To the Love of Wild Places

 Search and Rescue

 Guest post by Trevor Johnson 

Trevor and owner of Alpen Fuel, Shaun Durkee, grew up a block apart in Helena, Montana.  Trevor and his father Kit Johnson own Kit's Tackle, a fishing tackle manufacturing and guiding operation.  Trevor is an incredible fisherman, avid hunter, and family man.  The article originally appeared on the Kit's Tackle website.  The event depicted in the article occurred in 2009.

 

I have always been an extremist in most all things I encounter with life, whether its education or a walk in the woods. It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon when I started my eight mile trek into the Scapegoat Wilderness in search of the grey ghost some refer to as Wapiti. For any that know me, my heart holds a rare and special place for the mountains and the animals that dwell there. The great elk in particular, nothing gets my heart pounding like being in the realm of the illusive ghost of the forest. About three o'clock I made it to the entrance of the wilderness, for this is no trek for the faint of mind or body. One thing noteworthy of the trek into the wilderness area was the sighting of a very odd and unique pine squirrel. As I was traveling up a trail I startled him at a short distance and he ran right down the tree at me and started his chatter. Thinking nothing of it until I met eyes with the little creature; to my surprise it was hairless. The squirrel looked like a shaved cat with a deformed face that was the ugliest thing I had ever seen. Even being in the middle of the afternoon it stood in my mind to turn around and count my blessings. I decided to erase what I had just seen from my mind and trudge on through the forest. After reaching the legal boundary, I decided to slowly meander my way down a ridge to listen for that haunted enchantment of the bull elk’s bugle echoing through the forest. Elk usually don't start getting hot (bugling) in the afternoons until about five o'clock, so I knew I should refrain from bugling for a while. I decided to climb high up to a rock perch that overlooked the drainage and wait in patience. As the forest was silent and peaceful, it felt almost like a sanctuary where I soon found myself drifting from existence.

As my eyes slowly opened, I was overlooking a canvas of yellows, oranges, browns, and reds that could have been swooshed only by the bristles of God's paint brush. After taking in the beauty and figuring out where I was, I realized I had been asleep for an hour and a half. It was just after five o'clock and I knew it was almost showtime. I had a magical feeling lingering in my veins that elk were present. The last half dozen trips into the wilderness produced nothing but noisy squirrel chatter, the wing beat of the blue grouse and some really sore muscles. This time was different; I could feel that I was not alone in this land of the wicked. I could feel the energy of company in my dwelling. Waiting as long as my emotions could take it, I had to bugle to see if I could get an answer from the woods. Approaching five thirty, I took a deep breath filling my lungs with foolish testosterone and let out a roar of a bugle that could be heard for miles. As the goose bumps exploded like landmines from my arms, I was immediately challenged to a dual by a deep lunged bull less than 500 yards away. As my heart went from a hundred beats a minute to a thousand, I knew I had to get myself off the steep shale ridge and slowly move in on the bull. I made it off the hill quietly and bugling at the beast every couple minutes. I couldn't even finish my bugle before he would interrupt me with raging screams of anger. Usually in a situation like this, things either happen or they don't. And if it happens, it happens fast.

This was a different scenario that required applying the bag of lifelong forest tricks evolved from experience and my father. As I crept through the forest like a native from the days of old, we continued our bugling match not being more than 100 yards from each other for over an hour. The forest was so thick we could not meet each other’s physical appearance, just in spirit and emotion. This moment was so intense, each of us moving so delicately across the forest not to make a mistake to alarm the other component. I imagined what this beast looked like slinking through the forest with such illusive character I almost started playing tricks on my own mind. As dark was soon around the corner, I knew it had to happen fast for I had a tremendous hike ahead of me which is never fun in the dark. Especially with the vast growing number of grizzlies and their increasing attitudes towards man in this age. I had a small creek to my favor which I crept down a like a snail not missing a single twig in my sight path. I felt I was getting close and slowly put the bugle to my mouth and let out a final scream. He immediately answered back and he sounded like he was on top of me, almost as if I could feel his breath. Then it happened, as fast as it always does with rutting bulls. This was an intelligent bull and he decided to circle me due to confusion as to why he could see no other elk. I caught him out of the corner of my eye circling up to the left sneaking through the underbrush. I took the slowest three steps of my life up the creek to have an opening at the great beast. There he stood with his big magnificent beautiful black mane with pine covered antlers dark as night. I was eye to eye with what I long for in this world, not the squeezing of the trigger, but the unexplained feeling of being face to face with such an elusive and majestic creature. I had challenged this creature and I had won, I had come into his realm and outsmarted the king of the forest. I had created a story of aesthetic beauty that will be kept close in my mind for all days to come.

