Finding peace, family of missing Minnesota hunter celebrates his life
Paul Sandstrom was last seen heading for his tree stand on his family's hunting grounds near Gardner Lake, north of Ponsford, Minn., on Sunday Nov. 8. His body was discovered two days later by search and rescue workers, but for Paul's legacy, his family only needs to look into the woods that he loved so much.
DETROIT LAKES, Minn. -- Nothing seemed out of the ordinary.
Another deer hunting opening weekend with family just like any other in the previous 42 years.
But when a routine lunch was missed, members of the Sandstrom family began to wonder: Where was Paul?
Paul Sandstrom, 58, of Blaine, went missing on Nov. 8 near Gardner Lake in Becker County, an area his family had hunted on for generations and an area Paul was very familiar with.
Paul was the youngest of five siblings, two older brothers, Dan and Rick, and two older sisters, Grace and Sue. His oldest brother, Dan, passed away in 2008 from a heart attack, which Rick Sandstrom said, runs in their family.
Rick said his brother took medication for heart problems and did collect disability, but also said he was able to care for himself as long as he had someone to check on him every once and awhile.
In 1940, Paul and Rick's grandparents built a cabin along Elbow Lake, north of Ponsford, on Highway 113. Twenty years later when the house two doors down became available, Rick and Paul's parents jumped at the opportunity to have a hunting home for their own growing family.
Rick said he and his brothers grew up together hunting and fishing the wilderness surrounding Elbow Lake.
One of the memories Rick will always have of his brother is the one, and only time, Paul shot himself a deer — in 42 years of hunting.
"Paul started hunting when he was 16 years old, that's 42 years of deer hunting and he only shot one deer," said Rick Sandstrom. "He only had 10 rounds with him, and he emptied his rounds at the deer, and it was still alive when he got up to him."
Rick said Paul put the smaller-than-average sized deer out of his misery humanely, but, as hard as he tried, over years and decades, he would never get another.
In a showoff attempt at his brother Paul's misfortune in 2003, Rick said he told his brother, "Come on, Paul, I'm going to show you how to get a deer."
Rick said he took his brother out into the woods and made it out about a 100 yards onto a ridge.
"A deer jumped," said Rick, "and I fired three shots and got it, and he stood there and just looked at me."
However, Rick also admitted that Paul was a better deer hunter than he was, which didn't make much sense.
"He could sit there, day after day without seeing anything, and every morning he was still enthusiastic about going out in the woods," said Rick. "I'd do that for an hour or two, and then I'd have to go beat the brush, but Paul would sit in his stand all day long."
Rick said Paul had "a lot of patience, but not a lot of luck."
This year, Jeremiah Sandstrom, Rick's son and Paul's nephew, drove himself and Uncle Paul up to their cabin for this year's deer opener.
"We hung out and had dinner, drank a few beers and bullshitted before deer season started," said Jeremiah. "Saturday was just a completely normal day."
He said Paul met them for lunch on Saturday. They had sandwiches, and soup, and everything seemed exactly how it was on every hunting trip he has ever taken with his uncle.
On Sunday, Jeremiah said, he had to wake Paul in the morning, but everything was still very typical.
He was wearing full, cold-weather hunting gear and had a backpack full of snacks, survival gear and a container full of coffee.
Jeremiah said they got out to their hunting spots, about 12 miles east of their family cabin, near Gardner Lake at about 8 a.m. Paul had the same tree stand for the last five deer seasons, so he knew the area well, he said.
"He got out of the back seat of the truck, and he went to the tailgate to grab all of his stuff," Jeremiah said. "I watched him. He shut the tailgate, we were pulling off ... I saw him down in the ditch loading his rifle and he walked into the woods, right into the path of where his deer stand is, and that was the last time I ever saw him."
Jeremiah's spot was another half-mile down the road, but their family always meets for lunch at 11:30 a.m., so nobody thought anything was out of the ordinary until he never showed up for lunch, he said.
"He was supposed to meet us at the road ... for lunch, like every other day for the last God knows how many years," he said, "we waited for 25 to 30 minutes for him to show up for lunch and he never showed up."
Jeremiah said they assumed he had walked over to their lunch spot on his own, without getting a ride from Jeremiah, or he was on a deer. After about 90 minutes, Rick and Jeremiah decided to go looking for Paul at his deer stand. They both said the stand looked like it had been packed out for the day, or Paul never unpacked his gear in the morning.
After a few hours of walking around Paul's tree stand, Rick and Jeremiah called law enforcement to help them find Paul.
Responding to the scene were Becker County Sheriff's Office deputies, Christian Aid Ministries Search and Rescue, Northstar Search and Rescue, US Customs Border Patrol, Bagley Fire Department, Clearbrook Fire Department, Carsonville Fire and Rescue and White Earth Conservation. They used planes, helicopters, and searched tirelessly for about the next 40 hours.
At about 9:30 a.m. on Day Two of the search, members of the Sandstrom family heard the search helicopter get called off over the law enforcement radios and that Becker County Sheriff Todd Glander wanted to speak with them.
His body was discovered on the morning of Nov. 10, about 200 yards southwest of his deer stand, near a tall grassed-area overlooking a small valley.
Jeremiah said he believed Paul didn't go into his deer stand because of the high wind on Sunday and instead walked nearby to find a better vantage point.
"Paul died doing what he loved doing and I can't tell you how much comfort that brings me," said Rick.
Rick and Jeremiah said they believed Paul suffered a severe heart attack shortly after they dropped him off in the morning. Rick said many people in their family have battled heart disease and it would make sense. He said he was found with all of his hunting gear laying next to him.
Rick said Paul would've wanted him to keep hunting, so that's what he decided to do for the rest of the week. He said every time he goes into those woods that he shared with his siblings, it feels like home.
"He'll always be with me," said Rick. "I can't go to a spot in the woods where I don't have memories of my dad, or my brothers."
The Sandstrom family is raising money online to help with funeral costs, with any money left over being donated to the organizations that helped search for Paul Sandstrom.