BOISE, Idaho — When the call came in about an injured hunter in the backcountry, McCall Fire Department already was shorthanded. Not to mention, it was homecoming weekend, meaning the town was busier than usual, and a storm that dropped record snow in Montana was also making its way through the Idaho mountains.
“The winter storm had grounded helicopters everywhere from Boise to Kalispell (Montana),” said McCall Fire Capt. Freddie Van Middendorp, who was shift officer the evening of Saturday, Sept. 28, when the department first received word about the hunter.
“Riggins had no responders, and (the hunter) wasn’t sure he’d make it through the night,” Van Middendorp said in a phone interview. “As sickening as it was, we didn’t have the staffing to go, either.” The firemen were told the hunter, Jeff Harrison, of Mount Pleasant, Mich., had been bucked off of a mule as he and a group of outfitters packed out a five-point bull elk that Harrison had shot. The Hells Canyon Outfitters guides had crafted a shelter and built a fire to keep Harrison warm, but reported he was having trouble breathing.
“It was a terrible feeling to know there’s a 62-year-old man out there with critical injuries calling his family, telling them he’s not sure he’ll make it through the night, Van Middendorp said. “We laid here awake … our minds racing, trying to figure out a way to (help him).” Van Middendorp and fellow McCall firefighter and EMT Tyler Paul had the following day off. Paul, who is from Riggins, called his mother and started soliciting help from locals in the hopes of reaching Harrison and the hunting party on Sunday.
Paul’s plan worked. When he and Van Middendorp reached the trailhead about 90 minutes from McCall, they were met by Darwin Vander Esch, who had a string of livestock with him. Vander Esch is the father of former Boise State Bronco Leighton Vander Esch, who is now with the Dallas Cowboys of the NFL.
Also at the trailhead were doctor Danny Griffis, of Grangeville, and his teenage son, Wyatt, along with a deputy from the Idaho County Sheriff’s Office. Van Middendorp was relieved by the backup.
“Tyler and I thought we were going in alone,” he said. “We didn’t know if we were doing a body extraction or a rescue.” The men mounted mules and horses and headed up the trail.
“That trail is enormously steep with snow and exposure to dropoffs,” Van Middendorp said.
The path was muddy at lower elevations but quickly turned snowy and icy as they made their way 5 miles to where the hunters had sheltered overnight. When they arrived, Van Middendorp said Harrison was alert, oriented and in better condition than rescuers had feared he would be.
Along with Paul and Griffis, Van Middendorp began assessing Harrison’s injuries, taking care to avoid exposing him to the cold. They determined Harrison had suffered rib injuries and possible collapsed lungs when his mule bolted to catch up with the rest of the herd, knocking Harrison to the ground on top of a stump. They would have to stabilize him to get him out, but the snowy conditions meant they would have to get creative.
“The trail was too steep and slippery, so carrying him manually side-by-side was not an option,” Van Middendorp said. Requests for an air ambulance still hadn’t been answered, but the rescuers had been joined by Grangeville Mountain Rescue and together they started to work out a plan.
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Van Middendorp said ideally he would’ve used a Kendrick Extrication Device to move someone with Harrison’s injuries. The chest brace uses a plate and firm bars to secure the head, neck and torso and prevent further injury.
To Van Middendorp, the frames of some of the rescuers’ backpacks seemed the closest fit. He used the external frame from his own hunting pack, as well as an internal support board from Griffis’ backpack to fashion a makeshift brace. They affixed the brace to Harrison using a cinch from one of Vander Esch’s mules before hoisting him onto another mule, named Brandy.
“That was exciting, to know we had him packaged and stable,” Van Middendorp said. “We knew we had to get him off the hill quick. It was immediately apparent that he couldn’t hold himself upright going downhill.” So the rescuers used boat ropes to create a net, propping Harrison up as two men walked behind Brandy holding the ends of the ropes.
It took about three hours to walk Harrison down the mountain. Van Middendorp administered pain and anti-anxiety medications every half hour.
“We knew he was going to make it when he and Darwin (Vander Esch) started trading hunting stories,” Van Middendorp said.
A lifelong hunter and outdoorsman, Harrison told Van Middendorp that “this isn’t even the first time he didn’t think he’d make it out alive.” Harrison and Vander Esch talked about hunting bear and mountain lions — Harrison had gone on another Idaho trip to hunt both earlier in the year — and Vander Esch joked that he had to be home in time for the 6 p.m. kickoff to see his son Leighton play for the Cowboys.
When the party arrived at the trailhead, Harrison was transferred to a Riggins ambulance and taken to St. Luke’s McCall. From there, he was relocated to Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center in Boise.
According to Van Middendorp, Harrison was diagnosed with nine broken ribs, two compression fractures in his spine and a hemopneumothorax — both blood and air in his chest cavity. By Oct. 7, he was still at an Idaho trauma center but was expected to make a full recovery.
For Van Middendorp, it was a chance to collaborate with other first responders, as well as a reminder of the dangers inherent in the backcountry.
“Accidents happen, and when you’re that remote it’s dangerous,” he said. “Over the years, we’ve gone into Salmon River country very often. I’ve camped out on trails with people with broken legs. But it’s the first time I’ve ever responded on horseback and the first time we’ve used a mule as an ambulance.”