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MILLINOCKET, Maine — Even the most experienced woodsmen can run into trouble, a lesson that 33-year-old Travis Hafford of Millinocket learned firsthand last weekend.
Hafford and his buddy, Ryan Stevens, also 33 and a Millinocket native now living in the Ellsworth area, left Hafford’s home early Friday morning for what was supposed to be a day in the woods hunting for deer. They headed out in Hafford’s four-wheel-drive pickup truck, their destination a series of logging woods about 35 miles off the Golden Road.
Hafford knows the woods of Penobscot, Piscataquis and Aroostook counties like the back of his hand, he said in an interview on Tuesday.
Now the owner-operator of TDH Trucking, Hafford has been hauling logs for the last 15 years. He grew up in East Millinocket but also has spent much of his time at his family’s home in Allagash and descends from the hearty stock of the families who settled there.
“I’ve been playing in the woods since I was old enough to walk, really,” he said.
About 1:30 p.m. Friday, the duo’s trip took a turn for the worse.
“We fell into a water hole with the pickup and hung her up,” he said. “The pickup was stuck and we didn’t have any way of getting it out of the hole.”
Hafford said that the spot in which his truck became mired was well off the beaten track, about a mile around the upper end of Mud Pond, which is northeast of Narrow Pond.
“No, we were not lost. I knew exactly where we were,” he said.
“We did what we could with what we had to try to get it out,” he said. “All I had for a jack was the bottle jack that comes with the pickup, which was pretty useless.” He owns all the equipment he could have used at that point — a high lift jack, a come along, a hand-operated winch — but unfortunately did not bring them with him.
Both hunters had cellphones but they were useless so far into the woods and there was no way to let family and friends know where they were and that they were safe. “So for three days, they’re thinking the worst,” Hafford said.
After several attempts the get the truck unstuck, Hafford and Stevens decided to spend Friday night in the truck.
On Saturday morning, the two struck off for Narrow Pond, where Hafford knew there were cabins they could likely get into.
The two loaded Stevens’ gun case with water and food and Hafford carried his hunting gun for the nine-mile trudge back to Narrow Pond, where they were able to gain entrance to Johnson’s Allagash Lodge. There, they found snacks and pasta to get by on.
“There was a wood stove and we made a fire and got the cabin warmed up and then we did what we could to keep occupied. It was pretty late by the time we got there Saturday. Nine miles for two fat boys is a pretty long walk,” Hafford said. They also were pretty cold.
“The warden plane flew over us twice on Saturday, two or three times,” Hafford said. “But the camp is pretty sheltered and there wasn’t really a lot of smoke coming out of the chimney so they couldn’t see that.”
Hafford said he found a deck of cards in the cabin and played solitaire to pass time, while Stevens, who works at Maine Military Supply in Brewer, wrote poems and made videos with his phone.
“Sunday morning when we got up, we made signs in the road,” Hafford recalled. “We did what we could to make a commotion in the road.”
Late Sunday afternoon, it was apparent that the plan worked. The signs they set out on the road caught the attention of a U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officer who was on his way to work at the Saint Juste border crossing. The customs officer gave them a ride to the crossing, where they were able to call family members.
For Angela Hafford, Travis’ wife and mother of the couple’s soon-to-be one-year-old daughter, Friday through Sunday were the longest three days she’s ever endured.
She wasn’t initially worried when the hunters failed to return at suppertime as expected, she said in an interview. She figured they had stopped to visit friends in the Chamberlain Lake area. Later that night, however, she began to grow concerned. She called her mother, who told her not to worry, that the two would return soon.
By 2 a.m. Saturday, however, she was becoming frantic.
Family and friends began to gather at her home.
“We waited and waited,” Angela Hafford said. Wardens worked throughout the day. When she was told they scaled the search back for the night about suppertime, she said, “I just fell apart. I told my mother, ‘I’m never gonna see my husband again,’ and we had just gotten married in March.”
Her greatest concern was for their baby girl. “I said to my mother, ‘What am I gonna tell her? How am I going to explain to her that I let Daddy go hunting and I couldn’t get him back?’” she said, her voice choked with emotion. She also was thinking of Stevens’ son.
“We got in a circle on the floor in the living room and we held hands and we prayed,” she said.
About that time a friend sent her a link on Facebook. “It was about [the Down East Emergency Medical Institute],” a volunteer search and rescue group headquartered in Orono. “It was close to midnight and I said, ‘I’m calling.’ At this point, I didn’t care who I was waking up. It didn’t matter with what was going on and Richard [Bowie, DEEMI’s director of operations] answered the phone and it was like everything changed at that point.
“Richard said, ‘We’re going to do everything that we need to. We’re going to find them. Don’t worry. They’re OK. They’re young, they know the woods. It’s not if they’re coming home, it’s when they’re coming home.’”
The call that the men had been found came shortly before 6 p.m. Sunday.
Hafford said he will do things differently in the future.
“I should have had the proper equipment in my pickup, knowing where I was going,” he said. “This was a major eye-opener. Physically I would have been OK by myself up there this weekend but mentally it was good to have a friend, somebody to talk to.”