Lost in the Great Woods
By Bill Butt, as told by Frank Patten
This is a tale of courage - the skill of a woodsman and the stamina of a hunter who was helped by prayers. The Taxi man from Fortune became lost while hunting, but made it to safety and returned home.
It was 50 years ago that this spunky man of small stature with a giant's courage went moose hunting with a friend in the Terrenceville - Sandy Harbour area. The day started like other days of moose hunting trips. After a dinner meal at Swift Current, the two hunters then drove back to the Sandy Harbour area. They left the road and started to hunt along the edge of the woods there, but saw nothing worthwhile. They looked over the country for a while hoping to catch site of a moose as the evening wore on.
It was December 1st, 1953, and the evenings get very short at this time of the year. Soon it was decided to return to the road not too far away. Abraham, better known as Abe, thought he would go around the pond and walk back to the road on a parallel with his hunting companion and long time friend. Albert Boomer, known as Bert, was to walk back towards the road and wait for Abe to come in from the other side of the pond. However, that would not happen because, soon after Abe left Bert, he came upon the tracks of two moose and, of course, he started to follow them. In the excitement of waiting to get a shot, he soon forgot about his marks. As the evening had closed in, he realized that he was now lost. He could not see anything, his marks were gone, it was nearly dark, and he must prepare for the night out in the woods. He found some heavy woods, made a shelter and prepared to stay the night. He fired off a few shots from his rifle but there was no reply. Now he knew he was further away from his buddy and the road than he had thought.
'The night wasn't too bad. I had a small fire going,' he later said, 'but I stayed awake all night hoping someone might come to look for me.' He knew Boomer would have made it to the road because he would only have to walk in a straight line. Where Abe was at, there were a couple of brooks. A long trek around to a crossing would have taken him longer than he had anticipated when he left Boomer. He thought about this all night.
The next morning he headed for the high ground to try to get a bearing but the weather came on thick and muggy. He walked until 11:00 am. By this time the snow was falling in great wet blotches and he lost all sense of direction. He walked until 5:00 pm, when he came across an old log cabin and went in to spend the night. The cabin had no roof on it; his matches were wet and spoiled, with all the brimstone soaked away - this night would be a cold one.
Crouched in the corner, he put his hunting jacket over his head and shoulders. It kept his head a bit dry but the rain was so heavy it ran off the jacket and filled his logans (hunting boots). Now his feet were wet and wet clothes made the night very uncomfortable. I have an old saying that 'a man alone is poor company'. With no food, the big thing facing Abe now was survival. Being a sailor and a woodsman, he knew his task. His skills would be put to the test of endurance and how much cold he could take. The will to live is one thing but to be cold, wet, hungry and alone is another. But this small man of giant courage put his wits to the test. His only thought was: 'I must find a way out.' His food would be birch rind and buds from plants that had not yet shed their fruit of next years' seeds.
He began to wring out his wet clothes as much as he could, putting them back on really gives one a wake up call. The old body is trying to dry the clothes with its heat and at the same time maintain a little warmth. After all this walking his feet were a bit sore, with the socks he wrung out. He tried to get them on his feet but his feet were swollen and he could only get one pair on. He had two pair but now the other pair he would put in his pocket in case he would need them later.
At this time there were a great number of searchers out looking for him. They knew the area of course. Boomer had made the report as soon as he could get to someone, that very same night that he got out. They found some signs and they knew it was Abe's. Some time on this day he hung his sweater in the cabin and the searchers found it. He later left his rifle leaning against an old tree and they found that as well so they knew they were on his trail but he was always a bit ahead of them. By this time Abe had found Sandy Hr. River and he knew it would lead him to the sea shore.
By now the searchers were getting weary from all of this walking day and night with no luck. They would take turns at boiling the kettle and having a meal so as not to have anyone searching at all times. They would get together after a few hours searching, at a determined spot, to discuss where to look next. They found footprints and they knew he was still alive out there somewhere; they also knew that he had no food but what they didn't know was how long Abe could go on very little food. He had a bad stomach and only ate small lots of food at any time. Being the small built man he was, he could survive a long time on very little. Thursday night he made a bed of moss and boughs and slept in the great outdoors.
The searchers grew weary and needed backup searchers. The call came out to Fortune and Grand Bank for volunteers to assist with the searchers from the area who knew the country. The LOL lodge of Fortune called a meeting at the Lodge. Masters, Past Masters and anyone who belonged to the Lodge was asked to take part in the search and people who had no part in the Organization also came and offered their services. A great search party was formed and on they went to the area to try and find the Hunter from Fortune who was lost in the woods now for three days and nights. With no food and poor weather conditions, his survival chances were getting smaller as the day wears on.