By the time I had cleaned and said a prayer for the great animal that I had killed it was lingering on the dark of night. I had a long trek ahead of me that any other evening would be unthinkable, but this night with blood covered hands, I was OK. I must say it gets harder for me every year to take the life of such a magnificent animal, but it is in my blood and it is who I am. It is part of me and a reason that I live and breathe on this earth...it is not only a passion, it is what fuels my very soul. Making the long trek back out of the wilderness brought many thoughts through my mind. I was so excited, yet full of emotion thinking about the animal's life that I had taken. I thought about all the memories of my father and I in the forest together. As I stumbled over logs in the dark I was not thinking about grizzlies being present, I was thinking about how beautiful life really is. I played a full feature film in my mind of the first elk my father and I had killed together. I could feel the way his hand felt rubbing me on the head applauding me for doing such a good job. The way his face looked when I lifted my hat back off my eyes. I can still feel that feeling that was traveling through both our bodies at that very moment. How proud he was to have me as a son, and how proud I was to have him as my father. We were a team, a very good team as it turned out to be. The rest of the journey to the truck was short clips of all our adventures together throughout the years. For I owe everything to my father for teaching me not only the way of the wood, but for holding on so tight in everything I did throughout my life thus far.

Finally reaching salvation, or as some refer to it, a Chevy truck it was after nine o'clock. I flew down the dirt road sliding the back tires a little to close on the corners to make the call to my father and let him know the news. When I finally gained a bar of service I hit the brakes and dialed the ever so familiar number. After sharing the story and excitement at hand, my father and I composed a plan to remove the animal from the forest. Since it was late, I decided to stay in Lincoln for the night and meet my father in the morning. Being a bit of a mountain man, I would normally camp, but I hadn't showered in days and was covered in blood and a little chilled. I retreated to a small local motel that has proved very cozy over the years for the evening. After a hot shower, I found great deliverance in a few Miller High Life bottles and my favorite, a bag of chocolate stars. I said another prayer and was soon fast asleep, not batting an eye till 6:30 am when the old-fashion alarm clock started crowing. Playing everything back through my mind, I stretched my body out and rousted myself from the bed with a smile on my face. I was still excited, but starting to dread the grueling two day pack trip it would require to remove my elk from the woods. I thought to myself, a small price to pay for such a magical experience and the delicious fare it will grant me for the next year. My father soon arrived and we began getting the supplies ready for the assault into the mountain. After everything was put in place, we looked at each other and smiled. Not a word was spoken, but we both said the same thing...here we go again.

We slowly crept along what some would call a trail to the long ascent into the Scapegoat Wilderness.  We had way too much ahead of us to be in a hurry, we have learned this so many times before. Finally reaching the elk, we took an album of pictures and began butchering the animal. Having the savviest of skills when it comes to boning out an elk, we had the elk boned and placed in game bags in a little over an hour. Our goal was to get all the meat and horns to the wilderness entrance and then make rounds every mile or so. The first mile to the top of the wilderness entry went quite painlessly with no major problems or concerns, just enough to give a sting of what this operation was going to entail. We placed all the meat under a pine tree in the shade and took a short but hard break to regain strength in body and mind. Having a silhouetted background of the Scapegoat Wilderness, we snapped a few more pictures of the great bull. We finished the water I had pumped from the creek, and would drink again in about a mile when we met the next creek. Or so I thought that would be the plan. We smiled at each other and started off the steep face of the mountain. The smile meant we are the only two people in the world crazy enough to put ourselves in this situation. Eight miles from anything with elk strapped to our backs, a feat some horses couldn't comply with due to the terrain involved. The ground structure was mostly loose shale with fist size rocks and obstacles lingering everywhere.

As we started down the face of the mountain, everything was going perfect. We were both in great moods which is sometimes rare when undergoing such exhausting labor. We were telling stories and laughing like school boys lost in adventure. The pikas were everywhere talking so freely among each other in there little colony. For those who are not familiar with the pika, it is a small hamster-like rock rabbit that lives only in extremely high elevations. They have a high pitch voice and make a very loud "EEEEEHHH". I found myself enjoying conversation with the little rodents; we were talking back and forth as we ventured down the mountain. With not a care in the world, the most tragic accident I would ever endure to this point in life was waiting only a few foot placements away. Letting out one last "EEEEEHHH" with a huge smile on my face, my foot was placed wrong. My leg buckled under my body as I went down and all my weight was bearing on my leg. The worst part was that it was like nothing happened and I had just fallen, then "BOOM". It sounded like a rifle going off in my body and I felt the bones in my leg explode. My father came running down the trail not knowing anything was wrong and went to help me up. As he began to move my body, I started screaming in horrid pain that I had never before felt in this life. My exact words were "Dad, you don't even know, my leg completely just broke in half. I'm never going walk again". These words were not out of negativity, they were out of sheer terror and the shock that was instantly filling my veins. Once my father finally got me lifted, my leg was facing one way and my boot was facing 180 degrees in the other direction. He tried to move my leg and the boot just fell dead from the leg with only muscle and tendon attaching my booted foot. All I could do was scream in pain. I am a tough young man but this was absolutely unbearable by any standard. Our faces met and it was of total surprise and horror for neither of us knew what was going to happen from here. We were both savvy in the world of the mountain, but this was not your ordinary pack trip out of the woods.

