No one expected to find the 71-year-old hunter alive.
“Nobody wants to say it, but you can sense it,” said Nick Hogamier of Shoshone County Search and Rescue. “We thought we were looking for a body.”
Rescuers said Thomas Smith, who roamed the woods from Wednesday morning until 2 p.m. Sunday, probably did more things wrong than right.
Smith, a resident of Florence, Ore., was unfamiliar with the mountains southwest of Superior, Mont. (A guide had escorted Smith’s party on horseback to their remote camp.)
Out without a map and compass, Smith started up the wrong ridge when he headed back to camp Wednesday night, said Shoshone County Deputy Dave Wuolle, who also searched for the missing hunter.
About 11 that night, Smith fell into the creek he’d been following, soaking his matches and drowning any chance he might have had of starting a fire.
According to Hogamier, a map, a compass, and a waterproof container of matches are a few of the things no hunter should leave camp without.
“That’s massive country. One draw looks a lot like the next. Unless you have a map and a compass and keep taking readings all the time, it’s easy to become disoriented,” he said.
Other strikes against Smith included the weather - intermittent rain and snow - and the fact that he had no food with him.
“He said he didn’t really feel hungry, but he had very little energy,” said Shoshone Deputy Mitch Alexander. “It sounds like he spent most of the time just slowly stumbling along.”
Shoshone County Sheriff Dan Schierman said the fact Smith kept moving could have been what saved him.
Hogamier maintained the hunter’s clothing was a factor.
“He was dressed very well, in wool pants and jacket. You can buy Gore-Tex or some other expensive product, but nothing’s better than wool. It keeps you warm even when it’s wet.”
The hunter also wore a hat. “That’s important, because you can lose so much body heat through the top of your head,” Hogamier said.
Luckily, Smith had the foresight to carry a thin, lightweight space blanket with him, Schierman said. When he fell in the creek, he stopped and wrapped his feet in strips of the torn blanket before replacing his boots.
The final factor in Smith’s favor was his determination.
“On the second day, he decided to tell himself he was still hunting, not lost,” Wuolle said. “He knew he was turned around, but he was keeping a positive attitude.”
Smith’s absence was reported to officials shortly after midnight Friday. Saturday, officials and volunteers from Clearwater County, Shoshone County, and the St. Joe Valley turned out to comb the mountains. Search-dog teams were employed. A helicopter was scheduled to assist on Sunday, although fog kept it grounded.
Sunday morning, Smith came across the North Fork of the Clearwater River and started downstream. He was about two miles from his camp when he spotted a couple of searchers poring over a map.
“I heard he hollered, ‘Hey, could you fellows show me where I’m at?”’ Wuolle recalled, grinning.
Smith initially complained of frostbite symptoms in his feet. But shortly after they’d fed the hunter and given him something hot to drink, he insisted on walking the rest of the way back to camp.
“He was in really good condition for a 71-year-old,” Wuolle said. “But he did mention that if he ever went out again, he’d just stick with being camp cook.”