Last October, a father and son set out into the Oregon wilderness, stalking blacktail deer. After they split up, only one of them made it out of the woods. This is what happens when a hunter disappears
THE TRAGIC STORY OF A HUNTER WHO DISAPPEARED p. 64
Trevor Higgins was starting to panic. Even if his dad had shot a deer, he should have reached the trailhead by now. Or, if he’d fallen and broken a leg, Trevor was sure his dad would have belly-crawled to the road. He wasn’t the kind of guy to depend on someone else for help, to sit and wait for rescue. But two and a half hours had passed since his dad, Shawn Higgins, had entered the woods. Maybe more. Trevor wasn’t sure anymore. But he knew that his dad should have come back to the truck already.
Their plan was simple: Shawn, 41, would hike down the narrow footpath, looking for a blacktail. Meanwhile, Trevor, 21—who had killed a buck the day before—would wait with the truck at the next trailhead, 2 miles up Burnt Ridge Road in the Siskiyou Mountains of southwest Oregon. After a couple of hours, they’d meet and drive to get Will Chandler, Trevor’s uncle, whom they’d dropped off earlier. They did this sort of thing often. There was no reason for Shawn to have taken more than an hour or so to make the hike. Now, a storm began to bear down on the mountain, which further unsettled Trevor. He watched as the October sky grayed. He could see a darkness coming. FIRST, PANIC BUILDS At 2:30 P.M., Will Chandler showed up at the truck. Trevor, his nephew, and Shawn, his brother-in-law, were supposed to pick him up three hours ago, but they never showed, so he had to walk 7 miles down the mountain by himself. Cold and irritated, he yanked open the truck door. “Trevor, what the hell is going on?” he said. But the moment he saw Trevor’s face, he knew something had gone wrong.
Old Haunt Garrett (left), Trevor, and Stephanie Higgins return to the Siskiyou Mountains.
“My dad hasn’t come out yet,” Trevor said. For as long as Will had known Shawn, he’d never once failed to show up like this. Will and Trevor agreed that they needed to look for Shawn before the weather worsened, but even now the conditions weren’t conducive to a search. The wind was blowing hard enough to shake the pickup, and tree limbs crashed down around them; it wouldn’t take long for the rain to erase any boot track from the trail. With nightfall just hours away, Will and Trevor split up in hopes of finding Shawn quickly. Trevor would start at the far trailhead, where he’d dropped off his dad that morning, while Will hiked in from where the truck was parked. They’d meet in the middle, after one of them had found Shawn.
Trevor drove his fourwheeler north to the far trailhead, but the narrow path forced him to hike from there. As he struck off down the trail, he could see far through the old-growth timber and rock outcroppings. Trevor had grown up hunting this piece of wilderness, but his dad knew it even better—another reason why his failure to show was so unnerving. Shawn knew the mountains and ridges about as well as anyone and was an expert in pursuing deer in the timber; he jokingly referred to himself as Dr. Blacktail.
The wilderness that surrounded Trevor lies within the 1.7-million-acre Rogue River–Siskiyou National Forest. It is unforgiving country, with high, sharp ridges and dense stands of cedar and fir. The area where Trevor and Shawn were hunting, in particular, has seen its share of close calls and tragedies. Most notably, in Nov. 2006, a family from San Francisco made a wrong turn off the one-lane road that
traverses the mountains—the same road Trevor and Shawn had taken that morning—and ended up 21 miles back in the woods. Snow enveloped their station wagon. After seven days of waiting for rescue, the father, James Kim, left his family in search of help. His body was found four days later in an icy creek. His wife and two daughters survived. About a decade before that, a camper salesman, new to the area, endured nine weeks in his snowbound pickup, stranded deep in the backcountry, before he starved to death. He kept record of his experience on a legal notepad, writing toward the end, “I have no control over my life. It’s all in His hands.” These men are far from the only ones who have perished or gone missing in this wilderness. Each year in Oregon, about 1,100 people require rescue from the wild, 99 percent of whom make it home alive. From 1997 to 2016, however, 80 lost persons were confirmed dead in the backcountry, and another 76 stepped into the woods and have not been seen since.
Ribbon marked the path through the timber, and Trevor followed it away from the trailhead. Wind whipped through the trees, and rain puddled on the ground. “I started to freak out,” he recalls. “The only thing that was really going through my mind was, I need to find my dad.”
Trevor followed the trail for nearly an hour and a half, until he reached a clearing atop a ridgeline. He had no idea if Will had found his dad; he’d been in such a rush to get on the track and search that he’d neglected to bring a cellphone, much less a compass or GPS. He had only his Remington 700, a knife, a lighter, and the clothes he was wearing. From the clearing, the trail split, and though the ribbon stopped, Trevor decided to head right, believing that way led back toward the road.
The trees that engulfed him made it difficult to gauge where he was going, and with darkness falling and the rain intensifying, he became desperate to find his way back. “I just wanted to get to the pickup,” he says. “I wanted to see if my uncle found my dad.”
The underbrush grew thick, and Trevor pushed his way through as fast as he could. After another mile or so, he stumbled upon a deep draw with a creek at the bottom. He could barely see as he eased down the slope. Suddenly, his feet kicked out from under him, and he tumbled to the bottom. After a moment, he managed to stand and collect
himself; he was shaken but uninjured. He looked up toward the ridges that surrounded him—walls of blackness. He was lost, but he knew that he’d be worse off continuing blind than he would be making camp. He tried not to imagine his dad somewhere out there, alone. “I kept telling myself, over and over, that my dad had made it out, that he was with my uncle.”
AN OFFICIAL SEARCH BEGINS
At 5 A.M. Saturday morning, Stephanie Higgins woke to knocking on the door. It was her father, David Petitt, who lived a house over. That night, Will, after failing to reconnect with Trevor, had phoned his wife back in Coos Bay, a small community on the Oregon coast where they all lived, who had then called Petitt to deliver the news. “He told me about Shawn first, and I flipped out,”
Points of Interest Clockwise from top: Trevor (left) and Shawn embrace; the search area; Garrett and Shawn at the lake.