SPE­CIAL RE­PORT

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

Field and Stream - - FRONT PAGE - BY JR SUL­LI­VAN Pho­to­graphs by TY COLE

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.

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