Search & Rescue Notes: Volume 1
I was recently involved in the search for a missing hunter in Curry, County, Oregon. The man had gone missing on October 14, and at the time of this post is still missing. The man’s son tried to find him and also became lost, but was rescued several days later. Agencies from across the state were involved in trying to find him along with many community volunteers who were given easier search tasks and provided meals and supplies to searchers. Below are my thoughts on the search and what everyone can take away from this experience.
The Lane County Sheriff’s Office sent a contingent of ground searchers, Eugene Mountain Rescue Members, and K9 handlers on the weekend of October 22. The ground searchers and mountain rescuers divided into two teams. We were assigned to search on top of and below a ridgeline that search dogs had expressed interest in the day before. A small group of PJs (Pararescue) from the Oregon National Guard would be searching to our northeast. Several dozen other teams of SAR volunteers as well as community volunteers would perform other tasks around the area.
The hunter, Shawn Higgins, had been missing for more than a week at this point. We knew that he had gone hiking alone, had a rifle with three rounds of ammunition, and had camouflage pants, top, and balaclava. We didn’t know much about what he was packing in terms of survival or signaling equipment. Because of the harsh weather over the past week, duration of absence and the hypothermic condition of his son when he was rescued, we assumed that Higgins would be hypothermic, and unresponsive.
The area was extremely steep, rugged, and difficult to move about. The soil, which had been loosened by days of rain, moved easily under our feet. We encountered a thick section of brush, which we ultimately had to move around since we couldn’t move through it without becoming completely stalled or increasing our risk of injury. There were several points in which I had to remove my pack and crawl while pushing my gear through the branches, much like a cave diver. Other times, I had to climb over the shrubbery, sometimes standing as high as four feet off the ground. After getting past the thicket, we continued our route downhill, checking game trails and rock formations where someone may try to move or take shelter. One of the GSAR members in our team also checked out places where a hunter may try to make a hide.
The only signs of activity came from the occasional tracks from deer or elk as well as scat from deer and bear. The bear stuff was everywhere. Black bears are common in Western Oregon especially in the south. I had no idea how active they were until now. I knew this was the time of year for them to build up their reserves for hibernation.
We covered a lot of ground in our search area, but ultimately didn’t find any clues as to where Shawn Higgins could be.
Because I had been involved in the search fairly late in the timeline of developments, there’s not much I can give as far as how the search for Shawn Higgins had been planned from the beginning. Our assignment had been reasonably thought out in why it was given and planned.
The lesson for everyone is to be prepared when out and about and to have a reliable way to signal for help. (This is not to say our subject in this case was not prepared). A subject wearing camouflage is much harder to find than someone who is not. If you’re wearing camouflage, please keep some kind of brightly colored clothing or signal panel as part of your kit.
Also, keep in mind that gunshots are NOT an effective way to signal in the back country. Sound from a rifle shot may not even travel 100 yards in thick timber, which is what we were searching in. Keep a whistle on your person since it will not run out of power. Your pack should also contain gear to make a shelter and fire should you be unable to return to camp or your car.
While the main search operations for Shawn Higgins have been suspended, I still hope that he is found and there is closure for his family. I also want to sincerely thank the community volunteers that assisted in the search and prepared food for the searchers.