Dan Anderson was lying on the forest floor when he regained consciousness.
He had no idea how much time had passed. Had it been a couple of hours or a full day?
His last memory was of falling about 50 feet from a large tree.
“This is a lot farther than I expected,” he remembered thinking as he had accelerated toward the ground.
Dan tried to get up but his legs wouldn’t work, and hot searing pain coursed through his pelvis. Feeling an “indentation” in his back, he knew he had broken it.
He would have used his cellphone to call for help, but it was in one of the two backpacks that he had tossed away because he had no intention of needing the items in them ever again.
Now, with a lower body that wouldn’t work, those backpacks were inaccessible.
Dan screamed for help until his voice gave out, but his yells were muffled by the brambles and trees. He was in a densely forested area on Simpson/Peardonville Road east of Mt. Lehman Road in west Abbotsford, about three-quarters of a mile from the roadway. It had been a 45-minute walk for Dan, 40, when he was fit.
Dan passed out and woke up the next morning. His voice was so raw that he couldn’t speak, and he was struck by an overwhelming thirst.
He spotted dew on some green leaves about 15 feet away. Through his pain, he dragged himself forward until he reached the leaves and could lick off the moisture. That short distance took him about 45 minutes.
Dan spent the next four or five hours contemplating his choices. If he used his usual route along the trail, he calculated that, at the rate it took him to reach the leaves, it would take four or five days to drag his half-paralyzed to a place he could be heard screaming for help.
He thought about just lying there and dying. How nobody would be there to hold his hand and see him off.
But he remembered the words that Billy, his late father-in-law, had told Dan after his marriage fell apart a few years ago: “Do whatever you have to do, but crawl if you have to.”
Dan made the decision that, although he was probably going to die in the forest, he was going to do everything he could to live.
He was going to crawl.
* * * * *
Dan skipped two grades in school and graduated high school early. He held various jobs over the years, including in real estate with a management company and as a a creative marketing director and statistical analyzer. At one time, he owned a house with his uncle.
But the death of his mother, who had raised him alone, when Dan was 13 had left him with lasting feelings of loneliness and abandonment, which he tried to numb with alcohol.
His issues worsened about 10 years ago, and led to the destruction of his marriage, the loss of his home and his inability to hold down a job.
Dan sunk into a depression and alcoholism, and often found himself living on the streets because he couldn’t afford a roof over his head. He preferred to be alone, and isolated himself from other homeless people.
About six months ago, he built a cabin in the woods on a steep hill in the area of Clearbrook Road near Discovery Trail. He gathered used building materials that had been discarded from industrial sites, and built 10-foot-high ceilings and a marble-slate floor.
Dan added rock gardens and grew an array of vegetables, including potatoes, onions and garlic. But nearby residents discovered his shelter and chased him off.
He decided to start over, this time choosing the forested area off Simpson Road. He carted in building materials on his back that he scavenged at night from the nearby industrial area.
He built a foundation made of pillars and four-by-fours, using rocks to pound the fixtures into the dirt. On the pillars, he placed a platform of extended pallet board and, on top of that, built a floor of interlocking fencing boards. He also had plans to build a cellar and a second storey.
During the construction phase, Dan slept in a tent. He became increasingly depressed. Dark thoughts consumed him: “There’s no point in me living. It’s not going to get any better. I’m 40 years old, and it’s going downhill from here.”
As the sun set on July 10, Dan walked through the woods with his two backpacks while he drank from a bottle of whiskey. He threw away the backpacks – which were loaded with all his necessities, including his money, identification, clothes and jewelry – and left the whiskey on a log.
He returned to his cabin and climbed about one-third of the way up a nearby 150-foot tree and jumped. Dan’s feet dug into the earth when he landed and they snapped back, forcing him into a hard landing on his butt.
He blacked out, and didn’t wake up until the morning light.
* * * * *
After Dan decided to live, he started preparing for the long journey ahead. He knew the woods well and determined the route with the fewest obstacles would be through the nearby swamp and up a ridge. That would take him close to the back of the industrial businesses that lined Progressive Way, just east of Mt. Lehman Rd.
He used a stick to reach up and snare a brown furry blanket that was on top of the platform of his cabin, and stuffed it into his shirt. He consumed a head of romaine lettuce that was left in his cooler.
As he pulled himself on his belly, every movement caused excruciating pain, causing Dan to pause until it subsided.
He was about 20 feet into the shallow swamp when he realized how much more difficult the trip was going to be than he had imagined. The marsh was clogged with a barrier of thick blackberry bushes with thorns and poison ivy.
Slimy swamp water splashed up on his face and he would inadvertently gurgle it. The weight of the mud pulled at his pants until they were around his ankles, trapped there by his shoes, but he was unable to move his legs to kick them off.
To break down the distance he had to travel, he would throw his blanket in front of him and crawl to the end. Again and again and again.
And always the thought: “Just crawl. Just crawl. Just crawl.”
He imagined the things he would miss out on if he were dead: He would never be able to kiss a girl again or start a family or have a job that excited him.
At times, Dan hallucinated and imagined that the thorns ravaging him were “swamp monsters.”
He passed out again a couple more times, and Dan lost track of time. It was on the third day of his journey that he reached the end of the swamp and knew he was getting close to the forest’s edge.
He pulled his torso over a large root at the end of the swamp and gratefully touched the hard-packed earth with his hands. He pulled his lower body over the root. The searing pain again froze him in place.
But he pushed on. Next was a rising ridge. Dan dug his fingers deep into the earth and pulled himself forward again and again until he reached the top.
He was relieved to see a downward slope and began inching forward head first before the weight of his body sent him rolling downhill like a log. He tumbled about 40 feet until he smashed into a tree, landing upside down on his back.
