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Night in woods brought couple closer to Bamfield neighbours

Oct 20 2012
Catherine Thompson and James Spencer spent a cold night in the woods near Bamfield after they got lost while mushroom picking. 

Catherine Thompson and James Spencer spent a cold night in the woods near Bamfield after they got lost while mushroom picking.

Photograph by: Handout , Times Colonist

A Bamfield couple learned this week how being lost and alone in the woods could bring them closer to their community.

Catherine Thompson, 27, and James Spencer, 36, left home Sunday morning with their dog, a 10-year-old German shepherd named Raff, to go mushroom picking.

They expected to be home well before dark and wore light clothing. Neither had jackets or boots.

They drove out on the main road for 15 minutes and then took a side road for a few kilometres before parking at the roadside.

They headed off into the woods, looking for wild chanterelles and hedgehog mushrooms. It was a fun hike - until they realized they were lost.

"We were paying attention to the mushrooms, not to where we were walking," said Thompson.

"We tried to find our way out, but we just got turned around. Then when it started to get dark we realized we were spending the night."

They built a shelter out of tree branches and their mushroom bags and prepared to wait for someone to realize they were gone. Fortunately, they had invited friends for dinner that evening and figured it wouldn't be long before a search began.

One of those friends, J.P. Hastey, had already spotted the couple's truck while out looking for signs of deer.

The couple weren't home at dinnertime and their truck was still at the roadside as darkness fell, he said. He honked the horn and yelled but got no response.

Hastey gathered a few other people for a couple hours of searching that evening.

"We were concerned for them at that point," Hastey

said. "We figured they had just hunkered down and we'd have better luck in the morning."

Thompson and Spencer had heard people calling and they called back, but weren't heard by the searchers.

"We were so hopeful that they'd find us in the morning," Thompson said.

They did jumping jacks every hour through the night to stay warm and snuggled with Raff - "even though he hates snuggling," she said.

They hoped for rescue at first light but eventually decided to try to find their way out. After a short hike, they had second thoughts and retreated to their shelter.

Meanwhile, a search-and-rescue team from Port Alberni had to detour around a road washout and didn't arrive until noon, frustrating Bob Baden, a Bam-field resident of 30 years.

"There were enough of us who were comfortable and knowledgeable about being in the woods that we could have started searching and kept track of our search pattern and grids," said Baden, who spearheaded the local search effort.

About 25 residents from Bamfield, which has about 150 residents in winter, came out to help search and others were turned away.

"Most of us who live out here recognize the imminent danger someone is in spending a night in the bush, especially this time of year," Baden said.

It started to rain at about noon and water poured through their shelter. The couple were soaked and getting cold.

They heard the calls of searchers and occasionally a helicopter but no one could hear their replies or spot them in the dense bush.

"We were just in a bad spot," Thompson said.

"They would be closer and closer, then farther away and farther away."

Thunder and lightning drove away the helicopter and the daylight started to fade.

"My boyfriend just turned to me and said, 'We've got to get out of here,' " Thompson said.

"I was taught all my life to stay put, but at this point we thought search and rescue was looking somewhere else. I knew if I spent another night, I wasn't going to be able to get out on my own power.

"We went for it, going as fast as we could in the direction we'd heard yells coming from earlier."

Eventually they recognized landmarks they'd seen on the way in: a pond shaped like South America, an overturned log.

Then the dog's ears pricked at a sound up ahead and he took off. Thompson and Spencer followed, and came upon the road and a group of friends, neighbours and out-of-town searchers.

"We came out onto the road into the middle of our community," Thompson said. "The whole community had come out to look for us."

The couple were chilled but not hypothermic and extremely grateful for the effort of the Bamfield community.

"They were willing to put their lives at stake to come look for us," Thompson said. "It was pretty amazing."

The experience had an impact on many of those involved, Hastey said.

"I think there will be a lot of compasses in Christmas stockings this year."

smcculloch@timescolonist.com

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