The perilous night of a hunter lost in the forest during a snow storm
|Lost on the Mountain
To more than 60 percent of the men and boys in Pennsylvania, Thanksgiving means more than turkey and football. It is the beginning of the long weekend before the opening day of deer season. It is the weekend that you scramble around making sure you have all of your hunting gear ready. You dig out the thermal underwear and the wool socks. It’s a time to meet your hunting buddies, at the rifle range, to sight in your rifle. You talk about the one that got away the previous year. It is a weekend of anticipation for the exciting hunt you are about to go on.
This particular hunting trip started out much like all the rest. I was 25 years old and had been hunting since I was 16. I looked forward to spending time with the guys at the camp. Our Hunting camp was nestled at the foot of a mountain by a small stream in the Allegheny Mountains. There is always a lot of revelry and joshing on the first night in camp. Everyone goes to bed dreaming of the big buck they hope to bag the next day.
Opening day starts at 4:00 AM with a hot breakfast. We pack our lunches, fill our thermos, and grab our rifles, jump in our trucks and head for the woods. We hope to be in our chosen hunting spots before the deer are up and foraging for their breakfast. It’s still dark when we park our trucks and start out on foot into the woods. Flashlights, of other hunters, are bobbing up and down throughout the woods like giant fireflies. The air is crisp and the adrenaline is pumping. This is the year for the big one.
Now, I’m pretty familiar with the forest around our camp, but this year I’m heading into an area that I’m least familiar with. I had walked for what I thought was about a mile and a half. I found a nice spot under a big oak tree near some visible game trails. It looked like a good place to post, in wait, for the big buck that I just knew would eventually show up. I stomped the five or six inches of snow down around the tree. I dragged a log over by the tree and sat down to get comfortable for the long wait for daylight to arrive.
Well daylight arrived but the deer didn’t. I only saw about seven doe all morning. My stomach was telling me that it was lunch time. I decided to eat lunch and head, over the next mountain, in search of a better spot. After lunch I started out in search of a luckier spot. It had started snowing again. As I crunched through the snow, every so often, I would stop and look ahead of me for any sign of movement. It seemed like I was all alone in this pristine forest being blanketed by fresh snow. The vista in front of me was astoundingly beautiful.
As I crest the next mountain, I see deer tracks and lots of them. It’s snowing, so, I know its fresh spoor. I follow the deer trail until I find a nice spot off to one side of the trail to post myself. As I nestle into my new spot I realize that the snow is falling harder. There is almost a foot of snow on the ground now, visibility is becoming a problem and the temperature has been dropping steadily. I sat there until about 4:30, when I realized that even if a big buck came within fifty feet of me I probably wouldn’t even see him through all of the snow. By now there is at least 18 inches of snow on the ground.
I try to shake the chill off of me as I stand up. I started the long trek back to my truck. I walked for what seemed like an hour. My legs were growing tired from plodding through the deep snow and I was starting to overheat from the exertion. The sky was getting dark and visibility was poor so I got my flashlight out and continued on. I tried to adjust my body temperature by removing layers of clothing. I haven’t seen another hunter since morning and I haven’t seen tracks of neither man nor deer in the past couple of hours. It is well below freezing out but the effort of moving through the snow is causing me to overheat again. I am starting to sweat and am in fear of having the sweat freeze. I walk another 100 yards and I see fresh human tracks. I know I’m not alone now. I stopped to rest and calm down and get my wits about me. It is now, impossible to see more than a few feet ahead of me. I’m an experienced outdoorsman and I know I shouldn’t have let myself get in this predicament this late in the day. I thought by finding those new tracks that I was at least heading in the right direction. I wasn’t ready to start worrying yet.
I took out following those tracks. I walked about 20 yards before I noticed that the tracks looked familiar. I stepped beside one of the tracks that I was following. As I lifted my foot, dread set in my mind and body. The tracks were identical. I apparently walked in a big circle and was following my own footprints. It was now time to start worrying. I tried to keep calm. It was 6:30, the time I should have been pulling up to the camp and a hot supper. Instead I was lost on the mountain with at least 2 feet of snow on the ground.
I knew what had to be done. Being lost at night, it is best to find a place out of the wind, build a fire and hunker down and wait for morning to come. I did a quick inventory of my supplies. I still had a candy bar, a frozen bologna sandwich and a swallow of tepid coffee in my thermos.
