Published October 26, 2011, 12:00 AM

Grouse hunter gets lost overnight in Minnesota state forest

Cold, wet and exhausted, Paul Vasquez said he wondered “what the hell was going to happen” as he lay on the ground in the darkness, surrounded by one of the largest state forests in Minnesota.

By: Brad Dokken, Forum Communications

GRYGLA, Minn. — Cold, wet and exhausted, Paul Vasquez said he wondered “what the hell was going to happen” as he lay on the ground in the darkness, surrounded by one of the largest state forests in Minnesota.

Vasquez was lost —had been for several hours — and nearly 1,100 square miles of wilderness surrounded him. The stories of other hunters who’d gotten lost in Beltrami Island State Forest and never made it out alive played through his mind.

The not knowing, he said, was the worst.

“I didn’t have anything to eat,” said Vasquez, 60, of Grand Forks, Minn. “Everything I needed — my compass, my matches, my whistle — was in the back of the pickup. My cell phone was useless up there.”

Vasquez’s ordeal in the northwestern Minnesota forest began late the afternoon of Sept. 30, when he parked his truck near the Penturen Church, a landmark within forest boundaries, for a few hours of ruffed grouse hunting before dark.

A buddy had invited him to make the trip but wouldn’t arrive until that evening, and Vasquez was hunting alone. No big deal. He’d hunted the area almost 19 years, he said, knew all the trails. All he planned to do was make a short walk — “100 feet up and 100 feet back” — and return to the truck.

A ruffed grouse he spotted running in the brush made short work of that plan.

Carrying the expensive side-by-side 28 gauge shotgun he’d bought just for such occasions, Vasquez followed the bird into the brush.

“He got up, and I fired, and he came down,” Vasquez said. “He started running, so I walked into the pines. I knew he was injured. Then, he got behind a tree about 40 feet from me. To my surprise, he came out the other side and flew.”

Ruffed grouse don’t fly far when they explode from the brush, so Vasquez followed, hoping for a second shot on the inevitable next flush.

“I made a right turn and never found him after that,” he said.

In hindsight, Vasquez said he probably would have been OK if he’d turned back to his left after losing sight of the grouse.

Instead, he began walking east and angling to the south. Every step took him farther from the truck.

“Then I realized, ‘This doesn’t look right,’” Vasquez said. “Those pine trees all look the same.”

Vasquez, who is a North Dakota hunter education instructor, said he should have stopped walking, but his male ego told him he could find the truck. He hit the clicker on his key chain, hoping it would trigger the horn on the pickup, but he was too far away.

“I had the sun to my right, and I thought, ‘I know there’s a trail around here, and if I keep the sun to my right, I’ll find it,’” Vasquez said. “I never found the trail.”

By the time darkness descended a couple of hours later, Vasquez said he was really lost. While warm for that time of year, the temperature eventually would dip into the 30s.

“All I could see was more forest and swamp,” he said. “It was getting cold, and all I had was a T-shirt and my hunting vest.”

Vasquez had lost the forearm of his shotgun wandering through the brush, which rendered the weapon useless in case of any animal encounters. He’d also gotten his feet wet crossing the Roseau River, which he said was his second mistake — after hunting alone without a compass.

“I found a tree and a hollow spot in the ground and figured, ‘I’m going to hunker down here for the night,’” Vasquez said.

He relied on his military training for water, squeezing moisture from the moss on the forest floor.

It was about 2 a.m. when he saw some lights far off in the distance. Where there are lights, there’s a road or a trail, Vasquez figured, so he started off in that direction after daylight.

What he found was nothing.

“I stumbled and cut myself and scratched my face, my neck, my elbows — pretty much everything,” Vasquez said. “I kept on walking, kept on walking.”

He’d already watched one helicopter fly off without seeing him and was resigned to spending a second night in the bush when he saw another chopper rising and descending above the trees.

Maybe, he thought, they were looking for him.

Hunting buddies Brian Vidden of Fargo, N.D., and Eric Olson of Minneapolis had tried to call Vasquez that Friday night when they arrived at their motel in Grygla and saw he wasn’t there. The next morning, Oct. 1, they pulled up to the Penturen Church and saw Vasquez’s pickup covered with dew and frost.

That’s when they knew something wasn’t right and called authorities.

Personnel from the Roseau County Sheriff’s Office and the federal Department of Homeland Security already had been searching several hours when Ben Huener, a conservation officer for the Department of Natural Resources in Roseau, got a call about 2 p.m. to join the search crew.

Huener said he and DNR officer Jeff Birchem joined the searchers combing the woods near Penturen Church.

Larry Milbridge, a conservation officer from Warroad, also had been dispatched but was later in arriving because he was busy with another call. Rather than join the larger group, Milbridge drove to an area farther south to look and listen for any signs of the lost hunter.

By that time, Huener said, it was nearly sundown.

Vasquez said his heart sank when the helicopter he’d spotted flew off. Still, he kept hearing a noise that sounded like an ATV. He started yelling and didn’t stop until he realized a voice was answering back.

The helicopter had left to refuel, Huener said, and that allowed Milbridge to hear Vasquez yelling far back in the brush. The voice appeared to be coming from beyond a dead-end road south of the Penturen Church.

“He radioed to Birchem and I, and we met him there promptly,” Huener said.

The three officers then set out through the alder swamp toward the voice.

Vasquez said he heard Huener first.

“He said, ‘Keep yelling so I know where you’re at,’ ” Vasquez recalls. “My voice was just getting so sore. And then I saw his flashlight, and he busted through the thick weeds, and my heart just kind of fell to my knees.”

Vasquez appeared to be “pretty tuckered out” but otherwise was in good shape “and very happy to see us,” Huener said. “It was nice to have success, especially out in the woods. That big forest has claimed a couple of lives.”

“It was almost tears of joy,” Vasquez said.

Vasquez was able to walk out of the swamp about 8 p.m. with help from the officers, and the helicopter returned to transport him to the hospital in Roseau, where he remained until about midnight. He’d been lost more than 24 hours.

“I was following Ben (Huener), tripping and falling, and my heart was pumping really fast,” Vasquez said. “My ambition was to get out of there but my legs couldn’t do it” without help.

Had the officers not found him, Vasquez figures he would have spent at least two more days in the forest instead of enjoying a reunion with family and friends. He says he’d probably wandered about four miles from the church, “but it seemed like I walked 100.

“I knew I could get out, but still it was a little scary,” he said.

As a hunter education instructor, Vasquez said the incident was “kind of embarrassing” and wouldn’t have happened if he’d practiced what he teaches. That’s why he volunteered to tell the story.

“I learned my lesson pretty well,” he said. “If this helps somebody from getting lost, I will tell my students.”

Vasquez said he also has a lot of people to thank, including Vidden and Olson, his hunting buddies, and all of the other people who searched for him.

“I guess the main thing that I would like to say is I do believe our prayers are answered, and I think mine were,” Vasquez said. “I lost my mom a year ago, and I talked to her when I was out there. I talked to God. I truly believe they helped me out.”

Vasquez, a ceiling contractor who’s working on a construction project in the western North Dakota Oil Patch, said he planned to return to the forest.

“I’ve been dreaming about that every night, and I’ve got to go up there,” he said. “I’m going to confront my fears. I think I’m going to be OK.”

Rest assured, he said, he’ll carry a compass, matches and a fully stocked survival kit.

“I guarantee you, I’m never going to go through that again,” he said.

Brad Dokken writes for the Grand Forks Herald. The Herald and the News Tribune are owned by Forum Communications.

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