Four True Stories of Survival
The lessons these outdoorsmen learned after dealing with the worst the wild can conjure could save your life.
Mauled by a bear. Lost in unfamiliar woods. Swamped by a storm. Attacked by a shark. In the last seven months, these outdoorsmen encountered the worst nightmares the wild can conjure. But thanks to smarts, willpower, and a little luck, they survived. Here are their stories, and the lessons learned that could save your life. With survival analysis by Keith McCafferty.
On Sept. 26, Brent Prokulevich, 49, was bowhunting by himself for moose in Western Ontario when he was charged by a 300-pound black bear. As told to Colin Kearns.
I flew into the outpost camp on Chase Lake on Saturday. My buddy Paul Patiuk and his son Kyle had been there for a few days already and would be guiding moose hunters for the next few days. The plan was for me to hunt on my own on Sunday and Monday in a spot Paul had scouted for me. Then on Tuesday, when their clients had left, we’d hunt together. One of the first things I asked Paul and Kyle when I reached camp was if there were bears in the area. They told me there weren’t any.
I saw no moose during my Sunday hunt, but I did get a cow to call back. I decided to leave my scent rag out overnight, hoping the scent would fill the area. The conditions when I returned in the boat Monday morning were perfect. A fog hung in the cool air, and the wind had died so my calls carried a long way.
In front of me was a dried-up beaver pond littered with dead poplars, leaving me with a clear shot if a moose wandered in. I got into position and readied my bow and arrows. I made my first cow call at 7 a.m. and followed up every 15 minutes until 8:30. That’s when I heard movement in the willows, 33 yards away. As soon as I saw the top of the animal’s back, I knew: S - - t. It’s a flipping bear.
He was big, about 300 pounds. He didn’t see me at first but when he did, our eyes connected immediately. “Get! Get! Get!” I yelled. But he never budged—until he came at me.
This isn’t happening. I grabbed my bow. This can’t be happening. I nocked the arrow. This is happening. I fired a prayer at 8 yards.
I raised my left arm and he locked onto it. We fell to the ground. He had me on my back, but when he let go of my arm I managed to get up to my knees. Then I heard this crunch on my neck. The bite to my arm I hadn’t really felt. This one to the neck, though, I felt. I kept yelling, and at one point I had a flash of my 17-year-old son, Brady. I’m a single dad and I’ve been raising him since day one. I wasn’t going to leave him to live by himself. Something in me snapped. I’m not dying like this!
I couldn’t reach my knife, so I grabbed the other arrow and began stabbing the bear in his head, over and over. He let go of my neck and clamped on the back of my shoulder. Then, somehow, I knocked him right on his ass.
There was blood everywhere. My first arrow had entered his chest and must’ve exited through the bottom of his belly because his guts were spilling out. The two of us just sat there for a moment, staring at each other. He swiped at my right arm, then he turned and walked 15 yards before he sat back down. I was going to put another shot in him, but my bow was busted. So I got the hell out of there.
I jumped in the boat and drove around looking for help. But after about 15 minutes with no luck, I turned back toward camp. That’s when I saw the plane landing at camp. When I reached the dock I told Kevin, the pilot, what had happened. He left a note for Paul and Kyle, then we took off. We arrived at the hospital 30 minutes later. I walked into the ER and said to a nurse, “I’ve been attacked by a bear.”
The shoulder bite was a half inch from puncturing a lung, and the neck bite almost hit my spinal cord. But no bones were broken, and the puncture wounds are healing well.
I’m looking forward to hunting again. I’ve taken a couple of walks in the bush recently, which has been nice, but I find I’m looking over my shoulder more often. Every time I hear a little snap.
In the matter of risking encounters with bears, bowhunters start with three strikes against them. First, they hunt in early fall, when bears undergo hyperphagia, a period of mad foraging before hibernation that increases the potential for crossed paths. Second, by donning camo, using cover scent, and sneaking quietly through brush and timber, archers spike the odds of chance encounters within the critical 50-yard range, at which bears are more likely to attack. And third, by using lure scents and calling like animals that bears regard as prey, hunters actually encourage unwanted attention.
Prokulevich did the right thing by fighting the black bear. Playing dead is only effective at discouraging grizzlies, and then only under certain circumstances. But he probably could have avoided the attack altogether if he’d had pepper spray on his belt. Under the best of circumstances, arrows offer meager defense—and bullets aren’t much better. In most documented bear attacks, only three seconds elapse between the start of the charge and contact with the person. Do you really think you can raise a rifle, flip the safety, aim, and fire in that window? But you can flick the safety tab and depress the trigger of pepper spray in an instant. Plus, it works. In a study conducted by bear researcher Thomas Smith of hundreds of bear attacks, pepper spray deterred a charge in 92 percent of cases. Bullets deterred a charge only 66 percent of the time, and it required an average of four bullets to stop the bear.
