Moose Hunters Lost for 10 Terrible Days in the Ontario Wilderness

by Tommy Grant

I WANT TO say something right at the beginning that has been said 1,000 times before, but I want to say it louder: don’t ever leave camp or walk off a trail in wild country without a map, compass, and matches in a waterproof container.

My ordeal started out as a moose hunt that promised to be about as dangerous as a game of ping-pong. It turned into a life-and-death affair, and death almost won.

I got out of high school at Pentwater, Michigan, in 1953, out of the Marines in 1957, and out of Central Michigan University in June of ’61. I had a job waiting in the fall with the Fish and Wildlife Service, and I also had plans to get married in about a year.

I had hunted since I was a kid—foxes, deer, partridges, and ducks—and loved it. All along, however, I wanted to go to Canada for a moose. With the job and the girl in the offing, I concluded the fall of 1961 might be my last chance for quite a spell.

I picked the area northeast of Lake of the Woods, in western Ontario, left Pentwater on Wednesday, October 25, drove 28 hours, and reached the town of Vermilion Bay, 50 miles east of Kenora, before noon the next day.

I had reservations at a hunting camp, but I learned that an early freeze had forced it to close three days before. So here I was, 1,000 miles from home, all set for my first moose hunt, with no place to go. On the advice of a restaurant counterman, I got in touch with Archie Webb, who operates a bush-flying service, does some outfitting, and maintains tent camps on a few remote lakes. We made arrangements in a hurry. Webb would fly me to Portal Lake, 35 or 40 miles to the north, for a four-day hunt. He’d supply a guide, tent, boat, sleeping bags, and the rest of the gear. We wrapped it all up and in two hours were air-borne.

Archie landed at McIntosh, on the Canadian National Railroad, to pick up guide Tom Strong, a local American Indian, 31 years old, who had lived all his life in the area and knew it well. Quiet, he looked and acted capable, and I liked him from the start.

From McIntosh we flew to a small lake where Webb had a tent camp, and he left us there for the night. Next day he moved us and the camp to Portal Lake, setting us down shortly after noon. We got the gear ashore and Archie gunned his plane off the water, leaving the guide and me with a good outfit, plenty of provisions, and a big chunk of roadless bush. Webb would fly over every day or so, check to make sure things were O.K., and fly my moose out if I was lucky. The sun was up when Tom nudged me awake the next morning, Saturday. “Look out the flap,” he said.

A big cow moose was standing at the edge of the lake about 40 yards away. I could have killed her without leaving my sack, but I hadn’t come to Canada to get a moose that way; besides, I wanted a good head for mounting.

I had a hard case of moose fever by the time she wandered back into the woods, and we didn’t wait for breakfast. We paddled the 12-foot aluminum boat down the lake, spot­ ting two more cows but no moose with horns. Finally we went back to camp for breakfast.

The morning was so still that Tom was sure if there were bull moose around we’d hear them knocking their antlers against trees. “All cows here,” he told me.

When we finished eating he pro­posed a hike to a small bog lake he knew about. It was only two miles away, and we’d be back in time for lunch. “Lots of bulls back in there,” he said.

We paddled across the lake, pulled the boat up on shore, and left it there. That probably saved our lives. The idea of making any special preparations never entered my mind. We’d be gone only a few hours, the guide had been to the place before, and it was a fine, warm October day. There was no reason to think about survival gear.

We were both lucky in our clothing. I was wearing light underwear, a sweat shirt, cotton shirt, wool vest, insulated hunting pants, an army field jacket, fur cap, two pairs of sweat socks, and thermal rubber boots. Strong had on long underwear, two shirts, two pairs of pants, a wool jacket and cap, and low rubber pacs over two pairs of wool socks. By sheer accident I had a pair of wool mittens in my pocket. Tom was less fortunate on that score. Paddling, he used only one glove, and that was all he had with him.

I carried my .30/06 converted Springfield and eight shells. I also had a hunting knife and binoculars. Strong had a few kitchen matches, and I was carrying some paper ones. We had maybe a dozen between us, enough for a cigarette now and then. We reached the bog lake in less than an hour and found fresh tracks. The place looked good, so we waited. The clear, warm day was changing now. The sky turned overcast and a raw wind came up. When we started to get cold, the guide suggested we head for camp. We’d go back an­ other way, he said, to keep out of muskeg and swamp.

