Darkness was falling when first-time hunter Seth Basler realized he was in serious trouble. He was lost in unfamiliar woods, surrounded on all four sides by water at least hip-deep, and it was getting cold.
But Seth had recently completed his hunter education. Standing there in the gathering dark, he recalled the lessons on emergency survival. He had left his flashlight behind, and the encroaching night was making it hard to read the printed hunter education manual he’d brought with him, but he’d read and reread it during his lunch breaks and remembered what to do.
Because of his hunter education, Seth was able to keep himself safe until help arrived.
Seth, a 23-year-old Indiana student, completed his hunter education online in September. He has a passion for the outdoors and was eager to begin hunting. He bought his license and prepared for his hunt, packing a light backpack with a copy of the Indiana hunter education manual, “Today’s Hunter: Indiana’s Guide to Hunting Responsibly and Safely” as a backup resource, and readying his longbow. He decided to start with the nearby LaSalle Fish and Wildlife Area, which he’d visited previously.
The hunt started out well, but quickly led Seth away from the main trail. “I was following tracks for the longest time. I finally spotted the deer quite a way aways from me; it was too far because I was hunting with a longbow, so I had to go further and further and further, until I was in unfamiliar territory,” Seth said. “Because it was my first time hunting, I was more focused on getting the deer than on where I was.”
He ultimately lost the deer in the brambles of a marsh, and then he realized how lost he was. He found the Kankakee River and tried to use that to navigate back toward the park entrance, but kept being turned aside by dangerous barriers such as swampland and thick briar.
“I knew my cardinal directions and which way I had to go, but a lot of the marshes were blocking my direct path,” Seth explained.
He wandered for so long that he found his own footprints. He tried again to trace them back, but lost even his own tracks in the sandy soil. He stumbled upon a tree stand, but the hunter was not nearby. The tracks near it indicated the hunter had come in from the river, likely on a boat.
“I was completely confused,” Seth said. He had a map, but it didn’t clearly depict topographical changes, and he couldn’t tell if the marshy areas nearby were shallow enough to cross—or deep enough to pull him under.
He’d been out for hours, and it was beginning to get dark. He was drenched from his travels, and the air was taking on a chill. And that’s when he remembered what he’d learned in his Hunter Ed course.
“I calmed down and thought about what to do, like it said in the hunter’s ed guide,” he said. He was on a marshy island with water on all sides, and in the dark, he couldn’t find the path he’d used to safely cross.
He first called his girlfriend, asking her to look up the number for the game warden or manager, but the office had already closed. With his cell phone battery dying, Seth called 911. He was able to tell police his general location, and they began the search to find him.
Meanwhile, he was still cold and wet. So he again used what he’d learned in his Hunter Ed course and began to build a survival shelter. He used a light tarp he had in his backpack and branches to build a lean-to, and collected branches to start a small fire for warmth. But the wood was damp and wasn’t catching, so he used the only paper he had available: He burned a few pages of his hunter education manual, as well as a temporary hunting tag, using a small Bic lighter to start the flames.
“Eventually, after an hour, I had a decent bed of coals so the fire could sustain itself, big enough to keep me warm and dry my socks out,” he said.
It was now full dark. Seth couldn’t see farther out than his little campfire, but then he heard a boat on the river—the police and conservation officers coming to find him. He called out, and the officers zeroed in on his location. But they were still stymied by the thick marshes surrounding him on all sides.
“I could see their lights, but I couldn’t see anything around me,” Seth said.
Police had to use satellite images to find the best way to navigate to reach Seth, but he kept in contact the whole time. “I was joking with the officers that this was the worst game of hide-and-seek I’d ever been in,” Seth said.
Officers finally saw Seth’s small fire and were able to reach him, though it meant slogging through waist-high marsh water in pitch blackness.
It turned out Seth wasn’t far from his goal all along: He was found only 200 yards from the parking lot, but the marsh was a difficult obstacle. "If I were to have crossed the marsh in front of me, I would have been able to walk a straight line north to the main trail and take that back to my car," Seth said.
Despite his ordeal, Seth is still enthusiastic about the outdoors, and he’s already been back out hunting, though he’s more cautious about wandering in LaSalle. And when he’s hunting, he’s a little more careful: "I won’t be as zoned in on a game animal as I was last time," he said. "I’ll at least be aware enough to mark a trail."
All in all, though he is embarrassed that police and conservation officers had to come rescue him, Seth is grateful for having gotten lost. “When I was sitting in front of the fire, I realized this is actually something I had wanted to do: just me, the things I have with me, nature, and figuring out how to get through the night. It’s one of my dreams to be in a survival situation, and it’s funny—that’s what it was! Because of hunting, I got to live one of my dreams and go out and basically be in the environment for quite some time.”