Among the many cases of vanishings that have been reported from the wild places of our world are those that are particularly bizarre in their circumstances and clues left behind. Among the oddest of these are the strange vanishings and deaths of people who were very much in their elements at the time, with no reason at first to suspect that there should have been any problem at all. It has been made very clear through the work of such researchers on the missing such as David Paulides that wilderness areas and National Parks seem to sometimes swallow people up, but these are not always the misguided who have gotten themselves in over their heads. As we will see, sometimes some of the most mysterious disappearances and deaths revolve around very experienced and seasoned outdoorsmen.
One such weird disappearance covered by missing persons researcher David Paulides in his Missing 411 series of books is 49-year-old Bart Schleyer, who in 2004 had come to the remote Yukon back country of Canada for a hunting trip. Schleyer was well-known among family and friends as being an avid and experienced outdoorsman, and he was also and accomplished wildlife biologist, having worked on the Grizzly Bear Recovery Project in Yellowstone National Park in the 1980s, and he had been involved with tiger conservation in Siberia as well. In other words, he knew the outdoors, had been to some of the most inhospitable environments imaginable, and he knew animals as well. Curiously, for all of his passion for animal conservation he was also a very avid hunter, and had been on hunting excursions all over the world. In September of 2004, his destination was the Reid Lakes of the Yukon Territory, Canada, where had had planned to be dropped off on a chartered float plane and then spend 2 weeks out hunting moose alone amongst the vast wilderness far from civilization. He had done this sort of thing before, and was very experienced, as well as equipped with crates of plentiful food and supplies, and no one really considered it to be something to worry about. That would soon change.
The float plane would return two weeks later for the scheduled pick up, but there was no sign of Schleyer. The float plane operators would then contact the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), who immediately launched a search for the hunter. They quickly found his abandoned camp, where there were signs that he had cooked some meals, yet most of the food he had brought with him was still in the crates he had been dropped off with. Schleyer had also been dropped off with an inflatable boat, and this was found about a half a mile down river. Oddly, the search was then basically called off, with the RCMP coming to the conclusion that the hunter had hiked off to the highway, but others were not so sure, and so a friend of Schleyer’s by the name of Dib Williams flew out to the scene with another friend named Wayne Curry to carry out their own investigation.
Upon arriving at the camp, they found that much of the equipment that Schleyer had brought with him was still there, including important things like bear spray, a backpack, and his VHF radio, as well as ample food stores that were untouched. It was seen as strange that he would leave that sort of thing behind even for a short excursion away from camp. They made their way to where the boat had been found, and nearby they located a makeshift seat atop a bag of gear, as well as a bow leaning against a tree, which they took to be a sort of improvises hunting stand. However, alarmingly they also found a face mask with blood and strands of hair on it, and this was enough to raise a red flag and have them radio authorities once again.
As soon as the worsening weather cleared up the RCMP was back on the scene, and the area was more meticulously searched this time. They soon discovered scattered through the area pieces of clothing and fragments of bone, as well as wolf and bear tracks, and the bone fragments would be confirmed as having belonged to the missing hunter. Considering the animal tracks and bear scat in the area, the first theory was that he had simply been attacked by a bear, but there was evidence against this. For one, there was no sign of any sort of struggle, and even his seat he had set up was undisturbed. There was no blood splattered about, only a very few bone fragments, which showed no signs of having been bitten or gnawed on, and almost no clothes and these were largely bloodless, and furthermore his other supplies were all untouched. He might have been caught completely off guard and quickly killed and dragged off, but this was considered unlikely considering his experience and the fact that even the soft moss that covered everything was completely undisturbed. The skull would later be found and had no bite marks or puncture wounds from an attack.
Due to all of these clues it was thought that Schleyer had not been directly attacked, but had rather died and then had scavengers come in to get the remains. But how? Did he suffer some sudden health issue like a heart attack or stroke? Friends and family have expressed doubt at this idea considering he was in peak health. What then? Was he murdered? There is no evidence of foul play either. There have been no solid answers and the disappearance and mysterious death of Bart Schleyer remains unsolved.
Another very mysterious and creepy case covered by Paulides is that of 38-year-old Aaron Joseph Hedges, who in September of 2014 embarked on a week-long elk hunting trip into the Crazy Mountains of Montana along with some friends. The group successfully set up camp, and on September 5 Hedges decided to go on a bit of a hike to go check out the camp they had used the previous year, which was just a short distance down the trail. He carried with him a radio and was armed with both a bow and a handgun, so no one thought much of it until he took longer than expected and efforts to contact him on his radio were met with silence. A look at Hedges’ GPS signal showed that he had wandered off course, but then it went out of range. The friends were sure that the experienced hunter had just made a wrong turn and would be back, but he never did come back, and so it was not until 3 days later that he was actually reported missing.