Besides, bear spray isn’t lethal. Each time a hunter claims self-defense when killing a bear, the nonhunting public raises an eyebrow. But never mind politics—pepper spray is the best choice, and it costs less than $50. If all hunters carried it, I wouldn’t be writing this.
THE WRONG TURN
On Aug. 31, Bill Lawrence, 40, got separated from his hunting partners and remained lost for five days. As told to Colin Kearns.
Wednesday. I’d just killed my first squirrel when I glanced over for my friends Russell and Cris. They were gone.
Russell was the only one who’d hunted these woods, Meeman-Shelby Forest north of Memphis. We’d been hunting for 20 minutes and were deep into the forest. Russell and Cris stuck together, while I drifted to their left. I tried to stay within eyesight of them, but I was also watching for snakes. The last time I saw them, it looked like they were continuing in a straight line. Then I stopped to shoot the squirrel.
I thought I had an idea where they were, but an hour later I wasn’t any closer. I shouted, but the thick woods only swallowed my cries. So I turned to hike back to the truck, but an hour later I was even more lost. I kept walking, though, figuring I’d find a way out.
I walked, stopping to rest now and then, until it started to get dark. I’d fired a couple of shots but got no response. It never got cold, which was good because I had nothing to build a fire with. I doused myself with bug dope, then lay down. With my vest, I was able to cover my face and roll up the bottom end to use as a pillow. That dead squirrel in the pocket added a decent cushion.
I heard helicopters but they couldn’t see me through the trees, and I wasn’t going to run through the woods in the dark. I just prayed they’d find me tomorrow.
Thursday. I finished the last of the two water bottles I’d brought with me that morning. The days were hot, and I was walking and sweating a lot. I needed to stay hydrated. Fortunately, it rained that morning, and I managed to catch a half bottle’s worth of water.
I mostly squirrel hunt, but I have enough experience hunting deer and rabbits that I can identify tracks—and I know that if you follow those tracks, they’ll often lead to a water source, which in my case was a puddle in gumbo mud. I dipped my empty bottle and watched it fill with gray, grimy water. I didn’t want to drink it. I worried it’d make me sick. But what choice did I have? I was already getting dehydrated.
The taste was nasty—dirty and sandy—but the dip of mint Skoal I had in my mouth made it at least drinkable. I figured I should eat something, too, even though I wasn’t starving. I turned a dead stump over and found some nightcrawlers. They tasted about as bad as the gumbo water. I don’t know how many I ate—only that I’d never eat another one.
The rest of Thursday was a lot like Wednesday: Walk, then break for a nap. Walk, then nap. That second day, as I was walking—with no real end in sight—is when I started talking to God. Why is this happening? If I don’t make it out, will you take care of my wife and kids?
That night I awoke to a WHOOSHWHOOSHWHOOSH. Dazed, it took me a moment to realize that it was another chopper—and that it was right above me. I stumbled to find the flashlight in my vest. But by the time I turned it on, it was too late. After the chopper left, my flashlight burned out.
Friday. I kept moving and praying—all day. Walking gave me a purpose. Praying gave me strength. I truly believe my faith is what kept me from ever panicking. That afternoon I stumbled upon some persimmons. They were the most delicious things I’d eaten in a long time, and they were just sitting there on the ground, perfectly ripe, waiting to be found.
Saturday. I heard a low-flying chopper that morning. I took the T-shirt I had on under my camo shirt, tied it to the barrel of my Mossberg, and rushed to the nearest open area where I waved it around. But it never got close enough.
I was weak and tired. My body ached. For the first time I started to think I might not get out. I had started with 15 shells, and by then I only had four or five left. I’d been firing them and leaving the shells at spots where I rested. But on Saturday I decided to fire the rest I had at once. I didn’t know how much more of this misery I’d have to suffer, and I didn’t want the option of taking my own life.
Later that afternoon, as I was resting, I heard two sounds: a Harley-Davidson and a chain saw. I decided to stay put for the remainder of the day and save my energy. Tomorrow, I’d travel toward those sounds. I just knew that if I didn’t get out on Sunday, I never would.
Sunday. I came to a hill that I wasn’t sure I had the strength to climb. I sat down on a nearby log and prayed for strength. When I finally got up and walked to the hill, I glanced to the left where I saw a trail. And I took it.
