By Clay Riness —
I recently read an article about the tragic vanishing of Shawn Higgins, a 41-year-old father who went missing in the Oregon wilderness while hunting deer with his 21-year-old son, Trevor. The two were said to have known the area well. Trevor waited for his father’s return to a trailhead as they had agreed, but with a storm looming and his dad a few hours late, the young man set out into the brush to look for him. He continued beyond where the ribbon-marked path ended and soon became lost himself. Darkness was closing in fast, and conditions later turned to long-term rain. Trevor was found alive, albeit hypothermic, on day five of his ordeal, lucky to be alive at all. Shawn Higgins, after more than a year, has still not been found.
The story was a good read, but I was stunned by one simple line (paraphrased): Trevor found himself with only his rifle, a knife, a Bic lighter and the clothes on his back.
Lucky to be alive is right. He had no cover (such as an inexpensive tarp) or cordage to secure a quick shelter. He didn’t carry a heat-reflective Mylar space blanket, a life-saving item that is so diminutive and weightless it could have been carried in a shirt pocket. In the wet conditions, his lighter failed … every time. He had no redundant fire kit with multiple ways to start a fire reliably, and no bomb-proof tinder, such as Vaseline-treated cotton balls, waxed cotton rounds or commercially available fire starters. He carried no container, no water, nor the means with which to purify it, and no food of any kind, not even a granola bar. He carried no compass to help him orient himself or possibly navigate, and no maps of the area he was in. He also had no means of efficient signaling; a simple, loud whistle might have seen him rescued sooner, as on day four he could hear voices but was unable to attract attention.
All of these things would easily fit in a small ruck, or even a haversack (as would a modest first-aid kit, another must). Folks, these are not luxury items; they are a means with which to survive a potentially life-threatening ordeal. And, some of them will be useless if you don’t possess the knowledge and skills to use them. Ask yourself, when was the last time you made a fire in soaking wet conditions or navigated using a compass and topographic map?
I’m not suggesting that Trevor Higgins didn’t have some wilderness survival skills. He did fashion a leaky debris shelter, no doubt at considerable calorie expense, and I’m sure his father taught him a great deal during their years hunting together. What I am suggesting is that he was dangerously ill-prepared for being 21 miles deep into a mountainous wilderness area that’s part of the 1.7 million acre Rogue River–Siskiyou National Forest. Thankfully, and by the grace of God, he came out of it alive.
There is a lesson to be learned from this tragedy. No matter how well you know your woods, no matter how short your hike, whenever you trek in the brush, forest or back country … take a tip from the Boy Scouts … be prepared, especially for bad luck. It’s called insurance. Better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it. That includes basic survival skills.