This true tale of survival is dedicated to Mr. Reid Peterson of Grantsville Utah, who without his example my survival in this situation may not have been possible. His willingness to mentor (if you will) a troubled young man, has shaped my life and given me a profound appreciation and respect for wildlife and the outdoors. My life would surely have turned out differently without his example to follow.
Take yourself back in time to 1976 if you can.
It was a crisp late September morning and I thought to myself as I started my car to go to work, that the air had a certain smell and feel to it. It was hunting season, the time of year I anxiously waited for.
This year was different. I was seventeen years old, preparing to make my first solo- hunting trip. For many years uncle Reid and I had spent many a weekend either fishing, hunting, or exploring the scenic mountains and valleys above Ephriam and Manti Utah. From Fish Lake to the town of Thistle and most points in-between. Skyline Drive was almost always our central launch point where our excursions would begin.
One of my favorite spots was Blue Lake, located a few miles off Lake Mountain from Skyline Drive beyond Snow Lake, Loggers Lake and the Manti Watershed. Uncle Reid had shared this spot with me years earlier, a place he considered to be one of the most beautiful in all of Utah. It was not uncommon to spend a week there and not see or hear another sole.
Blue Lake is a small lake fed by winter runoff and difficult enough to get to that it was not a place where the faint of heart or usual tourist would venture. The road was rough in dry weather and nearly impassable when wet.
I could smell the trees and dirt of Lake Mountain in the crisp morning air as I made my way to work. I couldn’t wait to get the workday over with. I was packed and ready to go. My friend Kelly would be waiting for me to arrive at his home later that afternoon so we could begin our hunting trip.
As two young men go, we felt confident in our ability and planning. We knew that we had limited finances and we would not be camping in our usual style, which consisted of camp trailers and a group of family members. We were ready and anxious to take this hunt on our own. It was our quest.
Finally the moment had arrived. I punched out and the workday was over. With much anticipation I made my way to my friends house.
We had agreed earlier to take Kelly’s truck on our trip, although older, it was a truck and would serve us much better than my car would have done.
When I arrived, both Kelly and I took mental inventory of our supplies as we loaded the truck. Sleeping bags, a bail of straw to sleep on, food and a tarp to throw over us at night, water, clothing, hunting licenses, guns, ammo, matches, axe, first aid kit and so on. We tucked in the last of our supplies and hit the road.
It was Friday afternoon and on Monday we would return home with our deer and tales to be told around future campfires. Little did we know it would become a tale of survival?
The truck was 1956 Chevrolet. It used a little oil but she was sound and would get us to our hunting camp.
It was a sunny day, the light high clouds held promise to a weekend of favorable weather for our hunt. We did not bother to look at the forecast in our excitement to leave town. Even if we had it probably would not have slowed us down one bit.
Leaving the pavement we headed up the dusty and winding Ephriam canyon road to Skyline Drive. Traveling on to Lake Mountain we took the turn at Snow Lake, starting our decent to Blue Lake, which was to be our hunting area for the weekend. The deer are always abundant in this area. The hunting should be relatively easy and I knew the area very well.
We decided to set up camp in a known camping spot about a quarter mile from the lake where the road was becoming rougher. Our old Chevy was a two-wheel drive and this spot was as good as any in the area.
Crossing the creek we turned up on to a flat under some pine trees. This was a spot where the sheepherder would camp for most of the summer. His horse corral was still intact, consisting of small logs wired with bailing wire to triangular tree formation.
Ah, home sweet home! We made it just as the sun was starting to make its way to the western mountain range. Unloading the truck, I again took inventory of our supplies.
Carefully we spread the bail of straw in the bed of the truck making a place to sleep. We gathered some firewood for a campfire. Finally we were really here. Breaking out couple of cans of soup to eat, this is where things seemed to turn unfavorable. We had forgotten to pack the silverware, pans and can opener. Silly us!
Opening the cans with our hunting knifes we heated up our meal on some coals from the fire. I was not about to let a little thing like no cookware ruin our trip. “We got this covered” I thought to myself.
After our meal we nestled up to a roaring campfire. Not long after a north wind began to moan as the sky darkened and the moon disappeared behind what was surely storm clouds. We discussed the possibility of snow and welcomed the thought. Fresh snow would make for a better hunt. Or so we thought!
Turning in for the night, I pulled the tarp up over my head, hoping for an early start in the morning. The pine trees overhead would help keep us dry and I went to sleep listing to the whistle of the wind.
It was about 4:30AM when I woke to the pressure of the weight of the tarp. Pushing the tarp back I could see that it was laden with fresh snow. To my surprise, it was a lot more snow than I could have imagined, and it was coming down heavy. The flakes were large and the wind was swirling them around like falling leaves dancing in the autumn breeze. I pulled the tarp back over my head and tried to get some more sleep.
By 6:00AM Kelly and I were both up contemplating the situation we were now in. The snow was deep. Outside the cover of the pines it was chest deep and still falling. We knew that there was no possible way to drive out of the canyon. With the snow piling up, walking out was not a viable option. We would have to make the best of it right where we were.
Hunting was now the last thing on our minds. Our current situation now made this a trip of survival. So much snow in such a short time was unusual. Neither of us had ever seen such a thing. The previous night we had only anticipated a couple of inches, which was common for this time of year.
Gathering firewood we prepared as best we could for a long stay. We cut pine bows and gathered the poles and bailing wire from the horse corral to make a shelter or camper on the truck bed. Staying warm and dry was first priority. Water was all around us so the next priority was food and a supply of green branches to throw on the fire to smoke things up if we were to see a plane or vehicle and signal for help.
