Tim Marsh doesn’t remember blacking out behind the wheel of his truck, but when he came to, he was 20 miles from the nearest highway, on a muddy logging road in the middle of the Oregon backwoods. It was a rainy Saturday in November, and the 51-year-old Desert Storm veteran had set out in his F-250 with his 12-year-old golden retriever, Rusty, from Florence toward his home in Newport 50 miles north.
“I don’t know if I had a seizure or what,” Marsh says. “I just drove through Newport without knowing it and went up through this pass into the mountains.” Marsh suffers from PTSD and chronic back pain. That day, however, he hadn’t taken his medication, which, he guesses, spurred the episode. His truck had become stuck in the mud, and after trying and failing to free it, Marsh, exhausted, climbed back inside the cab and fell asleep with the engine running. When he woke up, the truck was dead, out of gas.
Marsh would later learn that he was in the mountains of Yamhill County, in coastal Oregon. It’s one of the most rugged places in the world, says Brian Wheeler, founder and lead instructor of the Northwest School of Survival, which trains federal agencies and military outfits in wilderness how-to. “In the fall, with the constant moisture we have and temperatures down to freezing, hypothermia can kill you in a short amount of time,” he says. “It doesn’t need to be really cold, just a mild breeze and saturated clothing will do it.”
At first light, Marsh surveyed the surroundings: dense stands of pines and steep ridges in every direction. “I knew I was in a bad situation,” he says. The road he’d taken unspooled back over harsh switchbacks that he doubted he could scale, given his back problems. He had no cell reception, and his phone would die before the day was out. No one expected him home—his ex-wife was in Oklahoma and his grown kids didn't live with him anymore. Only his brother in Florence knew that he’d been on the road, but Marsh was sure that he’d driven far from where anyone would think to look for him.
Marsh’s primary concern that morning was finding drinkable water. Though Rusty had no problem lapping from the muddy puddles in the road, Marsh vomited when he tried to do the same. He soon resorted to shaking rainwater from pine boughs into Rusty’s dog bowl. “But that took a long time to get just a little water,” says Marsh. “So I just started sucking the water off the boughs with my mouth.”
Wheeler commends Marsh for turning to the trees for hydration. “You can even get a trash bag and wrap it around a tree limb that’s soaking wet and shake the water into the bag,” he says. “If nothing else, it’ll help prevent you from dehydrating. But if I got to the point where I needed more water than that, I wouldn’t hesitate going after puddled water."
Marsh had learned basic survival skills in the service, and knew that he stood a greater chance of attracting rescuers if he stayed with this truck. He spent much of his time that day shouting into the distance, hoping hunters would hear him. When not calling for help, he’d walk down the trail several hundred yards and arrange sticks into arrows pointing toward the truck and to form the word "help." He had a Glock .380 with him, too. He fired one shot at a time into a tree trunk, trying to attract attention, but he emptied the magazine to no avail.
Each of these strategies has a low chance of success, according to Wheeler. “It’d be difficult to find those signs in the road unless someone was really paying attention,” he says. Instead, he advises focusing on creating signals, whether audible or visual, that are foreign to the landscape.
“If I’m on a rescue, I’m looking for color contrast or something out of the ordinary, like smoke from a fire or survey tape run back and forth across a trail,” Wheeler says. Also, blocking a road with debris to force drivers to stop and clear the way will improve the odds that messages or symbols left nearby are spotted. “Make a disturbance that’s obvious that it was done by a human, that somebody was there.” As for the gunshots, save your rounds, he says. “Trying to signal others is smart, but [Marsh] was out during hunting season—a single gunshot now and then means nothing to anybody.” Creating noise that’s clearly out of place, by, say, beating the truck with a large stick in peculiar rhythms, would’ve likely been a better use of effort, Wheeler says.
Marsh’s second and third day in the woods passed much like his first, but his condition gradually worsened as he struggled to stay warm. The temperature sunk below 20 degrees at night, and the truck offered little relief from the cold—water dripped in and the windows froze over. During the days, Marsh tried to stay dry, but, while out collecting water or calling for help, he was often caught in the rain before he could make it back.
Wheeler notes that in this situation Marsh could’ve cannibalized his truck for materials to keep his body temperature up. “There’s a lot of insulation in vehicles: the padding in the seats, the headrests, the carpeting. With that, you can stuff your clothing with all that dry foam and fabric to keep heat next to your skin.”
Also, Marsh, having no lighter or matches, didn’t think that he could start a fire, on account of the rain. Though a vehicle’s batteries may not have enough charge to turn an engine, in many cases, Wheeler says, they’ll have enough juice left to create a spark, and that even in the wettest conditions, with the right tender, it’s possible to start a fire: “I may have to walk around a long time to find what I need, but I’m looking for suspended deadwood. You really don’t want to gather stuff off the ground; it’s usually more saturated than what’s stuck in the air.”
By his fourth morning in the woods, Marsh knew that he couldn’t wait for help any longer. “I told Rusty, ‘We’re not going to make it another night,’” he says. “‘Or at least I’m not going to make it another night.’” At 6 a.m., he and the dog departed from the truck and hiked farther up the logging road, hoping to find an easier route to the highway. Along the way, he found clean puddles to drink from, which provided some relief, but after four-and-a-half miles, the road hit a dead end on top of a mountain.
When they made it back to the truck a couple of hours later, Marsh, increasingly desperate, began crying out with all his strength, certain that if he didn’t attract help that day rescuers would find him dead in his truck. “I screamed for help for three days on that mountain—and finally someone answered me,” he says.
A hunter in the area responded to his cries and called local authorities. A deputy sheriff soon arrived on the scene and recovered Marsh and got him in his vehicle. “The deputy asked me, ‘Do you know what day it is?’” Marsh says. “And I said, ‘No.’ And he said, ‘It’s Veterans Day.’ And I said, ‘Well, happy Veterans Day.’ And he said ‘Happy Veterans Day to you, too.’ Then I just broke down and started crying.” He’d been lost for five days.
Marsh made mistakes, Wheeler says, but he helped offset them through sheer grit and willpower. “With his skills and knowledge, I might have done a lot of the same things,” Wheeler says. “But he had the will to survive and he did. He kept his wits about him, yet he still knew the situation was dire. He could have died, but he didn’t.”