Authorities began a massive search of the area, utilizing tracker dogs and aircraft, but the only signs that could be found of the missing hunter was a water bottle, some areas where it seemed he had tried to start a fire, and oddly his boots taken off and set down as if he might come back for them at any moment. Other than that there was nothing, with even the dogs failing to pick up a scent, and it would not be until June of 2015 that there would be any closure, when Hedges’ bow, hunting license, clothes, and a well-weathered backpack were found about 15 miles away from his last known location, as well as a a thermos cup and an open energy drink, and another year after that when his remains were found just about a half a mile away from where he had gone missing, in an area that had already been searched. Now that there was an actual body, there was some suspicion aimed at his companions, as they had taken 3 days to report the missing man, but they were adamant that this had simply been because he was so experienced and they were sure he would find his way back, after which they had looked on their own. Since there was no evidence of foul play, there was not much anyone could do, but it was seen as odd.
It is all rather strange for a variety of reasons. How is it that his remains and equipment ended up so far away from his last position? He was an experienced outdoorsman familiar with the area, and also happened to have had a GPS device on him, so how could he have gotten so hopelessly lost? And if if he did get lost, why would he have not used his radio, which had been fully charged? There is also the weird detail of his boots taken off and just placed on the trail, despite the fact that it had started snowing, and his other gear had been haphazardly scattered about. Why should this be? And why was none of this found in the original search? Why were the dogs unable to pick up a trail? No one really knows, and the strange disappearance and death of Joseph Hedges remains unsolved.
Lastly, we come to the strange case of Cullen Finnerty, not a hunter, but a fisherman. In May of 2013, the former star college football player was away on a Memorial Day weekend fishing trip on the Baldwin River in Michigan. Like the others we have looked at here, he was a seasoned outdoorsman who was familiar with the lay of the land, but things would take a turn for the bizarre. At one point during his trip, Finnerty made a bizarre call to his wife, in which he claimed that he was being followed and that he was frightened. He was also breathing heavily and made the rather weird proclamation that he was taking his clothes off without giving any reason why. Shortly after, the phone went dead. This would be the last time anyone spoke with him.
Finnerty did not return from his fishing trip as planned and a search was launched. Oddly, according to Paulides, during the search efforts Finnerty’s phone was pinged several times to try and find his location, and each time the phone was pinged it was found to be far away from where it had been in the previous location, suggesting he was on the move. Search efforts were unable to locate the missing man, and then on May 28, 2013, Finnerty was found dead in the dense woods, around 1 mile from the location of his fishing boat and not far from a busy road. The body showed no signs of trauma or external injuries and he had been well dressed for the conditions, notably and oddly not nude as one would expect from what was implied in that last call, making death from the elements seem unlikely.
An autopsy was conducted but the original results were inconclusive, only able to ascertain that he had no signs of drugs and negligible amounts of alcohol in his system that would not have impaired him, and that there were no external injuries such as cuts, scratches, or bruises. Later autopsies conducted by the Kent County Medical Examiner’s Office would come to the conclusion that Finnerty had likely died from a complicated combination of factors. Since he was a football player, he had sustained numerous concussions throughout his career, which had led to a condition known as “chronic traumatic encephalopathy,” the symptoms of which can include disorientation, confusion, and memory loss, which may have contributed to the strange call he had made and his death. He was also found to be taking the pain killer oxycodone for a back injury. The final autopsy results were that he had most likely become scared, panicked and confused alone out in the woods, which had been exacerbated by the oxycodone and his brain trauma, and that at some point he had inhaled his own vomit, which had led to his death. It still remains unclear what his final call meant, who he thought had been following him, or why he had been about to take his clothes off, making his death still more than a little mysterious.
These have been just a few of the very strange cases covered by David Paulides, and which have managed to stand out as particularly odd in that they have happened to those who were well prepared for entering the wilderness and were unlikely to lose their calm or be overcome by their situations. How do we explain the unusual clues and circumstances surrounding cases such as these? Are these people just the victims of the elements and the wilderness itself, or is there perhaps something more sinister and mysterious going on? Is there a chance that, in some sense, these hunters were the ones being hunted? In the end we are left with mysteries that may never be solved and questions that may never be answered, only the trees and the mountains privy to what has happened here.