An Indianapolis hunter went into the forest in southern Brown County with only a lighter and a bow Sunday morning.
With skills learned from TV’s “Survivorman,” Jackie Bellinger was found cold but safe and sound more than 24 hours later west of Houston in northwestern Jackson County.
“I watched the show,” he told reporters gathered at his truck in southern Brown County.
“I built my shelter (with a) few leaves on top of it, got a fire going. Since everything was saturated, I barely got the fire going,” said Bellinger, 40.
“After that, I was all right until I heard they called 911 for me. Then I got worried, and I had to leave my shelter and fire and go up on the ridge and start looking for flashlights.”
He walked out of the woods to a house in the 9000 block of West County Road 1000N, which runs between Maumee and Houston in far northwestern Jackson County.
He didn’t recognize his surroundings, so he flagged down a driver on County Road 1000N west of Houston, near the Brown County-Jackson County line.
Brown County Sheriff’s Deputy Greg Pittman said that was about two miles from the Brown County line and about three or four miles from his blue GMC truck, which was parked at the Nebo Ridge trailhead off Elkinsville Road.
Bellinger said the man took him to another house, where a couple cooked him breakfast — grits, eggs and biscuits — and let him use the phone to call the Brown County Sheriff’s Department to let them know he was OK.
Jackson County Sheriff Michael Carothers said his county’s dispatchers received a call at 11:38 a.m. from a resident of that home. They did not talk with Bellinger because he was busy eating.
Carothers said Bellinger is lucky because the area where he wound up is pretty remote.
“That’s the last house for about two miles to the west,” Carothers said. The area west of the house runs through the Salt Creek bottoms and is pretty swampy, he added.
Bellinger, an experienced hunter, had entered the forest about 7 a.m. Sunday.
He saw seven deer while he was out, and he followed the last one. When he turned around after losing sight of the deer, he didn’t know where he was.
“It’s one of those things that you say it’s never going to happen, but it happens,” Bellinger said.
He called his family from the woods about 12:30 a.m. Monday to report he was lost and that his cellphone’s battery was running low.
About 15 minutes earlier, a friend of Bellinger’s had called Brown County dispatch to report he’d found his truck but not Bellinger.
The temperature dropped into the single digits overnight.
County and conservation officers immediately started to the area.
Police were able to estimate his location using GPS on his cellphone, but the phone went dead in the early-morning hours.
A news helicopter from Indianapolis began to help officers on the ground just after 5 a.m. Additional helicopters and police from multiple agencies joined them at sunup.
Bellinger’s father, Jack Bellinger Sr., was among the searchers.
“It had me worried to death, and then I just started thinking bad things. I was so scared. I started almost crying up there, and I thought, ‘Hold them tears back and wait until the last minute,’” he said.
Daniel Payne, Jackie Bellinger’s cousin, also joined the search. Payne had been out to scout deer with Jackie Bellinger, so he knew he would be able to help.
“I knew if I could at least try to find the whereabouts of where his truck would be that he had to be in that area,” he said.
The Hoosier National Forest spans more than 200,000 acres over nine southern Indiana counties. About one-third of that territory is in a block spanning southern Brown, northern Jackson, southern Monroe and northern Lawrence counties.
More than 50 people, including five members of the Jackson County Sheriff’s Posse mounted on horses, searched in a grid pattern over eight square miles for about 10 hours. Officers also traversed trails in southern Brown and northern Jackson counties on all-terrain vehicles and horses.
Bellinger was not carrying any survival gear.
The one lesson he learned was to always carry a compass and flashlight.
The Bellingers were overjoyed at the number of people who came out to help.
“I love everybody here. I am going to go around and hug everybody. I already hugged everybody down the trail,” Jack Bellinger Sr. said.
“Thank you,” Jackie Bellinger said. “I wish you wouldn’t have had to; I’m pretty sure I would have been all right. Thank you for the effort. It’s just good Americans all around.”