WOOLWICH — Donald Merrill said that if game wardens hadn’t found him when he was cold, alone and unable to move on Westport Island last week, he probably would have died.

“I was wondering if I was going to be able to get out,” Merrill said. “I was surprised to see the game warden came out and find me.”

“I don’t think I would have made it through the night,” he said.

When Merrill didn’t show up at the agreed-upon meeting spot hours earlier, one of his hunting partners reported him missing.

Wardens tracked Merrill through the snow, and a game warden found the 58-year-old Woolwich man sitting on a log at 9:30 p.m. on Nov. 19. By the time they got him out of the woods, he had severe hypothermia and had to be taken to Mid Coast Hospital in Brunswick for treatment.

Merrill, a lifelong hunter, said that things started to go wrong when he and his hunting partners took a new trail through their old hunting grounds on Westport Island last week.

“I hunt down in Westport all the time, but we ended up doing a new path through the woods and I ended up getting turned around,” Merrill said.

After an unsuccessful hunt, Merrill walked back to the place where he was supposed to meet up with his hunting buddies. When they didn’t show up, Merrill decided to head back the way he came, but he got lost in the unfamiliar woods.

“I started backtracking myself and I ended up getting in someone else’s track and I got all fouled up,” Merrill said.

As the sun set and the woods became dark, Merrill’s legs began to cramp. Unable to continue walking, and without a cellphone to call for help, he began crawling through the wet snow. Merrill said he crawled for a couple of hours before finally deciding to stop, sit down on a log and wait for help.

From where he was seated, he could see a field with a house, and even spotted a person in the field. Merrill yelled to the person, who was too far away to be heard.

“So I was sitting on the log, looking at a house and he was in the field and I was hollering to him, but he didn’t hear me hollering,” Merrill recalled.

Unable to get up off the log, Merrill was at the mercy of the elements. His clothes were wet from crawling through the snow and the temperature was dropping. Still, Merrill said he was feeling warm.

“My pants were all wet and I was sweating at the end. I got sweating so hard I started warming up again,” he said.

Though he didn’t know it at the time, Merrill had hypothermia. The wet clothes and freezing temperatures had taken a toll, and while Merrill may have felt like he was warming up, he was in danger of freezing to death.

At 9:30 p.m., hours after the sun had set, a game warden finally found Merrill.

Merrill stayed overnight at the hospital, where he was treated for hypothermia. He was released the next day, but he returned to the hospital shortly thereafter when his legs cramped up again. Doctors determined that his potassium levels were too low, and he stayed at the hospital another two days until that was resolved.

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention encourages people to dress in layers, wear a warm hat and gloves, and drink plenty of fluids to avoid hypothermia. Staying dry and preventing sweating is essential to avoid the condition.

Symptoms of hypothermia include decreased consciousness, sleepiness and confusion. Shivering, numbness, poor coordination and slurred speech are other indicators. About 750 people die from hypothermia every year, according to the Maine CDC.

“When you’re wet … and then the temperature drops, you’re susceptible to hypothermia, and once you get there it’s nearly impossible to reverse it unless you get into a warm place,” said David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine. “That’s a really dangerous situation. … Every sportsman or woman has to think about that when they enter the woods.”

Trahan added that temperature variations in Maine can leave hunters unprepared for cold weather if they don’t plan ahead.

“How you dress is very, very important when you have these wild fluctuations in temperature,” Trahan said.

Merrill said that the incident wouldn’t keep him from going out hunting again next year, but he said he wouldn’t be taking any new trails in the future.

“I’m going to stay in the woods that I’ve been in before,” Merrill said.

Nathan Strout can be contacted at:

[email protected]

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