As the day wore on we knew that we were truly stranded. Although family members knew where we were, they would not expect us back until Sunday night or Monday. It was not uncommon to add an extra day to our hunting and fishing trips.
Even if we were late returning, how would anyone get to us? The snow was simply too deep for anything other than a helicopter to get to us.
We would have to wait for the snow to melt to drive out or make a plan to walk out. The nearest town was at least 40 miles away in chest deep snow. We decided that walking out would be our last option if we couldn’t drive out on our own.
Keeping ourselves busy shoring up our shelter, gathering firewood and feeding the fire for warmth, I recalled that a short distance away was a meadow that uncle Reid had showed me on one of our fishing trips. I knew that wild onions grew in this meadow. Rabbits, squirrels and pine hens were also known to live near by and feed in this meadow.
Kelly and I agreed that tomorrow we would make our way to the meadow and forage for food. We had some canned goods, but we may now need more food than what we had brought with us.
That afternoon the clouds thinned out and the snow stopped falling. It was a good sign and provided hope of getting off the mountain on our own. After a hot meal we settled into our shelter for the night. We took turns feeding the fire. It was warm and comfortable all things considered.
Sunday morning I again woke to falling snow. Not as heavy as before, but still more snow. We gathered more firewood and dressed to make our way to the meadow and made our way through the deep snow. Returning with a pine hen, some wild onions, and a squirrel, this was a welcome change from the canned soup.
Again the snow tapered off in the afternoon and the sun broke through the clouds warming the canyon before nightfall. As the sun was setting we could feel the temperature start to noticeably fall. It was going to be a cold night without the protective cloud cover.
With a full stomach and a good fire we made it through another night. Our conversation was about what our families may be wondering since we had not returned as planned.
Were they becoming worried, or were they chalking it up to our usual adding an extra night to our trip? Was someone trying to reach us? If so what road would they use? Would they come from the Manti-Ephriam side of the mountain or the possibly more passable route from the Ferron side of Lake Mountain? We discussed many different scenarios.
The next afternoon we could hear a helicopter in the distance, although we could not see it, I knew that it was unusual for helicopters to be in the area. Stoking the fire with green pine bows to make smoke, we waited and listened, hoping to be seen.
As the whap-wahp of the chopper grew louder we could see that it was a military helicopter. It appeared as though they were waving to us as the helicopter passed to our right into the next canyon. Did they see us? Were they looking for us? Would they be back to get us? The sound faded in to the canyons and died out altogether in the crisp air of the afternoon.
Thinking to myself I concluded that at least someone knows where we are now. I found out later that they were dropping hay to stranded cattle. They probably did not see us at all, or if they did, somehow it didn’t seem unusual that we there with a smoking campfire.
Another night went by. It was Tuesday and surely by now people would be worried about us. We were discussing possible routes to begin our walk out and what supplies we should take for the trip. Clearly we would not be driving out until spring, or so it seemed.
We decided that Thursday we would walk out the same way we come in. That would be the most likely route any family would take to find us. And by Thursday I’m sure walking out would make more sense than staying put.
Wednesday we made another trip to the meadow for food. We cooked up a rabbit and two squirrels and stored them in an unused trash bag for the trip out, along with a can of soup we still had and a partial bag of potato chips.
It was difficult to sleep with any comfort that night. I think we were both worried about the walk off the mountain. The snow had melted, but not to the point we could drive out. We even considered using rope, tied through the rim as tire chains for the truck, but it was a two-wheel drive and it would have probably been a waste of time and energy.
Thursday morning as the sun was beginning to light up the eastern horizon I could hear the sound of a motor, way off in the distance. I jumped out of my sleeping bag and begin piling more wood and pine bows on the fire.
As we were getting dressed and packed for the walk out, the sound of the motor was drawing nearer. Someone was coming our direction. The vehicle was on the road into the canyon we were in.
We began to make our way up the road. The snow was only about 3’ deep now and traveling was easier than it would have been Sunday or Monday.
Traveling about half a mile, as we walked we could hear the sound of a vehicle headed towards us. This urged us to move a little faster not wanting to miss our opportunity to get off the mountain. The truck and belongings that we left behind were simply not important anymore. I just wanted to go home!
We rounded the corner on the last dugway to the road out of the canyon. I could see it now. A white and orange Dodge, it was uncle Reid. He was making his way to us digging and clearing the road as he worked his way through the snow and mud. With tire chains on all fours, mud flying into the air, I will never forget the moan of the motor as his truck bounced over the terrain. What a welcome site and sound.
The hunting and fishing trips prior, the things that I learned, kept me rational and alive. The lessons learned from this trip are many. But more than anything else, I have an even deeper respect for the outdoors. The weather can change in a heartbeat. Your situation can go from the usual fun, to extremely serious very quickly.
I have since taught my children the same skills and respect for the outdoors that was passed to me by my uncle Reid. Because of that, we all have wonderful stories to share around the campfire. I am confident that any of my children could survive under unforeseen circumstances in the wild if they needed to.
We continue to share time in the mountains as a family and find a great deal of satisfaction just being there together with nature and all it has to offer.
I now Live in Glendale Arizona and have found the desert to be a beautiful place to visit.
As an avid hunter and fisherman Arizona has a lot more to offer than I would have thought when I first moved here. I plan on spending a lot of time taking in all Arizona has to offer.
One more thing, I always check the extended weather forecast before venturing off on a trip. Uncle Reid still lives in Utah and that’s a long ways away.
Thank You Uncle Reid!