We crossed a ridge and struck into the bush. The sky was getting dark­er, the wind blowing harder, and soon it began to snow, a blinding squall of big wet flakes that whitened the ground fast. We walked an hour, and I expected to see Portal Lake any minute. Then we came over the top of a ridge and looked down on the bog lake we had just left.

I had heard about men walking in circles, but I found it hard to believe we had done it. There was no doubt about it, however, so we turned back and trudged away once more. We walked two hours that time, broke out of a dense swamp and stared in disbelief at the same bog lake.

“I’m walking in circles,” Tom grunted. “You try.”

So I took the lead, lining up one tree with another. In about an hour we came out on a smaller lake we had not seen before.

“I was here last fall,” the guide assured me. “Camp is that way,” and he drew a crude map in the snow with a stick. But after two more hours of hard hiking we came back to that same spot and found our own tracks. When we tried again, the same thing happened.

Once more I took the lead, and we did not see that lake again. By late afternoon we were mixed up in a chain of lakes and ponds connected by channels winding through  bogs.

An hour before dark we came to a large lake that Strong was sure he recognized. “Camp is over there,” he said, “beyond the big swamp.” We found the swamps and fought our way through, but by then it was getting dusk and we decided to camp for the night.

The snow had turned to rain and sleet, and everything was dripping. We had six matches left, some of them wet. We stripped bark off a birch tree, gathered half-dry wood from a windfall, and Tom tried to get a fire going. He did—with our last match.

We built up a roaring blaze, dried our wet clothing, and gathered wood and green boughs for a bed. We slept fitfully, getting up often to replenish the fire. The storm let up before daybreak, but the morning was gray and cheerless with a cold wind. We had no food but found a few winter­ green berries which we munched while debating what our next move would be.

We faced a grave decision. With our matches gone, this would be our last fire. Should we stay beside it and wait for rescue or try to get back to camp? I hated to leave, but Tom insisted he knew how to get to Portal Lake, and in the end I gave in.

The final days of our ordeal blurred into a nightmare of torment, wandering while daylight lasted and huddling under open shelters at night, shaking with cold.

We had been without food for more than 24 hours, and when we spotted a grouse in a tree I concluded raw meat would be better than nothing. I tried to blow the bird’s head off with the .30/06 but only cut a feather or two from its topknot. Shortly after that I did better on a snowshoe hare. We picked up the headless rabbit and took it along.

We walked the rest of that day without finding anything the guide recognized. An hour before dark we came to a chain of small lakes. “You know these?” I asked.

“Never seen them before,” he admitted.

“Then we’re really lost,” I said, and he nodded gravely.

It was a tough thing to face. I’d heard and read about it but had never thought it would happen to me, and knowing we’d let ourselves in for it by our own mistakes didn’t help any. Right then I’d have given a year of my life for a map and compass. We were trapped in country as wild and rough as any in western Ontario, all hills and swamps, lakes and streams, muskeg, beaver ponds, and windfalls. Twenty-odd miles south was the C.N.R., running east from Winnipeg to Sioux Lookout and through Tom’s home town of McIntosh. About the same distance east was Highway 105, leading north from Vermilion Bay to Goldpines. Tom and I both thought the road lay southeast of us rather than east, however—a mistake that came close to finishing us.

We built a crude lean-to by propping logs against a ledge, covered it with green boughs, and gathered more for a bed. Then we tried to start a fire by shooting into a handful of birch-bark shavings and a piece of crumpled paper from my wallet, but we had no way to extract the bullet. The blast charred the paper but blew away the shavings. Nothing ignited, and we realized we could not make fire that way.

Next we tried to eat some of the raw rabbit, but it tasted too strong and wild. Maybe we were not yet hungry enough. We each managed two or three bites of fat but couldn’t choke down the unsalted lean and finally threw the whole thing away.

Snow began to fall at dark, and the night was bitterly cold. We slept in snatches, getting up often to walk warmth into ourselves. We were undecided next morning whether to wait for rescue or try to find our own way out. I had flown enough to know how slim our chances would be of being spotted from the air without a fire, so in the end we walked away. But before we left, we laid four logs together to form a rectangle in an open place on the rocks, with an arrow to point our direction. We were not able, after that, to write signals in the snow because we could find no open areas big enough that were free of brush and grass.