Two miles later I hit a blacktop road. I fell to the ground crying. I flagged down a couple of motorcyclists who came down the road and told them who I was. “Son,” one of them said, “there’s a lot of people looking for you.”
They drove me to the camp the search team had set up nearby. Just as they got me on the stretcher and were about to drive me to the hospital, I was given a satellite phone. Kim, my wife, was on the other line. My eyes welled. “Hey,” I said. “I’m alive.”
Bill Lawrence had no method of striking fire, carried nothing to signal with but his shotgun, and possessed no tool to navigate to safety but his brain. When he became lost, he had nothing to eat but nightcrawlers and no means to disinfect water. He was unfamiliar with the country and carried no map. To sum up: He struck into the woods about as unprepared as a man can be. But before you criticize him too harshly, take a look at yourself. Have you ever been similarly unprepared for an emergency, using the excuse that you only plan to be gone a few hours and won’t stray more than a few hundred yards from the road? I know I have.
Lawrence’s ordeal should be a cautionary tale for all of us, emphasizing the importance of carrying basic survival gear every time we go afield, no matter how small that field we intend to hunt. A compass, a whistle, a sparking wheel, Tinder Tabs, and chlorine tablets weigh about as much as a tin of Altoids, and easily fit inside one. S - - t happens. Have a hat for it.
Lawrence’s reaction to being lost was to walk and then walk some more. By doing so, he disobeyed the four steps that almost ensure survival: Stop. Shelter. Signal. Stay. Had he stopped walking, tied his undershirt to a treetop or placed it in an opening where it could be seen or, better yet, spelled SOS in a clearing with branches or stones, then hunkered out of the wind to wait, he probably would have been found quickly after being reported missing. Ninety percent of search-and-rescue operations are resolved during the initial hasty search, usually within 10 hours.
One thing that Lawrence did do right needs to be emphasized: He never panicked and was determined to survive. The right attitude is one positive that can make up for a lot of negatives in any survival situation.
THE SUDDEN STORM
On July 4, Doug Fehler, 56, was fishing with his wife and grandkids when a huge thunderstorm swamped his boat. As told to Kristyn Brady.
The boys, Carter, 9, and Charlie, who’s just 5, were casting for perch, while Kristye and I put out jug lines for catfish on Oklahoma’s Broken Bow Lake. We had made the trip up from Texas for a Fourth of July getaway. We’d been fishing for maybe 30 minutes when the sky rumbled. I looked around and saw a huge thunderhead, followed by a lightning flash. It had been a scorcher of an afternoon with a few scattered clouds, and the marina parking lot was packed less than an hour earlier when we launched my 15-foot bass boat, a restored 1980 Caddo, toward a series of small islands. But with the lightning, I thought it best to get off the water.
As we motored toward the edge of the cove, the storm cloud had grown and the sky darkened. The wind picked up, but we’d had more shelter than I realized before our boat cleared the last island, where we were spit out into some of the roughest open water I’ve ever seen. The wind howled and waves slammed into the side of the boat, spilling inside. Without notice, a 7-foot swell crashed over our heads. I struggled to turn us into the oncoming wind and waves, soaked but holding on. Fortunately, we were already wearing our life vests.
Wave after wave crashed over the bow, but I didn’t even notice the water rushing past my feet because I was so focused on keeping the boat straight and running. I heard Kristye yell from the rear, where she was sitting with Charlie. I looked back to see him sitting on the floor with water up to his armpits. He didn’t seem to understand the danger, and just looked back at me expectantly. I could tell Carter was scared, but he was quiet and clung to the rail next to me.
I started to panic. It had been less than 10 minutes, but it felt like we’d been battling the waves much longer. The gas tanks were floating. The cooler had escaped over the side. The battery was under-water. That’s when the engine died.
Without the engine, we were being pushed toward a rocky bluff. If the boat had turned broadside to the waves, the next one would have capsized us. I was just about to jump in to try and pull us to shore when I heard a ski boat speeding toward us. They were able to drag our craft—the transom end completely underwater—and beach it nearby. I stayed with my boat, bailing out, while the driver of the ski boat took Kristye and the boys to the marina. As they left, Charlie was crying in Kristye’s arms, and I couldn’t help but worry that splitting up was the wrong decision. They got some bumps and bruises on the rough ride back, but we were reunited an hour later on the dock, where we all shed a few tears.
My boat’s tri-hull design was not built for those conditions, but I knew that. I would never purposely steer into waves that size. We were blindsided. Carter still doesn’t like to talk about that afternoon, and he hasn’t been on a boat since. I’m hoping that will pass. The whole thing has kept me awake a few nights. I go over the experience in my head, thinking what was at stake. It still gives me chill-bumps.