Still alone and not knowing how far he had to go, he started to get a little concerned of how he might fair out. He didn't know that his town people had mustered together to drive to the Swift Current area to meet up with some other searchers there. Some of the search crew thought that they might get a boat and go to Woody Island. That's where the Sandy Hr. River emptied out into the sea and they were thinking that Abe would find the River and follow it down to the salt water - which was exactly what he had in mind. Some of the men from the Fortune - Grand Bank area took to the woods and others took to the boats to look for their friend Abe. He was a Taxi driver and known to almost everyone in both towns because he made a taxi run between Fortune and St Johns almost on a daily run, with food stops at Swift Current and Goobies along the route. He was a very likable driver because he used to tell stories as he drove along. It was said that some of his tales were known to be tall tales but they were all in fun and made the trip to St. John's, or wherever he got a fare, very enjoyable.
The search crew in boats left Swift Current and motored out to the Placentia Bay to search along the shore line in hopes that he had made it down to the shore line where the river meets the sea. Today the search would be fruitless but the searchers were staying. They know he will come to the shore line if he has not fallen and broke a leg or twisted an ankle and, even at that, someone was heard to say: 'He will come on crutches - lets give him time.'
Friday morning came with clear blue sky so Abe went again for the high country to try for a bearing but again the fog closed in. He figured that the wind was in the norwesterly direction, and he knew that Placentia was to the South East from where he was, so he started to walk into the wind. He walked all day, till his feet were swollen and sore.
The people from the Town of Fortune came together on this search, as well as the people in Placentia and Fortune Bays. There was a great effort to find this lost hunter who, by this time, had spent four days and nights alone, for the most part. He had some company but didn't know what it was, if it was moose roaming about or a bear, as the country down there is noted for black bear country. As most outdoor people know, bears can smell when one is weak and could make an easy meal. Of course, Abe knew this as well and it was forever on his mind - he later said so. Friday night was long, cold, hungry and lonely. A man in wet clothes is constantly reminded of dry socks and a nice warm bed as his body shivers to make a little heat.
Some of the searchers from Fortune, as I recall from Franks story telling, including Frank, were as follows: Ben Lake, Fred Snook, Walt Follett, Fred Smith, Harvey and Bill Piercey and Garfield Hickman. A local merchant, Lloyd Lake, took a crowd in his car; Aubrey Lake had a van that could take 9 people; also George Thornhill's Taxi took a crew. So there was quite a crew from Fortune that set out to look for the lost hunter. As one can appreciate, it's been 50 years and a lot of names have slipped the memory but a great deal of thanks goes out to the searchers of the town of Fortune, as well as Fortune and Placentia Bays.
He arose from a troubled sleep and another damp night, and then set out on his journey down river, early Saturday morning. He thought he heard a motorboat, but it seemed way off in the distance and it was because he was still a long ways from the mouth of the river.
Then he heard another boat and it was much closer. He knew now that he would be saved and that his prayers had been answered. He found an old wood trail and followed it. As he was walking, he heard air planes overhead so he ran out in the marsh where they could spot him. The biggest plane had a loudspeaker system. It was saying something but the sounds were so jumbled he didn't know what they were saying. They were trying to tell him to keep going towards the seashore where there were searchers waiting for him.
'I could see the seashore, what a relief, and a feeling of warmth came over my body,' he later said. 'It was like a blast of warm air. There was a boat and I was safe.'
The boat brought Abe to Davis Cove, a little fishing village. Here he would have his first real food in 6 days. A telephone call to a Doctor in Come-by Chance said to give him a little food at first; it was to be two biscuits, an orange and a cup of tea laced with lots of milk and sugar. A change of dry clothing was put out for him and hot water for him to bathe, after which he went to a nice warm bed for a good nights sleep.
The next day he went to Swift Current to meet up with his friend, Jack Beck, at his motel, where 6 days before Abe and Bert had started out on their moose-hunting trip. Monday he was off to home in Fortune, to his wife and family. While he was lost he said his prayers many times and kept thinking about his family. He later said, 'I thought that I could keep going until Monday if my legs didn't fail, I was sure I would get out of the woods. I wasn't afraid, as long as I didn't get too cold I'd make out.' Abe lived a happy life for many years after, in and around Fortune Outdoors.
Note: For the benefit of those who may wonder, the man in this story was Abram Harris. His name may be unfamiliar to some of our newer residents but most of us knew him.