In 40 years of picking mushrooms, Neil Horner had never had an accident. That is, until last week.
Horner, who has the Mushroom Savage business at the Qualicum Beach Farmers’ Market, was picking mushrooms in a favourite spot on the Cathedral Grove side of the Alberni Summit off of Highway 4 when he slipped and fell, landing hard with a root under his shoulder.
He was in such pain, he couldn’t move. He was able to reach his cellphone and he called 911.
“That was a close call,” Horner said. “Way too close. I thought I was going to die.”
“Like so many times before, I stumbled on the uneven ground and before I knew it I was down,” he wrote in a note to the Alberni Valley News. “This time though, I heard a sickening crunch and pain crashed through my shoulder.”
There was more at stake than an unknown injury to his shoulder: Horner was by himself and couldn’t move without experiencing extreme pain.
“I broke one of the cardinal rules in the mushroom-picking game. I had gone out alone and nobody knew where I was. As I looked up at the dimming sky through the trees all around me, I felt very, very alone. Who was to blame for my plight? Oh, that’s easy. It was entirely me,” he said.
Alberni Valley Rescue Squad search manager Mike Riddalls said a perfect storm of other challenges prevented SAR volunteers from finding Horner quickly. Many team members were working when the call came out at 2:20 p.m. on Sept. 30. The team was momentarily held up in traffic as emergency personnel dealt with a serious multi-vehicle accident near Coombs Country Candy on Highway 4, on the way east of the city. The gate to the road where Horner said he had walked was locked, and the original coordinates relayed for where Horner was stuck were incorrect.
“We managed to ping his cellphone and get a location that seemed to be close. We talked to him. He said he was less than three kilometres in from the gate,” Riddalls said. “He gave us some clues as to where he went in. We sent a team of five in and did a grid search but we weren’t able to locate him.”
By the time they called for extra help from Arrowsmith SAR and found a logging company representative to unlock the gate, the ambulance that responded was called away to another emergency. They tried calling in a helicopter to search the area but were unsuccessful at finding one available.
After lying on the ground for nearly four hours, Horner was able to inch his way to a nearby tree and pull himself up with his good arm. He spoke with one of his rescuers and told them he was going to walk southwest toward a road, even though they asked him to stay put. He walked out of the bush onto a road about 500 metres from where he had fallen “but far from where I had thought I was.”
He called the rescue team back and let them know he was on the road; they sent an ambulance to pick him up, and an Arrowsmith SAR member drove his truck home.
Riddalls said search teams had managed to pinpoint Horner in less than a square kilometre, but the bush was thick, the going was rough and “it’s a lot of terrain to cover. He was just difficult to find.”
Horner, who suffered a dislocated shoulder when he fell, gave full credit to the SAR teams who answered his call.
“I would like to take this opportunity to give a sincere thanks to the dedicated volunteers from search and rescue who raced to my rescue,” Horner said.
He hopes this will be the last time he gets caught in such a dire situation.
Mushroom pickers are notoriously secretive about where they find their product, and many go out into the bush by themselves. Many years ago Horner used to pick with the late Al Savage, who is the inspiration behind his farmers’ market business name, Mushroom Savage. Lately he has gone out with his son Alex, however Alex recently went to university in Prince George, so Horner went by himself.
“I’m on all sorts of mushroom websites and I’m hoping to find a partner for Mushroom Savage so I don’t have to go alone,” he said Thursday.
“Other than that, I plan to fully activate any GPS apps on my phone and give a rough outline of my target route prior to heading out.”
Horner’s rescue was the 10th callout in September for the Alberni Valley Rescue Squad. “We’ve had 32 callouts so far this year,” Riddalls said. “It’s our busiest year so far. More people are out there active in the bush.”
He said it’s the same for many SAR teams this year.
Riddalls said anyone venturing into the bush should make sure they leave a trip plan with someone, bring along a “noise device” such as a whistle—voices wear out from repeated shouting—and a compass. More information on how to explore safely in the outdoors can be found online.