An hour after we left, we found a blazed trail. Bark had been chipped off trees and the scar marked an S in red paint. We figured the S meant south, so we followed the blazes in what we thought was that direction.

That morning, Archie Webb flew over our camp and noticed our boat on the shore across the lake from the tent. He had seen it there the day before and went down to investigate. He found the camp unused, our clothing still packed, no sign of recent fire, and only the rifle missing. He taxied across the lake to the boat, discovered old foot­ prints leading into the bush, and realized he had a pair of lost men on his hands. The boat, left there on shore, had touched off a prompt alarm. Webb flew back to McIntosh, picked up an experienced American Indian guide, Tom Payash, and returned to Portal Lake to launch a search that was to grow into one of the biggest and most intensive man­ hunts ever carried out in that part of Canada.

Strong and I followed the blazes all day. Late in the afternoon we saw that they crossed a river rimmed with new ice. The barrier was formidable, but we could see the blazes on the far side so we hunted along the bank until we found a log to cross on. It was under almost a foot of water and so slippery it seemed doubtful for footing, but we had no choice. We pulled off our boots and socks, for the first time in four days, and when I saw my feet I was scared. They were white and puckered, and Tom’s weren’t much better. Unless we could get our feet out of the boots at night we were in for trouble.

We got poles for balancing, and I tied my boots around my neck, slung my rifle on one shoulder, and inched out on the log. It was like grease, but I kept going. When I was safe on the other side, Tom followed. A mile farther on, the blazed trail petered out at the edge of a big marsh. That was as bad a letdown as I’d ever had.

We built a lean-to against an up­ turned stump and cut marsh grass for our bed. It was dry and warm, and our camp that night was one of the best we had. But now I had another reason to worry. Cutting boughs in the dusk, I’d sliced a finger to the bone. I tore off a strip of shirt for bandage, but it worked loose in the night and the cut was dirty and swollen next morning. It looked as if I might have an infected finger added to my other troubles.

WE DECIDED TO follow the blaze line back. Maybe hunters had blazed it out from a fly-in cabin on a lake. That would mean shelter and fire. Starting at first light, we recrossed the river on the sunken log, and went on.

We had been seeing deer frequently, and I decided to kill the next one. We needed meat if we were to keep going, and more important, maybe we could wrap our feet in the skin at night and get our socks partially dry. Late in the afternoon, we saw a doe 60 yards away and shot her.

We stopped there for the night and tried to eat some of the warm venison. Tom couldn’t get the lean down but ate a few bites of fat. I didn’t like the unsalted stuff but ate a slice half as big as my hand and felt better.

That night we took our boots off for the first time and put our socks inside our shirts to dry, wrapping our bare feet in the deerskin, hair side in. It was even warmer than we’d expected.

Our pants had been ripped from brush and windfalls, and wads of insulation were hanging out of mine. Next morning we sewed them up with strips of deer hide, but they soon tore again. When we left the lean-to, in a hard snowstorm, I carried a hindquarter of the doe and Tom was wearing the green skin around his shoulders. In early afternoon the blazed trail ended on the shore of a lake. The last blaze was a rude picture of a cabin, and for a little while we were sure we’d find the cabin nearby, but we searched in vain. I’d still like to know who blazed that apparently meaningless trail and why they did it.

About an hour after we left the lake, a rifle shot rapped out in the distance. We listened, hardly daring to believe our ears. In the next few minutes two or three more shots followed. They seemed to come from all around us. Then, sounding less than a mile away, two were fired in quick succession. Certain they were a signal, I touched off two quick ones in answer, and almost instantly we heard a single shot reply.

This was the first proof we’d had that a search was under way. We had heard distant aircraft a few times but never close enough to raise our hopes. Now, however, we felt sure that rescue was near.

Of the eight shells with which I had left camp, I had but two left and dared not risk them except as a last resort. We waited for another signal, but none came. We decided to go and meet the searchers.

I was sure of the location of the last shots, but when Strong jerked a thumb and said, ”It came from over there,” he pointed in the opposite direction. For a second I lost my temper. “What’s the matter with you?” I snapped. “They came from that way.”

