PITTSBURG — A 49-year-old Massachusetts woman searching for shed moose antlers spent several harrowing hours Sunday in the darkness of a Pittsburg swamp.
But Fish and Game officer Chris Egan said Monday that Sharon Matthews, who had her dog with her, also came properly prepared, and that made all the difference.
“She was carrying a day pack containing a GPS, water, food, a rain jacket, flashlight and most importantly, a butane lighter,” Egan said in a news release. “It was ultimately the smoke from her fire that led us to her location.”
Matthews is the town grave digger in Warwick, a west-central Massachusetts community of fewer than 1,000 that borders New Hampshire and Vermont. She said she and her husband, Donald Matthews, 52, entered Pittsburg's South Bay Bog about mid-morning Sunday.
“We know there's antlers out there. They're neat. I like to collect 'em,” she said.
A while later, she and her husband lost track of each other; Sharon wouldn't be seen again until nearly 10 p.m.
Before rescuers helped her emerge from a thick cover of spruce and fir, she would fall down a steep ravine and injure her shoulder; get dive-bombed repeatedly by angry and screeching hawks or eagles; and have someone she contacted on a radio dismiss her plight as not worth bothering with.
Matthews said things didn't really take a turn for the worse until her 5-year-old Rottweiler, Junior, lost his footing and tumbled down a ravine she estimated to be 60 to 70 feet deep.
“He fell, then I went down after him, and I fell,” she said.
She said she slammed her shoulder into a stump, but made it to her dog. “He wasn't moving. That's where I got screwed up. I was in a lot of pain, and couldn't go where my GPS was telling me to go,” she said.
“There's a radio on my GPS, and some guy was singing 'Camptown Races.' I got him, gave him my latitude and longitude, and told him to send help. He just said, 'Now don't you worry, you just keep heading north, and everything will be fine.'”
“I said, no, this is a serious situation. I'm hurt and I need help,” but the person continued to make light of the matter, and did not offer any assistance, Matthews said.
The hawk or eagle attack — Matthews said she couldn't tell which, because she was ducking — occurred during daylight after she and her husband got separated.
“Their wings hit the back of my coat,” she said.
Matthews said her husband later told her he'd had a similar experience with three large birds of prey; the couple guessed they must separately have ventured too close to a nesting site.
Matthews said she was able to gather plenty of wood to keep a fire going, even after rain started falling and it got dark.
“I had everything; I was going to be fine for the night,” she said.
She used lip balm from her pack to salve the wounds Junior suffered in his fall. As darkness fell, however, Matthews said she became worried about coyotes. She also had seen plenty of bear scat and large bear tracks nearby.
Meanwhile, her husband was able to find his way out of the bog Sunday afternoon. Donald Matthews contacted Fish and Game. Egan, fellow conservation officer Adam Cheney and Pittsburg Police Chief Richard LaPoint responded. Matthews told them he'd last seen his wife around 12:30 p.m. near a series of beaver ponds, just under a mile into the woods.
Pittsburg police began searching logging roads in the area, while conservation officers on all-terrain vehicles went over snowmobile trails in a perimeter around the bog.
After completing what Egan said was a “hasty search of the roads and trails,” he, Cheney and LaPoint gathered at a cleared area overlooking the bog.
“While discussing the next steps in the search effort, they observed a small plume of blue smoke rising from an area of thick spruce trees in the valley below,” Egan said in the news release.
About 8 p.m., Egan “took a compass bearing on the smoke and began walking toward it. About 40 minutes later, voice contact with the victim was made,” wrote Egan, of the Region One office in Lancaster.
Matthews had several minor bumps and bruises, and the “tissues around her eyes were swollen due to many mosquito bites, but she was otherwise unharmed,” Egan wrote.
She and Junior were led from the woods, and reached Bog Branch Road at approximately 9:45 p.m., Egan said.
“Mrs. Matthews did what anyone should do in a similar situation,” Egan wrote. “When she realized darkness and rain were beginning to fall, she remained calm, collected firewood, built a fire, used her rain jacket for shelter and stayed put in that one location.”
And the antlers?
“I got two, and I had to leave them there. I couldn't carry them, but I'm not going back for them. That's it; I've had it. I'll never go back there again,” Sharon Matthews vowed.