Dan was exhausted, severely dehydrated and in shock. At first he thought a creature that he spotted in his peripheral vision at the top of the hill was a hallucination.
Dan had heard crunching sounds throughout his journey, but had attributed them to raccoons.
But now a young black bear sat hugging a large tree trunk, and he knew that the bear had been stalking him. The animal cocked his head, and the two stared at one another for a bit before Dan lost consciousness again.
When he awoke, the bear was gone and Dan heard a voice in the distance shouting.
“Hey! Hey! You down there?” He tried to answer but his voice wouldn’t work. He passed out again. When he opened his eyes this time, a police officer was standing beside him.
Then, there was another cop and firefighters and paramedics. He had no idea what brought them there – he had no recollection of yelling for help – but Dan felt like his pain had just melted away. Finally, he could rest.
* * * * *
On the evening of Wednesday, July 10, the day that Dan broke his back, Len Gerling was at his job as chief executive officer of Distinct Distributors on Progressive Way. He heard a faint yell in the distance and stopped what he was doing, but didn’t hear the sound again, so brushed it off.
Three days later, on Saturday morning, Len heard the cries again, but this time they were closer and more distinct: “Help! Help! Help!”
Len called 911.
Three Abbotsford Police patrol officers responded to the “screams heard” report, and arrived at Len’s workplace.
Abbotsford Fire Rescue Service had already come and gone after being unable to find anything. At first, the officers couldn’t hear anything either, and there was no response to their own shouts. They drove around the area and ended up in the rear parking lot of Chances Playtime Gaming, on the east side of the dense forest.
They began to think that Len had misheard the cries for help and debated whether they should leave. But Len called again, saying he heard the yelling a second time.
Although Const. Daniel Bebe left the scene for another matter, Consts. Adam Marchinkow and Jordan D’Allessandro returned to Progressive Way, where their shouts were finally returned by Dan. They could hear in his intermittent responses that he was in desperate need of help.
The officers searched the back of the businesses in the industrial area, looking for an easy way into the forest. But the area was bordered by a six-foot-high chain-link fence. On the other side of the fence were blackberry bushes and a sheer drop.
The north side also afforded no easy access, and, when they tried to enter from the east, they stepped into a muddy marsh.
They determined that the only way to get in was by bushwhacking, using their police batons, through the forest off Simpson Road, south of Dan’s location.
Two and a half hours after they began their search, they finally found Dan, wrapped in the furry blanket and curled up against a tree. The officers phoned for assistance, and four firefighters and two paramedics soon joined them.
Dan told them he had fallen out of a tree and hadn’t eaten or drank for three days, but nobody knew the journey that he had endured.
There was no practical way to get Dan out of there. The most logical route was straight up a steep embankment and into the parking lot where Len’s business was.
As Dan was rolled onto a spine board, he bit down hard on a stick to keep from biting his tongue in reaction to the excruciating pain.
The rescuers then took turns carrying Dan up the hill, at one point having to use ropes to drag him along as if he were on a sled.
At the top of the hill, Len opened the gate for them, and the rescuers hoisted Dan over the ledge and onto the pavement.
He was taken to Abbotsford Regional Hospital (ARH), and Adam visited Dan to see how he was doing, both physically and emotionally.
Dan had destroyed his spine and his lower body was paralyzed.
Dan was taken to Royal Columbian Hospital for surgery and was told there was only a 20 per cent chance he would walk again.
By the time he was transferred back to ARH 10 days later, he was in a wheelchair. He progressed to a walker and to standing without a walker, at which point he was moved to the Mission PATH (Priority Assistance to Transition Home) program.
There, he learned to walk again and, after less than two months of hospital care, was released. Dan can now walk, using a cane for support, and is required to wear a back brace probably until the end of October. He looks forward to one day being able to run again.
He meditates to manage his pain and uses non-narcotic medication.
With the help of local service agencies, Dan has food and clothing, and rents a room in a sober-living home. He encourages people to seek out these support systems before they get to the point that he did.
Dan now hopes for continued health improvements, getting in contact with remaining family members, and helping link others in similar situations to the support they need.
“I have more of a drive for life. I want to live now. I’ve no ambitions to harming myself ever again,” he says.
“Life is a beautiful disaster, and you have to take the good with the bad. If you’re in a bad moment, just know you’re going to get through it. Crawl if you have to.”
* * * * *
It’s Aug. 29 – almost seven weeks since Dan’s rescue. He’s meeting for the first time since that day with three of the people responsible for his rescue: Len, Adam and Jordan.
They greet each other outside the Abbotsford Police Department with hugs, and a few tears will be shared over the next 90 minutes.
Dan wants them to know how grateful he is. He was near death and believes he wouldn’t have lasted another day.
“I love you guys. Thank you. You saved my life,” he says. “You guys are going to Heaven for sure.”
Adam and Jordan did not know Dan’s full survival story until recently. Jordan, a former sheriff who has only been on the road with the APD since March, says hearing the details re-affirmed his decision about why he wanted to become a police officer.
“This is why we do what we do. This is why we sign up,” he says.
Adam, who has been with the department for two years, praises Dan for his strength and resolve in enduring such an emotionally and physically draining trial. He says most officers get into the job because they genuinely want to help people.
“We don’t do it for any recognition. We do it because we want to help. At the end of the day, it’s nice to know that you actually had an effect on someone’s life, and it was for the better,” he says.
Len says he has thought often about Dan since the rescue and wondered how he was doing. It brings Len closure to see him standing and walking.
Dan exchanges contact information with Jordan and Adam, and they agree to stay in touch, perhaps, it is suggested, working together to help vulnerable people who might otherwise have difficulty reaching out. It’s Dan’s new mission in life.
“You saved my life so I can save others … I’m so grateful,” he says to the pair.