My father had to straighten the leg which was one of the toughest things either of us had probably ever gone through. While the leg was straightened, my hands grasped tightly around anything they could find in their reach leaving abrasions I will never forget. We had a cell phone and no service, leaving my father with only one choice. He removed any extra cloths to help keep me warm and wrapped my legs in canvas game bags to help offset hypothermia. He had to leave his son on the face of a mountain and make the journey out of the backcountry to get help. Sitting in complete disbelief, I watched my father start running down the steep trail off the mountain. He stopped at about a hundred yards and yelled, "Trevor, I love you" as tears instantly shot from my eyes.  All I could do was try and choke back the words "I love you too, dad". I knew when my father said this there was a chance I would never see him again. He took off, hurdling trees like a gold metal Olympian. This was a situation that I had never been placed in and had no experience in dealing with the emotions. I continued to try making phone calls with no luck. On what felt like my millionth attempt at the impossible the face of the cell phone read, "Entering emergency mode". The next dial to 911 a voice immediately answered, "Hello, is this an emergency?" I thought I must be dreaming, but I was really connected to a living 911 operator. I told them the situation and did my best to describe my location but I lost service before giving coordinates. Luckily, after a long and intense jaunt out of the wilderness, my father was able to deliver approximate GPS coordinates to search and rescue to help simplify the process. 911 emergency contacted the Lewis and Clark Search and Rescue (LCSR) department, reporting the rescue would require an air ambulance. They said they would have a bird in the air within an hour. After two hours had gone by and only faint hallucinations of helicopter beats, I soon found that same recollection of memories from the night prior would keep me from complete shock.

I sat on the face of the mountain alone with the world functioning perfectly around me. As I would look around, the birds, squirrels and pikas were going about their business like nothing had ever happened. I vividly remember a friendly nuthatch landing within twenty feet of my position and hopping around the tree singing at me. It is funny how being placed in a situation like this, you absorb total contentment in the smallest things. I remember smiling and thinking...this is really weird man. I will tell you in all my honesty (from a man that fears little of anything) that sitting alone on the face of a mountain at almost 9k foot elevation staring at your bones pushing through your leg, possibly bleeding to death internally, trying to avoid complete shock, fighting the onsets of hypothermia, getting dark in a populated grizzly area, second guessing if help is really even coming and wondering if you will ever walk again or even worse live to tell this very story changes one’s life in great magnitude. In fact, the exact moment my life changed is when I finally heard the pulsating “whop, whop, whop” of the helicopter raising over the mountain to my rescue. Over the hours I heard distant planes or hallucinations of helicopters coming to my rescue, but the real thing was unmistakable. I remember being able to feel the pulsating “whops” off my chest as tears bellowed from my eyes while the chopper circled above me. After spotting me on the third pass, they starting in on an attempt to land. They had a very small and limited LZ (landing zone) to work with but slowly and delicately made it happen. The pilot familiarized himself with the wind currents and was able to set the helicopter down. They actually had to land right in an elk wallow. I thought this was great, you wonder what the elk think when a rescue chopper sets down in their favorite wallow. They probably think, “well, another idiot hunter just bit the big one”. They really do have to wonder what is going on.

It took the search and rescue about half an hour to traverse through the terrain to where I was located. The first person to reach me was a very sweet lady that wrapped her arms around me to calm my emotions. I would never compare this to a mother’s hug of love but this warmth brought much relief. The next was a gentle MD that gave me the bad news. He said “Trevor, no man would ever want to hear this, but we have no one that is certified to administer drugs on the flight. You are going to have to come off this mountain cold turkey tough guy”. After all I had been through I clinched my teeth harder on my rifle sling and nodded that it was alright. He touched my boot in hopes of removing it and I immediately screamed in pain. They dug a pair of shears from their bag and cut the boot off my foot. After the boot was removed, they built a temporary splint and formed it around my leg. The pain was immense while they were working on my leg and I think I chewed right through my leather rifle string. They finally finished the temporary procedures and loaded me onto the litter for the descent down to the LZ.