Tom shook his head. “Over there,” he insisted.

It was the only argument we had, and I knew better than to let it grow into a quarrel. If we separated, I was certain at least one of us would wander until he died. “O.K.,” I said at last, “we’ll try it your way.” We’ll never know which was right.

THAT MORNING WEBB had enlisted the help of two more pilots, Ron Booi of North Star Camp on Clay Lake and Emile Mayling of Vermilion Bay. He had also flown a party of 12 ground searchers to Portal Lake, established a camp there, and put Walter Booi, own­er of the North Star Camp, Ron’s father and a veteran bush man, in charge. Then Webb, Ron Booi, and Mayling began an air search that would eventually cover more than 1,600 square miles.

Ground searchers had fired the shots. At that moment we were hardly more than a mile from help, but we missed contact completely, and those were the last shots we heard. The next day the searchers gave up their firearms. Those in charge knew that shooting in an area where men are lost is likely to confuse them or even excite them to panic.

Strong and I walked three hours, stopping now and then to yell and wait hopefully for an answer, before we gave up. I’d never been more discouraged than I was right then, but there was greater disappointment to come. We found a place to camp at the edge of a muskeg and were gathering dry grass when we heard the drone of a plane. The sound grew louder, and the plane came into sight just over the trees bordering the marsh, flying low and less than 500 yards away.

paintings of hunter crossing river, looking at tree

We ran for the open muskeg, strip­ping off our coats, waving and screaming like madmen, but the aircraft kept its course. It was a small bush plane and we could see the pilot, but he did not see us. We watched until he went out of sight above the timber. I guess that was the worst disappointment I ever faced.

Before dark, a second aircraft came over, flying a little higher. Again we raced for the marsh, but again the plane flew on, passing directly over our heads. I said grimly to Tom, “That settles it. If we’re going to get out at all we’ll have to walk out on our own.” I didn’t admit even to myself that I wasn’t sure we’d make it.

THAT NIGHT OUR feet were in better shape. Our socks, tucked inside our shirts, never really dried but were drier in the morning than when we lay down, and the deerskin was warm on our bare feet. I debated shooting a second deer so we’d each have a skin, but with only two shells left decided to wait.

The final days of our ordeal blurred into a nightmare of torment, wandering while daylight lasted and huddling under open shelters at night, shaking with cold. I kept my watch wound and tried to keep track of time, but I must have lost count because we were lost two days longer than I thought.

We were turning into gaunt scare­crows. When we broke ice for a drink I studied my reflection in the black water and hardly knew myself. We grew weaker each day. I was eating a little raw venison. Cold, it tasted better than it had at first. I cut it in thin slices, and it was almost like cold cuts out of a refrigerator. I realized I was risking dysentery by eating raw meat, but that possibility was better than eating nothing. Tom had given up on it, however, and was in worse shape than I. Once, when we were crossing a big muskeg, he dropped so far be­hind he was barely in shouting distance. After that I was careful to watch and wait for him.

The quarter of doe meat froze so hard at last that we threw it away. Neither of us seemed hungry, and we told ourselves that if we needed more we could kill another deer. We didn’t suffer much actual discomfort from lack of food, but I dreamed constantly of hot chicken dinners.

The cold and wet were far harder to bear. There were about five inches of snow on the ground, and the bogs and sluggish creeks, often flooded by beaver dams, were frozen over but not hard enough to hold us. In many places we broke through, occasionally sinking above our knees. Our boot laces were broken and knotted, our tattered and ice-caked pants flapped around our legs, and at night our wet clothing froze stiff. At first I had slept with my mittens on, but when they became soaked I drew my arms out of my sleeves and folded them inside. I had lost my fur cap the first day (I also lost my binoculars, but I don’t know when) and at night I tied a red handkerchief around my head, pulled the jacket up over it, and buttoned it tight. Tom and I crowded close for warmth, each pressing his bare feet against the other in­ side the deerskin. But in spite of all we did, the cold kept us awake and the nights were long. As we grew weaker we slept more soundly, however, and toward the end the cold no longer bothered us much.

