Shelton hunter recounts week lost in forest
Shelton hunter Roger Norris, 55, has new respect for the rugged Hamma Hamma area in Olympic National Forest and the rescuers who helped bring him out of the wilderness alive.
Search teams found Norris on Oct. 7, almost a week after he lost his way back to camp and suffered injuries in a fall.
"We thought it was going to be a recovery," Mason County Search and Rescue President Keenan Kealy said.
"They just don't know me very well," Norris laughed, while recounting his ordeal.
The outdoorsman said he wants to tell his story for the rescuers so they know how much they are appreciated and give hope to people who are lost.
"I never lost hope," Norris told the Journal Oct. 23.
Planning for his trip to the Hamma Hamma started Friday, Sept. 29, when he took out a map to show his son Cody where he was going to camp and hunt.
"It has a reputation," Norris said about the remote area. Norris has been hunting in the mountains for 40 years, he said, and had always wanted to try the Hamma Hamma.
Norris hiked in on the Mildred Lakes Trailhead on Saturday, Sept. 30. He set up camp but skipped dinner because he was tired from the grueling hike.
Norris was also too tired to open the cards his girlfriend sent. She likes to give him notes he can open each day he's out in the wilderness that have short words of encouragement, he said.
Sunday, Oct. 1, was a scouting day. After walking through dense brush, Norris was again too tired to open his girlfriend's cards.
He left camp to hunt Monday, Oct. 2 and threw some extra food into his pack. He covered steep terrain all day and started following a draining that should have led him back to his camp. When he crossed over a second creek, he knew something was wrong.
"Things weren't looking right," he said.
Norris decided to stop for the night and return to camp in the morning. He was prepared with a fire starter, two survival blankets and some granola bars.
He was up at dawn, making his way back to camp, he thought. He moved up and down the drainage, but still couldn't find his way. That's when he started to panic. Norris wasn't worried about his safety but putting his "family through stress." He knew his son Cody was coming to meet him that morning and would be distraught to find Norris' empty tent.
When Norris didn't show up at the designated meeting place, Cody went looking for his dad but finally came home and called the Mason County Sheriff's Office. By now, Tuesday Oct. 3, Norris had stopped for another night unsheltered in the woods. That night was the worst, Norris said.
He was hypothermic.
"Your body is shaking so hard," he said.
The old growth forest was so dark he couldn't see his hand in front of his face. An eerie silence descends in the woods at night, Norris said.
"You start hearing voices. Some are calling your name. It's a very tough mental game," he said.
The next morning, Wednesday, Oct. 4, Norris knew at least his son, and possibly a few rescuers would be searching for him.
He used all his remaining gunpowder to fire four shots in hopes of alerting anyone nearby. Norris said he didn't hear any responding shots, so he started walking.
Later in the day, he found the drainage leading to his campsite, but didn't know if he was above or below the trail. He didn't have a fire starter that night, but he felt good because he thought he'd be home the next day.
While Norris was hunkering down for a cold Wednesday night, about six members of MCSR were out looking for him, Kealy said.
That morning, Cody had found his dad's campsite, along with Norris' unopened cards from his girlfriend. Cody thought Norris had been lost for days. MCSR got the call about Norris Wednesday and had members on the ground that night.
Kealy said the first step of a rescue is when a friend or family member of the missing person calls 911. A sheriff's deputy will search the last known whereabouts and then call the Division of Emergency Management. A call then goes out to MCSR, an all-volunteer group that is self-funded, and members activate an alert system. Members show up for the search whenever they can.
Kealy said most members have full-time jobs and some take time off work or vacation days so they can help with searches.
"They give up their day to come help someone else," Kealy said. "We have a very dedicated group of people."
MCSR sent out tracker dogs to the Mildred Lakes Trailhead, where Norris had started his hike. The dogs couldn't track for long because the hike up was so strenuous, Kealy said. Rescuers eventually used helicopters to lower the dogs into the backcountry.
Thursday, Oct. 5, MCSR had dogs and ground teams searching and called in other counties to help.
Norris had started the day eager to find his camp, he said, but lack of food had taken a toll on his body. He had been eating half a granola bar each day, and by now was weak and dizzy from lack of proper nutrients.
As he was heading downslope, a dizzy spell caused him to trip and tumble upside down into a root ball. Norris called it "God's catcher's mitt."
The roots actually softened his fall and saved him from going head-first into a log, he said. He had a badly bruised hip and shoulder and was still dizzy but felt lucky because he landed by a sheltered spot with dry wood, close to a creek.
Norris said it wasn't a coincidence that a prayer chain organized by his friends and family started that day.
"I know I'm not walking out," Norris said, so he gathered some of the wood and built a fire.
It was the best night he spent during his ordeal, he said.
That's when the bear showed up.
"He was a young male. I wasn't worried," Norris said.
The bear was mostly curious about him and sniffed around his camp until dawn.
Friday, Oct. 6, Norris was still sore and dizzy, but managed to gather enough wood to build a large fire. He was hoping to alert air rescuers.
"My job was to fill the air with smoke," he said.
Norris watched a helicopter searching for him that afternoon.
"It was so close I could see the pilot," Norris said, but smoke from his fire did not penetrate above the dense tree canopy and the helicopter made several passes over Norris without seeing him.
Kealy said two helicopters, one from King County and one from the Naval Air Station on Whidbey Island, were searching Friday.
By Saturday, Oct. 7, 91 people were involved in the search, including Mason County Search and Rescue, Olympic Mountain Rescue, Thurston County Search and Rescue, Jefferson County Search and Rescue, Seattle Mountain Rescue, Washington State Search and Rescue Planning Unit, and the two helicopter units.
Norris got up and collected every scrap of wood and boughs he could find, figuring he had "one more chance" to signal the passing helicopter. He was determined to make the biggest, hottest fire that would show through the trees, he said.
And it worked.
He saw the helicopter pass and turn around. Then he heard his name being called over a speaker.
"The sound I will never forget," Norris said.
Searchers in the helicopter saw Norris and said through the speaker that a ground crew was on its way.
Kealy said the crew reached Norris in about 30 minutes and helped walk him out to a clearing where the helicopter could send down a rescue basket. Norris was winched up and flown to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.
Norris said doctors told him he was dizzy from lack of electrolytes and sodium, but despite bruises and possible nerve damage to his feet, he was in remarkable condition for someone who was lost in the wilderness for almost a week.
Not one to sit and recover, Norris was up and speaking at a MCSR training meeting less than two weeks later.
He wanted the rescuers to "know the rest of the story." Norris said so many times all the searchers know is that a person was found. Nothing more.
Norris wanted to say thanks and tell them they gave him hope. Hope helped him survive, he said.
"Without search and rescue, there is no hope," Norris said.
"It was a very emotional time for the members," Kealy said about Norris' appearance before the group. Kealy was especially grateful because this was his 14-year-old daughter Ellie's first time volunteering for a rescue. She was able to see a great outcome.
"It's an amazing survival story," he said.