Cellphones and the Global Positioning System have undoubtedly boosted hunter safety during Minnesota's deer seasons, but getting lost in the woods isn't a thing of the past.
Two days into this year's deer firearms season, the Department of Natural Resources scrambled an airplane into the sky about five miles southwest of Grand Rapids in search of a man in his late 60s.
Thanks in large part to the man's hunting companion, who quickly reported him missing when they failed to meet up, rescuers found him just before nightfall in a heavily wooded area he wouldn't have escaped on his own.
"He was cold and he was moving pretty slowly,'' said Conservation Officer Tom Sutherland. "I'm just glad we got him out.''
Sutherland said the missing hunter, whose name was not released, was last seen walking east on a trail into the Shingle Mill area of UPM-Blandin Paper Co., an expansive forest used by hunters under a public conservation easement.
The two hunters arrived early in the morning and split up with plans to reconvene in the parking area at 11:30 a.m. The missing hunter didn't answer his phone. Rescuers later learned he had left it in his vehicle. Shortly after 1 p.m., with about four hours of daylight remaining, his buddy called the Itasca County Sheriff's Department.
Sutherland was alerted and called his colleague Charles Scott, a DNR pilot and conservation officer who was near the Grand Rapids/Itasca County Airport.
Scott said he dashed to the DNR hangar and got behind the controls of the agency's American Champion Scout, a single-engine prop plane with a skinny cabin, only 2-feet-6-inches wide. It allowed him to look out both sides of the plane while he flew search patterns for the lost hunter as low as 700 feet above the ground.
Meanwhile, Sutherland, sheriff's deputies and volunteers from the Itasca County Search and Rescue Team awaited verbal ground directions from Scott. The pilot acclimated his search to the parking area and looked for people in the nearby woods wearing blaze orange.
Scott reported seeing a hunter he suspected was lost. He circled the location and radioed directions to Sutherland and others on the ground. They reached the hunter but discovered he was not lost.
Scott continued to search from the air, eventually spotting a flash of blaze orange on the ground below a dense stand of pine trees. The sighting was about one mile east of the parking lot and south of the established trail, Scott said. He circled above the newly suspected area and radioed directions. Sutherland said he got as close as he could to the hunter by riding his all-terrain vehicle (ATV). Then he and others bushwhacked into the location on foot, encountering a jumble of fallen trees and thick raspberry and blackberry brambles.
When they arrived, the lost hunter had already grown tired of trying to find his way out. He had gotten turned around, Sutherland said, as anyone could without a compass, phone or GPS unit.
"He couldn't move real fast,'' Sutherland recalled. "If he would have spent the night in the woods, it might not have been a good outcome.''
Temperatures on that Sunday had been in the low 50s, but they were on their way down to an overnight low of 34 degrees.
Sutherland said the search and rescue team used chainsaws and other equipment to create a pathway out of the thicket while the sky darkened. At one point in the evacuation, the hunter was carried on a board in order to get him to an ATV, then to a waiting ambulance. The ambulance crew observed him and let him go without taking him to the hospital, Sutherland said.
Both conservation officers said rescuers benefited greatly from the timely call made by the man's hunting partner and from knowing which direction the hunter was headed when last seen.
"He was grateful for sure,'' Sutherland said of the missing hunter when the rescuers arrived.
DNR spokesman Joe Albert said Thursday there have been no fatal hunting accidents this deer season.
The agency has sold almost as many deer hunting licenses in 2021 as it did a year ago when overall participation surged. But DNR Big Game Program Leader Barb Keller said Thursday that the harvest is lagging. Thursday's running total of 154,800 deer registered by hunters was 8 percent below last year's pace, Keller said. By the end of last year's latest deer hunting season, Minnesota hunters bagged nearly 200,000 whitetails, up 7.4% from 2019.