location. We were on the east side of Pipestone Lake, just below Medina Mountain in Wyoming’s Wind River Range.
I invited the hunter to stay for hot drinks, and he immediately accepted the invitation. It was the middle of October and we were experiencing the first sunny day in the last three. A cold front had moved through, dropping the temperature and leaving behind a foot of fresh snow.
The hunter seemed to be in pretty good shape. Everything but his feet were dry, and he did not appear overly exhausted. After some pleasantries, I asked him where his hunting camp was located.
“I’m camping with my family at the Scab Creek Campground,” he replied.
I tried to hide my surprise and forced myself not to look up at him as I asked my next question.
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“What time did you leave this morning? It must have been rather early.”
“I left Saturday mid morning,” the young hunter answered. “I suppose my family is looking for me.”
“No, more than your family is looking for you,” I said. “I would guess there’s more than 100 people looking for you, and I would also guess you’ve walked right out of their search area.”
I could no longer contain my surprise at this young man. I started asking him all sorts of questions, including medical questions that he answered in a cursory fashion. Finally, I stood up and said, “I have a satellite phone for emergencies, and we should start making some calls.”
The first call I made was to the Sublette County Sheriff Department. The friendly lady on dispatch said there were going to be some happy people who wanted to talk with me. The next call was to the sheriff deputy at the Scab Creek trailhead who was handling the search.
“You’ve got who, and where did you say your location is?” the incredulous deputy said. “Well I’ll be damned! You hang on to that boy and don’t let him out of your sight. How’s his health?”
“He seems surprisingly fine for spending the last three nights out in blizzard conditions with just a couple of candy bars to eat,” I said.
“Are you sure he’s doing alright?” The deputy asked. “Did he tell you he’s a diabetic and suffers from severe asthma?”
“No, we were just getting to that information,” I said as I looked intensely at the hunter.
In the background I could hear voices talking to the deputy and cheering. After a short break he said a helicopter was coming in to pick up our guest. I gave the deputy our exact coordinates.
When the deputy and I finished our conversation, the hunter spent about five minutes speaking with his wife and children. He finally started showing a little emotion as the reality of his ordeal and the size of the search being conducted hit home.
While we waited for the helicopter, which turned out to be about two hours later than expected ” they had to refuel ” we talked about his last few days.
On Saturday, he had intended to hunt for three or four hours around camp. He came across some elk and started trailing them through the forest. The bad thing was that occasionally he would catch glimpses of the elk in the trees far ahead of him. He followed the elk so intently that he never really kept track of his surroundings or approaching darkness until he was completely disoriented.
The first night he kept moving most of the night, thinking he was heading back to camp instead of going deeper into the mountains. He did not have a compass or GPS, and his map was a large-scale U.S. Forest Service map without contour lines.
The following day, when the storm hit, he could not see any terrain features to pinpoint his location. He could not build a fire, so he kept moving to stay warm. That turned out to be his routine for the following days.
By luck, he walked into our camp.
I have a feeling the young hunter learned many lessons. Sometimes youthful determination can overcome skills and proper planning.
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