Because one cannot fault Fehler’s actions once his boat was caught in heavy water—he made sure everyone was wearing a PFD, kept the bow pointed into the waves, and navigated toward safe harbor—the only question of right and wrong here concerns the decision to cross open water. The family probably could have weathered the storm in relative safety among the islands, and Fehler’s decision to leave is one I am sure he would like to have back.
This situation reminds me of an antelope hunting trip I made with my brother on Montana’s Fort Peck Reservoir, where we found ourselves separated from the dock by a mile-wide channel. Like Fehler, we didn’t have a boat seaworthy enough to meet the conditions once the storm broke. Unlike him, we were able to see how far conditions had deteriorated, so the decision to shelter on a spit of land was a no-brainer. We ended up being trapped by weather there for three days.
The survival lesson here is not so much to be prepared to brave the devil water, but to be prepared to stay, which makes a safe decision much easier. Always check the weather forecast ahead of time, and carry a radio, cellphone, distress flags, and signal flares, as well as a survival bag. Do not forget extra dry clothing, and make sure the book in your dry bag is a long one.
On Aug. 11, Don White, 45, was fishing off North Carolina with friends and family. On the ride back in, they all humped in the water to cool off. Then a bull shark attacked don. As told to Jed Portman.
The eight of us boarded the Sea Jule, my cousin Jay’s 26-foot boat, at 8:30 a.m. I’m not a big fisherman, but this trip is an annual tradition for my sons, Donnie and Buck, and we always enjoy it. An hour later, we reached an offshore wreck and started fishing.
The bite was solid all day. We pulled in a mixed bag of cobia, grouper, and some other fish and planned to cook some of them for dinner. During the boat ride back, one of the boys asked Jay if we could stop for a quick swim. We’d been in 90-degree heat for six hours. Jay cut the engine 2 miles from the wreck, then checked the fishfinder. He didn’t see anything in the water, so the boys jumped in.
I teased them from the boat. We’d been watching Shark Week just the week before, so that was on our minds. Then Jay jumped in. I didn’t want to be the only one out of the water, so I followed him. The water did feel good.
I was swimming 15 feet from the boat when something slammed into my right leg. The hit sent a shock wave all the way up my spine. I tried to figure out what it could have been: One of the boys jumped on me. But no one surfaced. Jay is playing a trick on me. But neither he nor the boys were within 8 feet of me. It felt like a dream. That didn’t just happen. Did it?
“Get out of the water!” I shouted. “Now! I just got bit by a shark!”
A cloud of blood began to rise around me as I struggled toward the boat ladder. When I got on board, I saw a 12-inch gash running down my right leg. I settled into a corner of the transom and took a deep breath. I didn’t want to worry the boys. “A couple of stitches,” I assured them. “We’ll still have our fish fry tonight.” They tied a T-shirt around the wound and Jay tightened his belt above my right knee as a tourniquet. We looked back at the bloodstained water and there, slashing the surface, saw a half dozen 8- to 10-foot bull sharks.
I held the tourniquet tight. Jay radioed the local police and Coast Guard. We picked up an escort at the marina and flew through the no-wake zone.
When I got to the hospital, the doctors told me right away that I’d need more than a couple of stitches. The shark had done serious muscle damage. They also told me the tourniquet could’ve cost me my leg. As they worked on me that night, the doctors found a tooth that the shark had left in my leg when it hit me. I asked to keep it.
My leg has healed nicely. But the next time we go to the beach, I’ll be staying on land. I have no desire to be in the ocean again. None.
Had White gone swimming in the same water his friends had chummed, as early incomplete reports of this story suggested, he’d be an unbeatable candidate for this year’s Darwin Awards. But the fishing party drove 2 miles from the wreck before cutting the motor and checked the sonar before diving overboard. They also did an exemplary job of rescuing White. Sure, they could be cited for applying a tourniquet, but all in all, they did everything right with one small exception: They jumped into shark-infested waters!
North Carolina, and in particular Carteret County where they were fishing, ranks among the most dangerous places in the world to take a dip. Last year, more people in North Carolina were victims of shark attacks than in any state besides Florida. In the past decade, 33 people have been attacked by sharks in North Carolina, with three fatalities. White’s was the third shark attack in just over a month.
If, like White, you choose to roll the dice, keep these don’ts in mind: Don’t swim in murky water or if you have a wound. Don’t swim in low light. Don’t go in the drink with baitfish. Don’t swim with your dog. Don’t swim with jewelry on. And don’t swim in or near river channels, dropoffs, or anywhere abrupt changes in salinity, water depth, or current are found.