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The Wrong Turn

17 Oct

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 On Aug. 31, Bill Lawrence, 40, got separated from his hunting partners and remained lost for five days. As told to Colin Kearns.

Wednesday. I’d just killed my first squirrel when I glanced over for my friends Russell and Cris. They were gone.

Russell was the only one who’d hunted these woods, Meeman-Shelby Forest north of Memphis. We’d been hunting for 20 minutes and were deep into the forest. Russell and Cris stuck together, while I drifted to their left. I tried to stay within eyesight of them, but I was also watching for snakes. The last time I saw them, it looked like they were continuing in a straight line. Then I stopped to shoot the squirrel.

I thought I had an idea where they were, but an hour later I wasn’t any closer. I shouted, but the thick woods only swallowed my cries. So I turned to hike back to the truck, but an hour later I was even more lost. I kept walking, though, figuring I’d find a way out.

I walked, stopping to rest now and then, until it started to get dark. I’d fired a couple of shots but got no response. It never got cold, which was good because I had nothing to build a fire with. I doused myself with bug dope, then lay down. With my vest, I was able to cover my face and roll up the bottom end to use as a pillow. That dead squirrel in the pocket added a decent cushion.

I heard helicopters but they couldn’t see me through the trees, and I wasn’t going to run through the woods in the dark. I just prayed they’d find me tomorrow.

Thursday. I finished the last of the two water bottles I’d brought with me that morning. The days were hot, and I was walking and sweating a lot. I needed to stay hydrated. Fortunately, it rained that morning, and I managed to catch a half bottle’s worth of water.

I mostly squirrel hunt, but I have enough experience hunting deer and rabbits that I can identify tracks—and I know that if you follow those tracks, they’ll often lead to a water source, which in my case was a puddle in gumbo mud. I dipped my empty bottle and watched it fill with gray, grimy water. I didn’t want to drink it. I worried it’d make me sick. But what choice did I have? I was already getting dehydrated.

The taste was nasty—dirty and sandy—but the dip of mint Skoal I had in my mouth made it at least drinkable. I figured I should eat something, too, even though I wasn’t starving. I turned a dead stump over and found some nightcrawlers. They tasted about as bad as the gumbo water. I don’t know how many I ate—only that I’d never eat another one.

The rest of Thursday was a lot like Wednesday: Walk, then break for a nap. Walk, then nap. That second day, as I was walking—with no real end in sight—is when I started talking to God. Why is this happening? If I don’t make it out, will you take care of my wife and kids?

imagesTJNT6CHZThat night I awoke to a WHOOSHWHOOSHWHOOSH. Dazed, it took me a moment to realize that it was another chopper—and that it was right above me. I stumbled to find the flashlight in my vest. But by the time I turned it on, it was too late. After the chopper left, my flashlight burned out.

Friday. I kept moving and praying—all day. Walking gave me a purpose. Praying gave me strength. I truly believe my faith is what kept me from ever panicking. That afternoon I stumbled upon some persimmons. They were the most delicious things I’d eaten in a long time, and they were just sitting there on the ground, perfectly ripe, waiting to be found.
Saturday. I heard a low-flying chopper that morning. I took the T-shirt I had on under my camo shirt, tied it to the barrel of my Mossberg, and rushed to the nearest open area where I waved it around. But it never got close enough.

I was weak and tired. My body ached. For the first time I started to think I might not get out. I had started with 15 shells, and by then I only had four or five left. I’d been firing them and leaving the shells at spots where I rested. But on Saturday I decided to fire the rest I had at once. I didn’t know how much more of this misery I’d have to suffer, and I didn’t want the option of taking my own life.

Later that afternoon, as I was resting, I heard two sounds: a Harley-Davidson and a chain saw. I decided to stay put for the remainder of the day and save my energy. Tomorrow, I’d travel toward those sounds. I just knew that if I didn’t get out on Sunday, I never would.

Sunday. I came to a hill that I wasn’t sure I had the strength to climb. I sat down on a nearby log and prayed for strength. When I finally got up and walked to the hill, I glanced to the left where I saw a trail. And I took it.

Two miles later I hit a blacktop road. I fell to the ground crying. I flagged down a couple of motorcyclists who came down the road and told them who I was. “Son,” one of them said, “there’s a lot of people looking for you.”

They drove me to the camp the search team had set up nearby. Just as they got me on the stretcher and were about to drive me to the hospital, I was given a satellite phone. Kim, my wife, was on the other line. My eyes welled. “Hey,” I said. “I’m alive.”

Survival Analysis
Bill Lawrence had no method of striking fire, carried nothing to signal with but his shotgun, and possessed no tool to navigate to safety but his brain. When he became lost, he had nothing to eat but nightcrawlers and no means to disinfect water. He was unfamiliar with the country and carried no map. To sum up: He struck into the woods about as unprepared as a man can be. But before you criticize him too harshly, take a look at yourself. Have you ever been similarly unprepared for an emergency, using the excuse that you only plan to be gone a few hours and won’t stray more than a few hundred yards from the road? I know I have.

Lawrence’s ordeal should be a cautionary tale for all of us, emphasizing the importance of carrying basic survival gear every time we go afield, no matter how small that field we intend to hunt. A compass, a whistle, a sparking wheel, Tinder Tabs, and chlorine tablets weigh about as much as a tin of Altoids, and easily fit inside one. S - - t happens. Have a hat for it.

Lawrence’s reaction to being lost was to walk and then walk some more. By doing so, he disobeyed the four steps that almost ensure survival: Stop. Shelter. Signal. Stay. Had he stopped walking, tied his undershirt to a treetop or placed it in an opening where it could be seen or, better yet, spelled SOS in a clearing with branches or stones, then hunkered out of the wind to wait, he probably would have been found quickly after being reported missing. Ninety percent of search-and-rescue operations are resolved during the initial hasty search, usually within 10 hours.

One thing that Lawrence did do right needs to be emphasized: He never panicked and was determined to survive. The right attitude is one positive that can make up for a lot of negatives in any survival situation.

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