The second time I almost died upland hunting was this last fall in Maine.
Just like any upland hunter with a love for hunting with dogs I train early in the mornings to combat the summer heat and I dream of a cool crisp morning walking in the woods with my dogs. I consider myself a decent woodsman. I love to be outdoors on the weekends as I fly a desk and am either on the phone or in meetings all week. My real love is being outside and watching my dogs work. You can sense how happy they are to be off leash and free to run in the woods. Personally, I can’t sit still anymore by the time the weekend rolls around, so upland bird hunting fits me perfectly. I want to walk and have a dog that works fairly close so French Brittany’s have been the perfect breed for me. Most of my bird hunting has been in Arizona. Arizona has sky islands (mountains). So most places you park and start walking you can pick a reference point and find your way back to your vehicle. I am not nearly as good at direction as some of the old timers I have hunted with who were true woodsman. It took me numerous hunts with them before I realized what they were doing by marking a mountain or valley or cut when we walked away from the truck. We often do epic hikes quail hunting in Arizona, where we might walk 10-12 miles and be gone from the truck half the day or more. So in Arizona you better carry lots of water for both you and your dogs. There are some places when we hunt Mearns Quail where you drop into valley’s and walk over numerous valleys. We always find the hunting better one valley over from the one a guy can stop, park a car and walk into. Sometimes when your lined up on your mountain in the distance to head back, but you’re not sure which mesa or valley your truck is in, as you have walked over three or four valleys and many of them have multiple branches. When the Garmin Astro first came out, I hated it as one of my buddies who had EP’s was walking around always staring at it. In my opinion missing the sights of the hunt and the joy of watching the dogs work. I am sure he was trying to find his EP’s as we were walking to hunt Mearns and he normally did all of his trials from horseback. Now that I have a Garmin Alpha I usually remember to mark the truck. My legs are getting older and at the end of the day I want to walk the most direct route back to the truck and I want to maximize my daylight time hunting. I find the Garmin Alpha not to be the best training collar, but certainly is the best tracking collar when I am hunting with multiple dogs. Funny how we all survived before without it, but it does cut down on the number of times I end up finding the truck after nightfall.
Work has taken me to move my family from Arizona to Richmond Virginia where we have settled in on a small 10 acre farm close to the city. I have been blessed to have fallen in with a bunch of Ruffed Grouse Society (RGS) members from the James River RGS Society. Quail hunting near home is pretty much non-existent. Grouse hunting in Virginia is pretty poor. Woodcock hunting is excellent the couple weeks a year they are migrating through. The James River RGS Chapter members proposed we hunt woodcock and grouse in the North Woods of Maine. Six of us drove two trucks eighteen hours each way to the North Woods of Maine. We stayed in Jackman and hunted off the Golden Road. This year the bird populations were very low. Between the six of us, we averaged three flushes per day. However, we did see where the road hunters were killing lots of grouse. We are purist and after driving 18 hours and hauling our dogs there, we were going to hunt over pointed birds. We did have a point of a grouse mid-way up a tree in the first hour. The North Woods is beautiful and rugged country that is owned by timber logging companies and actively logged. There is an abundance of good grouse habitat.
My story begins late in the second day of walking and hunting all day. Only two of us were still energetic enough to take another walk. I had four French Brittany’s with me and had been rotating two each walk. I decided to take my 11 year old male Antar and 2 year old female Jamari. We took off up an old logging road to the top of the mountain and then once at the top turned onto another logging road that crossed over the mountain. The dogs were out ahead of us. Eric and I decided it was time to turn around to be back at the trucks before dark. After walking fifty yards I realized Jamari had not turned with us. I checked her location on the Garmin Alpha and she was going the opposite direction from me. I called for her, then I whistled for her, then used the collar to tone her which is a command to come back to me. All with no response and she kept going the opposite direction. I then tried using electric stimulus along with the tone. Finally, when she stopped, the GPS said she was 1000 yards away from me and in the opposite direction of where we were going that would have to be bushwhacked. Eric and I spoke and I realized we had not marked the truck on the GPS (first lesson learned). I marked the spot on my GPS where I left the trial. We decided Eric would walk back to the truck and tell the guys what was going on. Since the North Woods is actively timbered, there is a ton of down fallen trees, they are not too big, but they are very thick. The ground is soft with lots of holes from fallen over trees and their root balls. I headed off the trail through the woods confident that I could find my way down the mountain if I could get back to the GPS marked trail before dark.
