During three wet, cold nights in the middle of nowhere, Randy Hilliard said he never thought he would be back at his kitchen table again.
But that’s where the 49-year-old hunting guide was on Friday, sharing the story of his survival in the woods, deep inland from the village of Jeffrey’s on the southwestern coast of Newfoundland.
“(I thought of) the kids mostly,” he said, sitting at home with a hospital bracelet still on his wrist. “When you’re in a place you’re not familiar with and the fog shuts in, it don’t take long for things to go wrong.”
Hilliard became lost on Tuesday when he intended to head for a camp operated by Mountain Top Outfitters. In the fog, he began walking away from the cabin instead. By the time he realized his mistake, darkness had fallen and he took shelter for the night.
Second night brings first meal – a few berries
The next morning, Hilliard tried to head back in the right direction, but couldn’t pick up the road for the camp. Lost and cold, he settled in for a second night.
He had no food or water, and his nylon pants were wet from falling in a brook. He took off his soaked socks and used a pocketknife to cut the sleeves from his shirt, fashioning a new pair.
On Thursday morning, Hilliard ate for the first time — a handful of partridgeberries.
Meanwhile, the search for Hilliard had intensified.
Members of Barachois Search and Rescue were joined by RCMP and a Joint Rescue Coordination Centre helicopter in the search.
Stalked by coyotes, out of earshot from searchers
Hilliard said he often thought he could hear people calling out to him, but couldn’t get an answer from anything other than the coyotes who followed close by.
“Every time I called back, the coyotes answered me,” he said. “I didn’t know if I was hearing people calling or if I was actually hearing coyotes calling to one another.”
On Thursday, Hilliard struggled to see the helicopter in the sky through poor weather. It passed him three times, but failed to spot his green camouflage clothing.
At one point in the afternoon, Hilliard was on high ground, looking down at the helicopter. He ran to the bottom of the hill, but the searchers moved away from him. As they moved toward the end of a pond, Hilliard dug in and waited for them to come back. When the helicopter didn’t circle back, he decided to stay there for the night.
Fourth day brings first break
Waking to clear skies on Friday, he looked across the pond and saw the lights to the camp. He had followed the helicopter to safety.
Hilliard quickly picked up the road and walked back to camp, where searchers were gearing up for another day.
One of the first people he encountered was Art Ryan, his boss at Mountain Top Outfitters.
“He got out, shook my hand and asked me how I felt,” Hilliard said, his voice breaking as he began crying. “I felt bad, I had to put him through that the last few days.
“I should have had better sense. I should have had stuff with me. I shouldn’t have had to be in this state, in this predicament. I’ve been in the woods long enough now to know the difference.”
After finally getting out of the woods, he was reunited with his daughters at Sir Thomas Roddick Hospital in Stephenville, N.L.
A career woodsman, Hilliard knows he’ll be back to work again someday soon. But he’ll no longer take anything for granted when he heads into the forest.
“The boss said I’m going as cook next time I goes in,” Hilliard laughed. “If I’m going to go back hunting, which I’m sure I will, then I’ll be having enough supplies that I’ll be getting back out the same night. First thing on the list is a GPS.”
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