One Wrong Step: A Solo Elk Hunter's Crawl Out of the Backcountry

Alone, severely injured, and 10 miles into the backcountry, John Sain had a decision to make: end the suffering or crawl for help

survivor psychology

survivor psychology

John Sain had waited all year to chase rutting bull elk at a familiar public wilderness area north of Boise, Idaho. An access trail he wanted to use had been closed due to wildfires, but it finally opened again by mid-September, and Sain headed out on his own.

“I got all my stuff together and hiked in about 5 miles that evening,” says Sain, a veteran backcountry elk hunter. “I set up my camp, had something to eat, and crawled into my little tent.” He was in good shape, and his gear was ready for the hunt ahead.

Sain struck out early the next morning, and it didn’t take him long to get on a bugling bull. Wildfires had ravaged the area 20 years prior, so the weakened trees were stacking the surrounding terrain like a neverending boot-camp obstacle course.

“I was getting into some really steep canyons with brush and deadfalls over my head,” Sain says. But he pressed on, hoping to beat the elk to their bedding area for a shot at the bull.

BROKEN
In a flash, Sain's hunt came to a halt. He was climbing over a deadfall when he slipped between two logs. His leg wedged between them as his momentum carried him forward. The fibula and tibia bones in his right leg snapped, and he crashed to the ground.

Sain didn’t immediately realize the severity of his injuries, as his leg still looked normal. His initial instinct was to stand up and “walk it off.” He used a stick to pull himself up, but he lost his balance, and when he tipped backward onto his right leg—the one that was broken—it completely gave way. He crumpled.

“My foot ended up by my stinkin’ rib cage. I knew it was broken then. I knew I was screwed. I was just screwed,” he says.

He did a quick calculation: He was 2 miles from the main trail and 8 miles from his truck. He was in excruciating pain. His right leg was useless. He couldn’t stand, let alone walk. No cellphone service, no way to radio for help, and, to his knowledge, there were no other hunters in the area.

“I went for my pistol and I was like, I’m just going to end it. This is out of control. I’m not going to be able to make this crawl. There’s no way I’m going to make it out of here….”

He unholstered the pistol but first decided to write letters to his wife, daughter, and son in his cellphone, hoping a search team would eventually find his body and recover the messages.

“I told my son how much I loved watching him play football, and that I was sorry I wouldn’t be there anymore. I told my wife and daughter that if they kept Christ in their lives, then we’d have a chance of being together again someday.”

But when Sain finished the letters, he was overcome by the will to survive. He was pissed off at himself for ending up in this situation, and he was determined to crawl out or die trying.

"I said, Screw it, are you kidding me? You've got to at least make an effort. You've got to make an effort to get out of here."

Sain turned off the phone and put it in a ziplock bag. He said a few prayers. Then, he started crawling.

“I mean, you talk about jacked-up pain. It was excruciating,” he says. “My leg was flopping around as I tried to move. I crawled the first 50 or 60 feet and it took me forever, with my leg moving around and broken bones grinding against themselves—I could actually hear them.”

While trying to cross another deadfall, Sain slipped and his leg snapped back into alignment. He was able to fashion a splint with some sticks and strips of fabric from his elk decoy. He started crawling again.

“I did a lot of scooting on my butt with my hands. My knuckles were really bloody when I was done.”

He stopped before dusk that first night, built a fire, and wrapped himself in a survival blanket.

john sain gear

john sain gear

The gear Sain had with him: raingear, lighter, tinder, space blanket, water filter.

GETTING THERE
Sain woke early the next morning with cotton mouth. He was running out of water.

“I tried to eat a few peanuts. But without water it was like eating dirt. They made me choke, so I spit them out.”

His goal for the day was to cover as much ground as possible. He wanted to reach the main trail by the weekend, hoping a motorcyclist, horseback rider, or hunter would find him.

He stuck with it for 11 grueling hours that day—now more than 20 hours into the fight. During the crawl his mind drifted between thoughts of his family and thoughts of death.

"I was playing in a game where I couldn't sit on the bench and have a drink of water and rest. There were no time-outs. You only last so long without water, especially when you're exerting so much energy. I was racing death—dying would have been easy at this point. I would get mad at myself, and then tell myself to suck it up. You quit, you die."

Finally, with the sun setting, he came upon the main trail. He built another fire and spent the night.

BURNING OUT
A firefighting helicopter flew by on Saturday morning and Sain tried catching its attention with a signal fire. No luck. It passed again later and he tried flagging it with his survival blanket. Nothing. Later, he tried firing three SOS shots into the air from his pistol. No response.

Rather than staying put on the trail, Sain decided to begin moving toward the area where he thought he might encounter firefighters. At approximately 2 a.m., in the pitch-dark night, he came upon a creek and filled up his water bottle. The fresh water bought him more time.

But the creek was a blessing and a curse. He tried using a stick as a crutch to cross it and fell. Sapped of energy, soaking wet, and frustrated, he crawled out of the creek and eventually found dry ground after dragging himself for another hour and a half. It was a struggle, but Sain managed to build a fire and warm up. This is gonna be it, he thought. This is the final day.

Saturday night turned into Sunday morning and Sain lay along the trail, completely depleted of energy and suffering from total exhaustion. He could go no farther.

There was only one thing left to do: "I just did some hardcore praying. I said, Lord, I'm not going to make it another day. I need help. I need you to bring somebody onto this trail."

Fifteen minutes later, he heard a motorcycle.

On Sunday, September 20, two motorcyclists discovered Sain, nearly four days after he snapped his leg and began his long, torturous crawl. He was airlifted to Saint Alphonsus Hospital in Boise, where he was met by friends and family.

Now, he's working hard to recover. His goal? To hunt bears this spring. When asked if he's planning to hunt alone again, he answered, "Yeah, I'll be out there, except this time I'll have a SPOT emergency beacon with me."

Photographs by Vincent Soyez; Video by John Deyoe

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