Before looking for a place to build a fire, I sent out the universal hunters SOS, three shots fired in the air. I listened for a few minutes for a response, but none came. I found a nice spot by a rock outcropping to build a little campsite. I kicked the snow away from the rocks so I could build a fire. I gathered up some dead firewood. By now my fingers and toes are almost frozen. I finally managed to get a fire going. I went about making a small lean-to so that I could get out of the wind. It took almost 45 minutes to do all of that and another 2 or 3 inches of snow had fallen. Before settling into my shelter I sent out another call for help, three more shots in the air. I listened but no answering shots came.
I sat down next to the fire and thawed my bologna sandwich out. I ate the sandwich and drank the last of my coffee. I crawled under the lean-to to get out of the howling wind. The temperature had to be down in the single digits and with the wind chill it had to feel like it was below zero. After a bit, I became so cold I could hardly move my joints. I dragged the fire in as close to me as I could. I needed heat in the worse way.
I knew I could make it through the night, but I was worried about the guys back at the camp. They would start to be getting concerned about now. They would be out all night searching for me. I forced myself to get up and move around to keep my blood flowing. I’m hugging the fire and I can barely stay warm. There is now well over 2 feet of snow on the ground. I send three more shots into the air in hopes that someone will hear them, but no response came. My confidence in surviving the night is waning with every gust of wind. I gather more pine boughs. I laid them under my lean-to and crawled under them. I put some firewood at hand so I wouldn’t have to get up to feed the fire. Once a layer of snow covered the pine boughs and blocked the wind it was a little warmer. So there I lay for the night. Sleep wouldn’t come because I knew people would be out looking for me. My fingers and toes were so cold. I finally dosed off for awhile. I awoke in the dark. The fire was almost out. I placed a couple of sticks on the fire to stir some life back into it. The snow was so deep around my little campsite that most of the howling wind was blocked. I could hardly get my arms and legs to move. I had never been this cold in my life. Daylight was slow in coming. I was having my doubts about being found before I froze to death.
Daylight finally came; it was all that I could do to pull myself from under the pine boughs. I got the fire built up, but, my fingers hurt to bad to pull the trigger on my rifle to send out another SOS. I held my hands close to the fire to thaw out. I was finally able to send three more shots into the air. I waited, but no answer came.
I looked around and took stock of my options. There were at least thirty inches of snow on the ground, with more still falling. I estimated that it would take me all day to travel even one mile in this snow. I only had one candy bar left to eat. I knew my best bet was to stay put until help arrived. I didn’t think I would ever be warm again. I was beginning to worry about frostbite.
I built the fire up as high as I could and waited. Then, every half hour or so I sent my three shot SOS into the air and waited for a response. It was almost 11:00 before I heard what I thought was a faint response to my SOS. The answering shots seemed miles away. I waited about 15 minutes and sent another volley into the air. This time I was sure I got an answer and it was getting a lot closer. A few minutes go by and I think I can hear engines running. As cold and stiff as I was, I crawled out to a clearing in the woods and fired three more times. A minute later I got a response. I am quickly loosing any feeling in my extremities. Barely able to move, I sit down in the snow and wait for my rescue. Shortly I see two snowmobiles come out on the other side of the clearing. I fire a shot in the air and wave. They see me and within a few minutes are pulling up beside me. I can hardly move as they place me on the back of one of the snowmobiles.
An hour later we break out of the forest onto the road. I can see my truck in the midst of about 20 other vehicles including forest rangers, state police, and an ambulance and of course all of my hunting buddies. As we approach they all come over to pat me on the back and give me their macho version of we were worried about you. I said I was fine and the paramedics checked me out and released me.
My buddies took me back to the cabin. They fed me and brought me coffee laced with Jack Daniels. I could tell they were glad to have me back. They waited on me hand and foot while I told them of my experience. No one came down on me for anything, but I know these guys and it was only a matter of time before they started kidding me about getting lost. They were just waiting until they were sure I was okay.
Sure enough for the ensuing twenty years, every hunting season I was teased about getting lost and spending a night in the woods. They would say things like “make sure you take a pillow if you’re planning on spending the night”. Over the years my story was pushed farther from the spotlight as each of the others did something just as dumb or foolish.
We all got a lot from our hunting trips. Even though we saw each other all the time, our hunting trips taught us to rely and trust each other more. The camaraderie brought us closer as family and friends. We would do anything for each other; even form an all night search party.