I was worried Jamari was hurt or attached by wolves as the guys had mentioned wolves several times. A thousand yard hike through dense forest is not easy and it takes a lot of time. My back was starting to cramp on the walk to find Jamari. Keep in mind it was one thousand feet off the trail and another thousand feet back to the trail. I was starting to get mad and stressed. I finally realized I had a Quilomene vest full of water and food. So I drank water and ate an apple. When I found her she was just sitting there. I slipped a lead around her neck and started back to the trail. I kept cramping and quickly realized I could not have her on the lead, carry my gun, eat some more food and walk thru the small timber. Many places the timber was so dense it became a wall and you had to walk around it. Antar (my old male) stayed me the whole walk. The cramping had moved down to my legs as well. It was twenty minutes after dark when I finally got back to the GPS marked trail. The logging trail road in places was clogged with popular about ten feet tall, so you quickly got lost after dark and could not tell if you were still on the old logging road. Jamari and Antar continued to walk with me. I had no flash light or cell phone. Cell phones don’t work in the North Woods of Maine, so I had decided to leave it in the truck. I don’t normally carry a flash light as my cell phone has one (second lesson learned). So at this point I am scared and stuck on top of a mountain with no light or way to make a fire (third lesson learned) I calmed down and realized I was not going to die, but probably was going to spend the night on the mountain top and it was supposed to rain every night. This is when I remembered Eric saying we were hunting off the Golden Road. I was able to find that on my Garmin Alpha GPS. Next question was do I try and cut down the mountain instead of following the trail back. At this point I have no idea where the truck is, but figure somebody will drive down it that night and head towards the Golden Road. Fourth lessoned learned is know how to use you GPS better. I only knew how to use the compass with yards from the road. Problem was I had no light. The GPS screen would stay lite for three seconds. Enough time to look at it, take one half a step and it would be dark as my back leg came over the obstacle. Many times walking down the hill in the pitch black you had to walk up a cut (uphill), which when you can’t see totally disorients you. I would bump into a downed log and walk along it, until I normally fell into the root ball hole at the base. By this time my hamstrings and calves on both legs were regularly cramping. I told myself nobody is getting you off this mountain but you. Keep in mind I am pretty reasonably fit and work out at least four days a week. I fell at least twelve times and dropped my gun at least twice walking and stumbling down the mountain. The woods were so dense you could not walk a straight line and became disoriented. Numerous times I would take three steps and look at my GPS and realize I had walked the wrong direction as my GPS tracks yards to the Golden Road waypoint. Once I walked five directions doing this until I was again headed in the right direction.
An hour after dark I heard three gun shots in succession. I knew it was the guys signaling me their location. I shot back once to signal I was okay. They later told me they could barely hear my shot when I replied. They thought I was still well over one thousand yards away. Eric and Roy at the truck kept shooting the shotgun once every fifteen minutes as I made my way down the mountain and I would reply with one shot. One shot means “I am okay and headed your way” (Fifth lesson learned create an emergency plan with your hunting partners). Another hour walking down the mountain Antar and I became separated. I started calling for him as we have hunted for almost twelve years together. Antar amazed me in that every time I called his name he would bark at me. He had NEVER done this before. We probably continued for twenty minutes me calling “Antar” and him giving a single bark in response. Finally we were back together. I was running low on ammunition and tried using my whistle. The guys did not hear my whistle until I was within two hundred yards of them and by then I could see their dim flashlight (lesson six understand how far sound will travel). They had found my flash light in the truck. The one that I had checked before leaving and remembered telling my wife the battery’s were low. However, in my hast to leave, I had not replaced the batteries (lesson seven check all light sources and replace if necessary before you need them). When I finally met up with Eric maybe two hundred yards from the Golden Road, three plus hours after dark I was exhausted. I asked him to carry my gun. Once we were back in the truck I asked Eric to drive. We had about sixty minutes to make an eighty minute drive to the North Woods manned check point that closed at nine pm. We got there right as they were closing. The gate man called the Maine State Police and I spoke with them to call off the missing hiker search (for me).
Over an hour later we got to the cabin’s in Jackman and I walked in and the guys told me I looked like I had been in a twelve round boxing match. I was bruised and battered and covered in dirt. I was to exhausted to do anything but eat and go to bed (lesson seven clean your gun after you drop it).
In closing one of the gentlemen was separated from us the last day while we were all chasing a grouse. We all knew where he was about two hundred yards away, but in very dense forest. He shot two times. We were not sure if he emptied both barrels on the grouse or was lost. We decided to be safe and replied with one shot to signal him back to us. He readily admitted he was lost and our shot gave him a direction to travel towards to exit the woods.
What is the Boy Scout Motto: Always Be Prepared!
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Published in the CEB-US National Magazine Winter of 2017
7/11/2017 THE SECOND TIME I ALMOST DIED UPLAND HUNTING
Chip Hidinger views from a bird dog upland hunter.
The second time I almost died upland hunting was this fall in The North Woods of Maine.