Walker Wadkins spends more of his time traipsing about the greens of golf courses than he does negotiating difficult terrain far from civilization. Still, the Florida native has been passionate about hiking and the outdoors for as long as he can remember. When his work with Bully Pulpit golf course brought him to Medora, ND, the proximity to the Badlands proved too enticing an opportunity to pass up. He wanted to explore. “A Florida boy doesn’t get to hike in the snow very often,” he said.
That taste for adventure almost turned deadly when he set out to traverse the canyon near the home he was staying in outside Medora. Wadkins planned for a two hour outing, packing a bag with such bare essentials as water, a lighter, two pieces of pie, and his notebook. Cell service in the area is spotty at best, so he deliberately left behind his phone. In a serendipitous turn of fate, he also brought along a roll of duct tape—but more on that later.
His two hour hike turned into a daylong struggle with life-or-death consequences when Mother Nature came barreling across the Badlands. While he was admiring his surroundings, a snowstorm—a blizzard, really—advanced so rapidly that Wadkins barely had time to react. “”The storm had moved in so fast,” he remembered. “I couldn’t see more than 200 yards.”
A part of the canyon traversed by Wadkins. Image credit: The Rev. Roger Dieterle
With the snow and wind reducing visibility to near zero (and the ground quickly blanketed, obscuring landmarks), Wadkins’ thoughts turned quickly from exploration to survival. The storm dumped more than 8 inches of snow on the area while he was exposed to the elements. With night coming on, finding his way back was soon out of the question. The hiker’s survival knowledge kicked in; knowing that cold was the greatest threat to his life, he sought shelter in a small cave.
While the cave provided some protection from the wind for his head and upper body, his legs and feet stuck out and were fully exposed to the biting cold. The snow having long since soaked through his boots, it didn’t take long for him to begin to lose feeling in his feet. Wadkins knew that if he didn’t take action, he’d likely lose his toes to frostbite.
There are lots of things you shouldn’t do with frostbite, but apparently ducktaping your feet didn’t make this list. Source:Recoil Offgrid
Everything in his pack was wet and muddy, making it impossible to start a fire. After rummaging through his limited supplies and ready to resign himself to his fate, it suddenly hit him: the duct tape. He kicked off his boots and tightly wrapped both feet with the tape. Having thus insulated himself, he put on his socks, laced up his boots… and stopped being cold. “I never worried about my feet after that,” he said.
The rest of the night passed in a fitful haze, with Wadkins struggling to keep negative thoughts from creeping into his head. Everything he knew about surviving in situations like this which he found himself told him that maintaining a positive attitude and, above all, not panicking, were crucial to coming out alive.
For Wadkins, that meant praying. After each prayer, he recounted, a feeling of peace and a sense that things would work out came over him. The routine helped him pass through the sleepless night without sinking into hopeless inaction. When the new day finally dawned, he struck out again, hoping to find his way back to civilization.
He spent all morning and most of the afternoon fighting the shin-deep snow. His two pieces of apple pie were long gone. He was freezing and exhausted, and he had walked all day without any sign of another human. Just as he felt a trace of despair setting in, he spotted a small cabin on the horizon. The barbed wire around the perimeter of the property and the locked front door were inconsequential—Wadkins’ adrenaline carried him inside. Cranking up the heat, finding some dry clothes, and making coffee, he immediately set about getting warm. Within a matter of hours, the search party sent to look for him by his concerned host hit pay dirt. The Billings County Sherriff’s Department turned up at the supposedly empty cabin, saw smoke, and Wadkins’ ordeal was over.
While the mess in which he found himself left the hiker in remarkably good health, the tribulations didn’t completely fail to leave a mark. Despite seeking treatment for minor frostbite shortly after being found, he says he still hasn’t regained feeling in his fingertips two weeks later. For Wadkins, however, this physical reminder of his adventure gone awry isn’t the primary takeaway. More importantly than the frostbite, he says he’ll always be mindful of how important positivity and preparedness can be in staving off calamity.
Wadkins never told anyone that he was planning to explore the canyon that afternoon. If his host in Medora hadn’t taken his absence seriously, this failure to prepare could have cost him his life. Before he goes hiking in the future, he says, he’ll be sure to communicate his plans to someone in the area in case something goes wrong. He also knows firsthand now the value of staying positive in survival scenarios. Whether it’s through prayer, upbeat self-talk, or even outright refusal to acknowledge the desperation of a given situation, there is nothing more important than remaining engaged mentally.
While these thought processes aren’t likely to be forgotten by Wadkins anytime soon, it can be all too easy for anyone who hasn’t found themselves in a similarly dire situation to overlook their significance. Wadkins hopes people realize that a normal outing can turn dangerous more easily than they might expect. “I didn’t think that the worst-case scenario could happen, and it certainly did,” he said.