Jordan Grider died while camping alone in the Boundary Waters. Was he devoured by wolves?
In October 2018, the 29-year-old New Mexico resident took on the challenge of winter camping by himself in northern Minnesota. How he died there remains a mystery.
For as innocently as it started, Sean Williams could have ended up finding Jordan Grider and asking him to move his pickup truck.
Instead, the conservation officer from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Ely found mystery in a grisly death that looked like bloody murder and felt like total isolation.
Almost two years ago, Grider arrived alone in northern Minnesota with a plan to camp through a winter in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. He had mistakenly parked his truck in front of a private gate off the Sioux Hustler Trail. That’s what flagged him to authorities.
The 29-year-old Grider, from Moriarty, New Mexico, was an experienced outdoorsman and an unconventional person who had spent the previous 10 or 12 years living in the woods of Kentucky and upper New York. This time, he’d come north to be near the water, his mother, Rebecca Grider, said.
"Jordan used to tell people, 'I’m not homeless; I have a home — I just choose to have it outside,'" Rebecca said.
She’s convinced a pack of wolves surprised and killed her son while he slept in the Boundary Waters.
“I suspect he was caught the first night,” she said. “They said, ‘Lunch!’”
Grider had set up his campsite overlooking a seasonal beaver slough, as picturesque at the time as a private lake.
Williams responded along with a Border Patrol agent to the first call to locate Grider about his pickup in October 2018. They couldn't find where he'd gone into the woods, and the search was unsuccessful. His last known receipt had been dated Oct. 10 in Ely.
What they found almost six months later after some hard-won police work and snowmobile tracking was a south-facing slope that Williams felt good about. He told the News Tribune he’d have wanted the same cover from the north wind had he been winter camping.
The men followed the slope on foot right into Grider’s camp in April 2019.
“It’s in a super-remote place,” Williams said. “If you were looking for a spot to avoid contact with people, he really did find it.”
Williams remembered coming upon the snow-covered scene as a sobering experience.
“We were kind of just taking it in, myself and the agent, a visual inventory,” Williams said. “We noticed a large amount of blood everywhere.”
Williams took stock of the makeshift tent — a hammock slung under a green tarp which hung over a guy-wire. He also found a 9-millimeter Beretta pistol in the hammock with two loaded magazines outside of the gun.
A line in the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office report described “a large amount of blood inside the hammock and sleeping bag.”
There were signs of wolves at the campsite, too — both footprints and scat, Williams recalled.
The official report about the initial search of the campsite underscored what the two men failed to locate: “Grider was not found.”
'The upper hand'
The campsite had been under 2-4 feet of snow when it was first discovered by authorities. It wasn’t until subsequent searches after the snow melt later in April and May 2019 that Grider’s remains were uncovered — just 12 bones, including vertebrae, a possible femur and a possible forearm, according to the sheriff’s office report.
There was blood spatter on the walls of the tarp, the report said. Ten bones were found, along with a shredded jacket and other torn bits of clothing at the campsite. Two more bones were later discovered farther off-site by cadaver dogs.
“They didn’t find his skull,” Rebecca said. “They took teams of 20 and 30 people out and did the one-by-one grid walk; they went up with cadaver dogs to try to find more. They still didn’t.”
The Midwest Medical Examiner’s Office in Anoka County has yet to file a cause of death in the Grider case. It says one should be coming soon.
Foul play was ruled out for having no evidence to support it. Suicide was ruled out during the investigation, too, because the gun hadn’t been used and Grider's cellphone located at the scene didn’t include anything resembling depression or cries for help.
“There was a text message that was a group message to his family, stating how much grain and beans he had bought and that he was prepared for a long winter,” the sheriff’s office report said.
Grider had also just been visiting his parents and five brothers in New Mexico through his birthday at the end of September 2018, finishing up several months at home. They knew what he was planning to do, and learned long ago not to try to stop him. From a young age, his attitude was "my show, my parade, my circus," his mother said.
“When he was 11 or 12 he made his own ghillie suit and he was hard to find when they would play guns,” Rebecca said, describing the sniper-use outfits that cover a person in three-dimensional camouflage. “He liked to get the upper hand that way.”
An attack by wolves on Grider would have been "infinitesimally rare," Thomas Gable said. He can think of two in 20 years, including one in which a starving wolf with a deformed jaw attacked a boy.
Gable is a University of Minnesota researcher who has been intensively studying wolves since 2015 as project lead on the Voyageurs Wolf Project.
He focuses on predator-prey dynamics, and in that regard says wolves tend to avoid humans. It’s why there are no recorded non-captive wolf killings of humans in Minnesota dating to the 1800s.
“They have a built-in, innate fear of humans, probably through a long relationship with people and learning that people mean trouble and bad news,” he said. “They avoid people and human settlements.”
