PORTLAND – When the body of Jerry William McDonald was discovered deep in the Oregon woods on a one-lane dirt road, the first hint of what led to his death was the Feb. 14 entry on his calendar: “Snowed in.”
It was a Valentine’s Day that went unmarked on his otherwise-detailed log, a reused calendar from the 1970s in which he had crossed out bygone dates and filled in the current year.
McDonald noted that he drove his blue 1997 GMC truck into the remote foothills of the Cascade Range on Feb. 7 and made camp, then woke up one day to find himself in the middle of a fast and heavy snowstorm.
If McDonald had been awake, said Linn County Sheriff Tim Mueller, he might have been able to see the flakes piling up, made plans to get out, deal with it.
McDonald’s body was discovered Thursday by a U.S. Forest Service crew, about 60 miles east of the state capital of Salem. An autopsy Friday showed he died of hypothermia and starvation, Mueller said.
McDonald, 68, liked to camp. While he didn’t have a lot of food, he had gallon jugs of water, a jack for his truck and chains on his tires. Mueller said the Oregon man didn’t have a compass, a cellphone or a GPS device, but he was resourceful: He knew enough to slip rocks under his wheels to give them traction.
He also knew the area. His log showed he spent time in the pretty coastal countryside that dots the Oregon shore, stopping in towns like Kitson, Ore. He had plans to drive near Salem, and then on to the tiny community of Powers by April.
“This fellow looks like he’s done this before, it looks like how he lived,” Mueller said. “Sad deal.”
The sheriff said McDonald didn’t appear to have a permanent home, though his vehicle was registered in Unity, Ore., some 250 miles from where his truck was found. No one had reported him missing.
He had plenty of cash: $5,000 was found with his body. But that didn’t help him as the storms kept dumping snow on the area, and the chains on his tires only left a series of holes in the ground that reflected his attempts to turn around the truck.
Sometimes, in his odd shorthand that left out just one or two letters, he would add other notes: “Dig o,” for his attempts to dig out during the first three days of his ordeal.
About a month later, catastrophe struck. On March 16, he noted: “No Fo.” He had run out of food, on the same day that 6 inches of snow also fell.
In the last month of his life, McDonald perhaps had some hope, thanks to the spring weather. “Warm,” he wrote for three days in early April. But snow began falling again. Weather records show storm after storm pushing up to the Cascades.
It would later surprise searchers that McDonald, just three miles from the town of Marion Forks, made no attempt to get out of the area.
On April 15, he made one last entry – “rain.” He also noted that he had been in the area for 68 days.