It's hard not to beat yourself up over it--to keep rehashing it in your mind. Or, I should say, in my mind. I thought about suggesting to my teammate (my husband in this case) that he and I circle through the woods around the ATV while we waited for our third field team member to join us. Why didn't I? Because I thought that had already been done? Maybe.
But even if we had, that doesn't necessarily mean we would have seen him then, either. We wouldn't have gone very far in--just enough to try cutting for sign--so we probably wouldn't have walked right to that spot. And even ten feet away, in the lights of our headlamps, it was difficult to make out shapes on that dark night. Is that a stump or a log? A bush or a big rock? A man? So many dark shapes could have been a man.
We did search for tracks while we waited, and there were many on the dirt road around the ATV. We looked at the deputies' boots and ruled out those two sets of prints. There was a third set of prints that were different. Maybe, we thought. But then we looked at a family member's shoes. No, that third set of tracks were his. We looked up and down the road, which had been driven on heavily since the ATV was found. We saw no other footprints or partials there, so we looked at the ground on either side of the road near the quad. It's really difficult to find tracks on pine needles. Is that animal or human? Is that even a depression at all? There are so many deer and elk in those woods.
Then our teammate arrived and we began our assignment.
We'd been so close--many of us that night--and then searched so far. I didn't think he'd walk all that far, though, given what we'd been told.
But you just can't know for sure. If he were conscious and anywhere near the quad (the last known point or LKP), he'd have seen the campfire and the lights of our vehicles. Or he'd have heard us calling or even just talking. In fact, the air was so clear, cold and still that night, field teams could hear each other's voices--not even a shout--maybe a half-mile away. And we did shout and blow our whistles as we searched. After the helicopter passed over, we shouted some more. And we looked. We shined our lights this way and that and walked closer to any "suspicious" shapes. There were many.
You want to believe the one you're searching for can hear you if you get close enough. You want to believe they can respond, but you look as hard as you can in case they can't. We covered a lot of ground that night. Just not the right piece of ground.
At about 4am, we rested back at our SAR vehicles, near the LKP. When it was light, we'd resume the search.
But we didn't have to. As soon as the sun came up, one of our team members, standing near where the ATV had been left, looked into the woods and saw "something that didn't look right." He walked into the trees, closer to that something, and saw it was indeed a man.
At least he'd died doing something he loved. And he'd gotten his buck, which lay maybe ten feet in front of where he took his own last step.
One hundred fifty feet away might as well have been 150 miles that dark night, because he couldn't respond.