What outdoors experts say about Eric Rudolph’s survival chances

Miller, Amy
POSTED: June 8, 2003 11:18 p.m.

It doesn’t surprise Ila Hatter that Eric Rudolph, a seasoned outdoorsman, could have lived for five years on the abundant plant and animal life in the mountains of Western North Carolina.

“There’s greater biodiversity here than anywhere else in the world,” said Hatter, a naturalist who teaches a course in wild edibles at the University of Tennessee’s Smoky Mountain Field School. “If he could survive anywhere on his own, it would be in these mountains.”

There’s not only plenty of animals and plants to eat. If Rudolph got sick from something he ate, Hatter said, medicinal herbs and roots, such as yellowroot, could ease an upset stomach – if he knew where to find them. He could have brushed his teeth with bark from sweet birch, which tastes like wintergreen.

Jim Morris, a former U.S. Army Ranger trained in wilderness survival, camped in the mountains for a year and a half on what he calls a vision quest. He set traps and snares to catch small animals and fish. He feasted on berries and acorns. And he made his own deer jerky.

“It’s real possible Rudolph could have done it,” said Morris, 45, who’s part Shawnee Indian. “It’s easy to stay hid for quite some time, if you have the training. But he had a disadvantage I didn’t. I wasn’t worried about people finding me.”

During the harsh winter months, Morris said Rudolph could have built a small shelter of leaves and dirt, called a debris hut, to keep him warm and hidden. These huts are so well insulated, campers don’t even need a fire. But Morris also believes Rudolph did quite a bit of Dumpster diving to supplement his diet.

Bob Scott, a Macon County deputy sheriff during the height of the search for Rudolph, said Rudolph probably survived winter on his own by breaking into isolated summer cottages.

The Sheriff’s Department received a number of break-in reports during those years, said Scott, who now heads the police department at Western Carolina University. The items stolen were not jewelry or other valuables that a thief might sell at a flea market or trade for drugs.

“They were things like canned goods, fishing equipment, old work clothes, boots, Ivory soap – which has no scent – and in one case I know of, a rusty BB gun,” Scott said. “If you break into a summer home, who’s going to miss it when they come back in the summer?”

But he dismissed theories that surviving the woods would be too difficult, even for Rudolph.

“Think of what the POWs in Vietnam went through, surviving for five, six, seven, years with beatings, torture, very little food, maybe some bug-infested soup,” he said. “Compared to that, Eric Rudolph didn’t have it so bad.”

Dan Bruce has hiked the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine seven times. It’s possible Rudolph could have lived on his own, said Bruce, founder of The Center for Appalachian Trail Studies. But with his short hair and clean-shaven face, Rudolph didn’t have the weathered, gaunt look that people acquire after hiking for months, much less five years, in the mountains.

“He looked like someone who had been at the mall,” Bruce said. “He didn’t have that bedraggled look people have after hiking the trail. He looked better than any hiker I’ve ever seen. Maybe he was just really at good at it, but my suspicion is that he had help from someone. Five years is a long time.”

Jerry Wolfe, a tribal elder of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, said he doubts that Rudolph survived without getting any help. Even though Wolfe’s parents taught him how to live off the land, he said it would be difficult, if not impossible, to survive in the mountains alone.

Even Tsali, a Cherokee legend who hid in the mountains in 1838 to escape the U.S. Army and the Trail of Tears, had help, Wolfe said.

“To survive in the Great Smokies isn’t easy,” said Wolfe, 78. “They’re just rugged. You’d have to continuously hunt for food. And it’s not that easy to kill a bear.”

– Compiled by staff writers Amy Miller and Barbara Blake