That said, he doesn’t see a pack of wolves having an issue eviscerating a human in a hammock. But having read the report into Grider’s death, the evidence of Grider’s case doesn’t compel Gable to think the unspeakable happened, either. There were no rips or tears in the hammock or tarp.
The sheer number of other campers across northern Minnesota’s wolf country who aren’t attacked by wolves is a consideration, too, Gable said.
A wolf’s table manners are another. For as bloody as it was, Gable would have expected a wolf kill to feature greater signs of struggle and the resulting mess to have been even more pronounced.
“They’re not neat predators,” Gable said. “If they make a kill, the scene where the blood and remains are is a huge scene of disturbance. The blood smears across a large area.”
Gable agreed it was more likely wolves devoured Grider’s already dead body.
“That is totally possible,” Gable said. “Wolves and any other animal, they’re going to do what they need to do to survive. They don’t make a huge differentiation between dead, rotting bodies — whether it’s a person or a bear. We see wolves scavenging all sorts of dead animals.”
Jordan Grider fell in as the third among six boys to a seemingly close-knit western family. Rebecca Grider, when called for this story earlier this summer, was on retreat in the resort town of Angel Fire, New Mexico.
“I plan to write about Jordan,” she said.
Jordan struggled with reading and education due to dyslexia and was home-schooled from the start, she said.
But he enjoyed his own way with the world. Where his brothers followed their parents into small business and other conventional lifestyles, Grider went the other way, living mostly off the grid by the end of his life.
He picked up musical instruments easily and regretted not taking his musicianship to more professional levels, his mother said.
There was a guitar among the things found at his campsite in the Boundary Waters.
He’d camp in the woods surrounding the places he'd go, such as London, Kentucky, but always kept a job and liked to be clean and shaven, his mother said.
One time he worked building furniture with Mennonites for over a year in exchange for an acre of privacy. At different turns, he also worked in a salsa processing plant, a Walmart, and at a whiskey barrel manufacturer.
“Jordan has this incredibly unusual way of meeting up with people — we called them his ‘divine appointments,’” Rebecca said.
When he fell in love with a woman for a number of years in Kentucky, shared accounts say he became a father figure for the woman’s three young children. They looked forward to his homemade birthday cakes, and he taught the kids how to use both a sickle and a lasso.
He could grow grains and make his own bread, or a peppermint patch to harvest for tea.
He used up little space with modern thinking. He often wondered why people were so mean to each other.
“It was challenging, his independence, I wish I had embraced it a lot more as a mom,” Rebecca said. “Interestingly with him, he was super-cautious and he would be super-daring, too — but only if he had mastered what he was going to be daring with.”
Despite stores of food and supplies back at his truck, the authorities found Grider’s situation to be too daring and lacking in ways — ill-prepared for the rigors of a Minnesota winter. Despite his own talk back home of mastering rocket stoves, one was not located at his campsite.
“What really stood out to me, sort of looking around at it, was how insufficient that would have been for a Minnesota winter,” Williams, the conservation officer, said. "I understand his intent was he wanted to be challenged, but it kind of shows that can turn on you."
A fatal cut?
The idea of what might have happened to Grider had his middling frame not been caught in the maw of a king wolf one October 2018 night is possibly darker and more desperate than that grim scenario.
It likely meant that a well-versed outdoorsman, someone who knew the risks and only dared after he mastered them, made a catastrophic nick or slip of a blade. It also meant he died alone with his fatal mistake, having called no one for help.
“Honestly, I’m sure we’ll never know exactly what happened,” Williams said. “I sort of lean toward he had some sort of accident and cut himself or stabbed himself, something like that.”
Rebecca and family members flew in to visit the campsite in May 2019.
“It was tough,” Jordan's mother said. “It was a lot harder than I thought it was going to be. It looked like he had burned one fire and made one meal there. There was no wood that had been whittled.”
Because of that, she’s firm on her son having spent a single night at his final camping site. He loved to whittle. Minus any sign of wood shavings, she couldn't see it as a place he’d already made himself comfortable, Rebecca explained.
"I'm pretty convinced they got him in his sleep that first night," Rebecca said. "The police don't think it was an animal attack, because there's no destruction to property other than clothing."
In the police report about his death, Rebecca revealed something to authorities she no longer subscribes to after having visited the site and processed some of her grief.
“Rebecca told me that Jordan keeps his knives very sharp,” the sheriff's office report said. “She believes this could be a possible explanation that he may have accidentally severed an artery while shaving.”
Williams elaborated on those suspicions.
"We found some things that looked like they could have potentially been used as bandages outside the front of the tent," the conservation officer said. "But we couldn't tell for sure."
All plausible, Rebecca believes, but she says there were no blades found with blood.
"They were all in their sheaths," Jordan's mother said.