As we were about to begin moving the pilot radioed and it was found out that he was not certified to fly in the dark and he had to leave immediately to avoid conduct. Another chopper was ordered in from Benifis Hospital in Great Falls but it was of concern they wouldn’t be able to land on such a dark evening with such a dangerous LZ. Keeping our prayers high, we started off the steep face of the mountain. I have to say that these people did the most amazing job possible to save my life; I tip my hat to the entire crew. Due to the terrain, I was dropped a couple times which would jar the broken bones together; I’m surprised people couldn’t hear my screams from their very homes. Never in my wildest nightmares did I see myself coming off this mountain in this fashion. I must say the stars shone brighter than I have ever seen on that night. The chopper arrived as we were about half way to the LZ and they started the landing procedure. After three attempts, they decided it was too dark and life threatening to put the helicopter down. Watching the chopper fly off, everyone became silent and you could feel a helpless aura cast over our presence. I could hear them whispering to each other and I knew that I was in trouble. After about two or three minutes of silence, a hand was placed on my shoulder and he said “this is going be a long night Trev, it is time to pray little one.” They then radioed to the team at the LZ and told them to start a huge fire because we were staying all night. I could sense that nobody was sure of what was going to happen. One of the men said, “Boy, I could use a beer right now”.  I replied, “A beer? Shoot, I could go for a bottle of wild turkey.” As they laughed and told me I was a strong little devil with a heart of stone , I could tell it brought some relief to the table.

Not giving up, the sheriff was determined to get me off this mountain and called all resources available. He ordered a helicopter through St. Patrick's Hospital of Missoula with a pilot quite decorated from my understanding of their conversation. They all told me to say my prayers that the bird would be able to land. The hero pilot and his helicopter arrived about the same time we were approaching the LZ and they made two circles and started the landing procedure. I will never forget the new pilot’s voice of confidence crackling through the radio. "How tall is the grass and what is the grade of the LZ?” Search and rescue responded with,” the grass is about 14 inches and less than a 5% grade.” The pilot responded, “Not a problem then, this bird is coming down, clear the LZ.” It was an incredible show, the entire canyon was glowing from the birds lights. Within five minutes the chopper was on the ground and I was about to be life flighted to St Patrick's in Missoula. I remember everyone cheering and celebrating that the pilot was able to land.

The first thing I remember was the door opening and nurses coming at me with hypodermic needles ready to send me into dreamland. I was given a near lethal dose of morphine and the pain was gone. Being in an altered state from the morphine, I still remember all the wonderful faces looking over me and wishing me luck. They all told me how strong I was for holding on and coming off that mountain with such courageous spirits. Just before I was loaded into the chopper a gal said my father was with the sheriff and had something to say to me. They held the radio to my ear and my dad said, “Everything is going to be OK Trev, you are with the most magical people in the world right now.” Boy was he ever right; Stoned from shock and morphine I was still able to thank and give a farewell to all my rescuers by their first name as I was placed in the chopper. As we began to lift, it was a slow process. The wind currents were tricky and we were in a big basin surrounded by cliffs. It was really amazing how it took place. We would lift fifty feet or so and then steady the bird, then repeat the sequence until we were high enough to crown the ridges. About half way to Missoula I tried to sit up to look around and the MD said, “Are you getting sick?” and I said, “no, I am just looking around.” He said I must have a high drug tolerance for most people would be out stone cold from the amount of morphine I was given. He asked if I needed another injection and I said “does a bear poop in the woods?” Laughing hysterically, he attached a needle to the IV in my arm and I was soon in la, la land. Being on heavy narcotics on a helicopter fight was quite a strange experience. The pilots and MDs were wearing these crazy telescopic night vision binoculars. I felt like I had been abducted by aliens; aliens that risked their lives to save mine.

It has now been a long couple months since the date of my accident and I am staying in high spirits. I can’t thank the magical individuals that saved my life on such a terrifying night with all the elk meat in the world. What I endured was not only a traumatizing event, but an epic adventure of survival in the fullest. Today is my twenty seventh birthday and contrary to what many believed would come from this accident I have been blessed with a positive message. When one goes through such a life changing accident it can alter the way they perform in the outdoors mentally and physically. I am too young to give up on or retreat from what I live for in this world. I am all for “the love of wild places” and will never stop exhausting my body to become one with them. In the end, rather taking this as a learning experience to settle one down, I consider my unfortunate mishap as a bump in the road. I am proved strong and not even a titanium tibia will slow me down on my mountain.

Trevor Johnson

Trevor Johnson

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2 comments

  • That is an amazing story! Thank you for sharing Trevor.

    Chad Ryker
  • Super fascinating!

    Edson Barlow

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