We didn’t know it then, of course, but I have learned since from official Canadian weather records that the day­ time temperature in the Kenora area never climbed much above 40°F the 10 days we were lost, that it was below freezing most of the time, and that the nights got down as low as 15 above. My cut finger was swollen to bursting, but I had too much on my mind to worry about it. I wondered a lot about my family and my girl. I knew they’d be praying, waiting hopefully for the phone to ring, lying awake at night. The tantalizing thought of our well­-supplied tent was seldom out of my mind. I’m sure we were never more than 10 miles from it, most of the time much less. It was hard to realize we might die of cold and starvation so close to it. In fact, I never really ad­mitted that possibility; I told myself over and over we’d get out somehow. I don’t know what Tom thought, for he said little. His wife had been ready to go to the hospital to have a baby the day we left McIntosh, however, and he worried openly about her.

There were days when we walked in circles, coming back repeatedly to our own tracks. Each night we built our lean-to at the edge of an open marsh where we’d have a chance of being seen by aircraft. We saw or heard planes every day, but after the first sighting when the two flew overhead, none came close.

The plight of lost men begets a peculiar kind of universal pity. Certainly that was true in our case. We were headline news in cities 1,000 miles away, and the Canadians pressed the search for us in every way they knew.

MORE BUSH PLANES volunteered, and the Search and Rescue Wing of the R.C.A.F. at Winnipeg came in until there were 11 aircraft flying and two helicopters standing by. The country for 20 miles around Portal Lake was laid out in a grid pattern and all of it covered. All the lakes big enough to land on were combed by small planes that taxied around the shore as their pilots looked for tracks, a dead fire, any sign of us.

High winds and snow hampered the searchers, and there were days when the planes could go up for only an hour or so. Archie Webb and Ron Booi flew under almost impossible conditions, when trim tabs and pontoon rudders froze and they had to land to break the ice off, even cracking shell ice with their pontoons to taxi ashore. My dad flew up from Pentwater to the search camp and went out on flights or waited helplessly for word of us.

On Saturday, November 4—a week from the day we had wandered into the bush—the Kenora Bush Search and Rescue Unit, a volunteer outfit made up of experienced bush men and timber cruisers, was called in. Constable George Orosy of the Ontario Provincial Police, area commander of the unit, flew to the camp and took charge. By that time he had 20 men.

The searchers began to feel they were looking for dead men. From what had been found in our tent they knew we were without food, and because no smoke had been sighted they were sure we had no fire. There was a limit to the time we could survive, and many believed we had reached it. Hope was almost gone, but there was no thought yet of abandoning the search.

Orosy was more optimistic. We were both young and in good condition. Strong was used to roughing it, and he thought I would last as long as the guide. “It will take more than a week to finish them,” he told dad confidently.

THE GROUND SEARCH was widened to cover more territory. Four members of the Kenora group walked 20 miles east to Highway 105 in three days but found no sign of us. Next, Orosy had three-man teams flown to lakes from five to 10 miles north, south, east, and west of Portal with instructions to walk a compass course back to the search camp. If they found us they’d light two fires as a signal, and bush planes were assigned to support these teams.

Everything that seasoned rescue workers could think of was being done. Every man in the quest knew that un­less we were found soon there would be no further use to look for us.

The morning the widened ground search got under way, Tom and I awoke to see the sky clearing and the sun breaking through for the first time since we had walked away from the bog lake on October 28. Now at last we could get our bearings. That first sight of the sun seemed to put new life in us. We’d walk out now. Just a few more days and we’d be back safe and sound.

Which way to go ? It was no use to look for Portal Lake since we had no idea of its location or ours. We agreed our best chance was to try for Highway 105, which we believed lay to the southeast. We struck out in that di­rection, walking as fast as we could. Actually, we were headed toward the railroad and Quibell, 30-odd miles away, and I know now we could never have made it.

Magazine photographs of survivors

The Wabigoon River and a chain of big lakes was in our way, and we would not have been able to get across. Our strength was about gone, and our wanderings would have ended somewhere along the Wabigoon. Orosy told me later that we walked in a more southerly direction than southeast, I suppose partly because our way was barred time after time by streams and flooded bogs.

We tried to hurry all that day, set­ting our course by the sun. When we stopped for the night we thought we’d covered 12 to 15 miles. It was more likely five or less.

Now, at last, the search was closing in. While we stumbled weakly on that Sunday afternoon, one of Orosy’s search teams—Louis Ashopenace, Tom Payash, and Charlie Fobister—cut our tracks going south two miles west of Portal Lake. They were old, but the three men followed them until shortly before dark and camped on a lake. Just after they got their fire built, an R.C.A.F. plane flew over, misread their signals, and reported we had been found.

Tom and I spent that night, our ninth in the bush, as we had spent the others, shivering under a lean-to. But we were only a few miles ahead of the search party. The sun was still out the next morning, and we started off to the southeast once more.

Orosy doubted that we had been found, and at daylight he and Archie Webb flew out to investigate. They went back to the base camp and air­ lifted three more men out to help the search team. About noon they came on the camp where we had spent the night and found blood on the snow from Tom’s frostbitten legs. They made four miles through a dense swamp in the next hour.

My recollections of that day are hazy. Once when we stopped to rest in the thickets of a big swamp, Tom looked at me dully and said, “I don’t think I’ll make it.”

That was the first admission of de­feat from either of us, and I knew I couldn’t be of much help. We even talked of throwing the deerskin away but decided against it. Tom was still carrying it around his shoulders with his bare hands wrapped in it, and I staggered along with the rifle.

ABOUT 3 O’CLOCK we came to a low ridge, the first dry land we’d seen for hours. There was a big windfall with plenty of dead poles, so we stopped for the night. Before the lean-to was finished, Tom crawled into it and wrapped the deerskin around his feet without taking his boots off. He had not done that before, and I realized he was at the end of his rope.

I was helping him tuck the half­ frozen hide around his legs when I saw a man walk out of the swamp, following our tracks. He saw us in the same instant, whistled sharply, and broke into a run, and then five more came in sight in single file behind him. We were found!

It took the idea a few minutes to soak in, then we shook hands all around. One of them told us, “You’re tough guys. We thought you were both dead.” Then they went to work.

They had axes, food, coffee, tea, and dry socks. In minutes a big fire was crackling. They pulled a log up in front of it, and Tom and I soaked up the most wonderful heat I had ever felt, while our clothes started to steam dry. We drank tea and half a cup of hot soup apiece, and when that stayed down we tried a few bites of bread and cheese. About that time Ron Booi flew over.

He counted eight men and knew the long search was ended. He came down low enough to shout for us to wait where we were, then flew off to make his report. Our rescuers started to clear a place for a helicopter to land, but Booi was back in a little while, circling low again, pointing south and shouting, “Lake. Go that way.”

magazine cover

We walked less than a mile before we came to the lake and found Archie Webb’s plane waiting at the shore. We learned later that two ‘copters standing by at Winnipeg and Kenora were grounded by 55-mile winds. Waves were hammering against the pontoons of Webb’s plane, the sun was gone, and it was a dark, dreary November day. Tom and I climbed weakly up into the cabin. “You’re late,” Archie greeted us with a dry grin.

“About a week,” I acknowledged.

Minutes later we were looking down into the snowy bush where we had spent those 10 terrible days. Suddenly the whole thing seemed like a hideous dream.

Webb landed us at McIntosh, and my dad and Orosy met us there. Orosy said later that he did not think Strong could have survived another night in the open. “And I’d have given you just one more day after he went,” he added. I hadn’t realized either of us was that far along, but maybe he was right. We were both in pretty rough shape.

Webb’s wife, who had kept the search camp supplied with hot soup and food, drove us to the General Hospital at Dryden, 40 miles southeast of McIntosh. We were there shortly after dark, but by that time it was snowing hard. My weight had dropped 22 pounds, and Tom, thin to begin with, had lost about as much, but neither of us suffered any lasting damage. My finger healed quickly, Tom’s frostbite was not severe, and by some miracle—and thanks to the deerskin—we escaped frozen feet. I spent three days in the hospital, eating about every two hours, and Tom was there a little longer. His wife had a baby boy before he got home and they named it Bud, for me. I couldn’t have had a nicer compliment. I still want a moose, and one of these days I’ll go back and get one. But when I do you can be sure that every minute I’m in the bush I’ll know exactly where I am.

This survival story, “Ten Terrible Days,” first ran in the July 1962 issue of Outdoor Life. The text has been minimally edited to meet contemporary standards.

Read the full article here

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