We titled our book Merciless Eden. The history of Campbell’s Ferry and the surrounding lands is replete with stories of the hardship and danger folks suffered to live in this beautiful wilderness. One of the early settlers died falling from his horse on the trail to Dixie, a small town 13 miles from the Ferry. In 1938 another horse accident at Campbell’s Ferry claimed the life of Emma Zaunmiller. Another woman and her baby died in childbirth and are buried on a slope above the orchard. Over the decades three drowned in the Salmon River, including a 5-year old boy named Norman Wolfe, also buried at Campbell’s Ferry. The very first resident who settled here, William Campbell, disappeared while hiking home from Thunder Mountain. His body was never found.
Recently there was a new disappearance.
Sunday, July 19, 2020
At 9 AM we heard a knock on our cabin door. When you live at a remote homestead in the roadless section of the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, a knock on your door is rare to say the least. Doug was at his desk but I was still propped up in bed reading the New York Times and drinking coffee. It got our attention. Doug opened the door to David Wolfe, whose brother Norman is buried on this property. We offered Dave coffee. The Wolfe family was raised on Gaines Bar, four-miles down river from the Ferry and still maintains the old family cabin. Dave had flown in to the Ferry and hiked down to his cabin the preceding Wednesday and had hiked back up this morning hoping to find transportation back to his truck parked in Dixie. Gaines Bar has no access to Wi-Fi so he asked Doug to send an email up and down river to inquire if he could hitch a ride with anyone who might be going out of the canyon. Doug did so but, unfortunately, nobody was planning to go out. Dave called to ask the cost of a charter flight but decided that the cost was prohibitive. He had grown up in this country and made the hike back and forth to Dixie many times as a child and young man so he knew the country. Despite the fact that he was now 73-years of age, had not made that hike in 30 years and knew the trail had not been properly maintained, he decided he would hike the 13-mile Dixie Trail back to his truck.
Dave and Doug poured over Google Earth images and topographic maps of the area for about an hour, tracing the route that he would take. We fed Dave breakfast, gave him an extra bottle of water and returned a rain jacket that he had left here on his last visit. He assured us he had plenty of food for the hike. Dave used Doug’s phone to call his wife Beth to tell her he would contact her once he was out and that he would see her tonight. His last words to her were, “I love you.” At 10:30 AM we watched him shoulder his pack and head down the trail.
For those familiar with the area, the Dixie Trail (Trail 231), forks off the Main Salmon Trail at a high point below Rabbit Point, goes across the head of Reed Creek to a saddle, then drops down to cross Rabbit Creek before heading down to a junction with Rhett Creek and then up Rhett Creek to Dixie. The first place you come to is Comstock Mine (8 miles from the Ferry) where a five-mile dirt road leads to Dixie. Because of the altitude gain and the poor condition of the trail, Doug estimated Dave would reach his truck around 7:30 PM.
In the late afternoon Doug called Beth Wolfe to ask her to let us know when she heard from Dave. We had not heard from her by the time we went to bed.
Monday, July 20
We woke early. I urged Doug to call Beth but he said he would wait until 9 AM. It was likely Dave arrive late, was tired and they might both be sleeping in. When he got Beth on the phone she reported that she had not heard from Dave and had already been over to talk to her neighbor who was the recently elected Sheriff of Idaho County. He sent Jim Gorges, the Undersheriff, to check to see if Dave’s truck was still at the Dixie airstrip. It was. He also reported to Rick at Silver Spurs Outfitters and Lodge that he was looking for Dave.
At 10:30 AM Doug sent a map and GPS coordinates to Jim and Beth, laying out the route that Dave planned to take. He also notified Jeff Shinn, Salmon River District Ranger and Doug Olive, Trails Coordinator for the Red River District of the Nez Perce National Forest. Immediately afterwards he sent emails to Barbara Eisenberg at 5-Mile Bar, Steve Shotwell at White Water Ranch, Buck Dewey at Mackay Bar and Walt Smith at Arnold Aviation, telling them what was going on. The backcountry community was on notice with the grapevine activated.
At 3:08 PM an email arrived from Amanda Willet, Dave’s daughter expressing concern and asking about Dave’s last contact with us. Doug relayed what he knew and sent her the map, coordinates and the contact information for the Sheriff and Forest Service officials. At 5:00 Doug checked with the Sheriff’s Office. There was no news of Dave but he was told a helicopter would be joining the search in the morning. Doug asked Rick at Silver Spurs to check if Dave’s truck was still there and to drive the road to the Comstock Mine looking for Dave. When he did not hear back he assumed there was nothing to report.
Around 6:30 PM Barbara Eisenberg checked in with Doug and then contacted Joe Viehweg at China Bar. China Bar is right across the river from Gaines Bar (and the Wolfe cabin) and she asked them to check to see if by chance Dave had returned to the Wolfe cabin. She also volunteered her husband Heinz’s help whenever he was free from his jet boat bookings. Doug called Beth and Amanda to update them from this end. Amanda said that she, her husband, 2 nephews and 2 brothers-in-law were driving out from Seattle to search. At 8:00 o’clock Walt Smith (Chief Pilot for Arnold Aviation in Cascade) emailed to volunteer to search with the plane as long as it would not interfere with the helicopter. By 9:30 PM Joni Dewey at Mackey Bar heard from Joe Viehweg. He had taken the boat over to Gaines Bar and checked the cabin. No one was there but he and his father would keep watch from across the river.
Later Doug had a call from Jeremy (Dave’s son-in-law) on his way from Seattle. Doug went over the map he had sent and relayed contact information from folks who had volunteered to help.
Doug and I crawled into bed highly cognizant that this was the second night that Dave was somewhere out there alone in the wilderness below the sliver of moon we could see from the bedroom window. I tried to envision him curled up asleep in the deep brush and to banish other more worrisome visions from my mind. I knew, that next to me, Doug was doing the same.
Tuesday, July 21
We woke at dawn to a beautiful morning with silent hopes for good news. Doug found an email from Dave’s sister, Linda Karki and responded by sending her all the information so far. He also sent an update to everyone beyond the canyon who was now in the loop. At 7:30 Linda called to say the family from Seattle had arrived in Grangeville at 1:30 AM. They were now in Dixie where they had talked to Rick and were already heading out on the trail to search. It worried me a little that they would be hiking the trail before any experienced trackers would have a chance to see it but, of course, it was not my place to tell his family what to do. In any case it was likely that they would come across Dave along the trail so tracking would not really be necessary.
At 8:35 AM we heard the helicopter circling over the Ferry and ran outside to look. When they said helicopter they meant HELICOPTER. It was THE 10 million dollar Two Bear search and rescue helicopter out of Whitefish, Montana, carrying every kind of search and rescue technology money can buy. It is fully funded by philanthropist Mike Goguen with no cost to tax payers or users. As the helicopter repeatedly circled over head, Doug and I hoped they were going to land to speak with us but before long it crossed the river and we watched as it began to trace the trail, rising up the side of the mountain and following the ridge before it disappeared behind it. We continued to look for it as it made at least three round-trip passes over the trail. Once the helicopter left we saw two small private planes circling the area on and off during the day.
Deputy Sheriff Stan Denham was coordinating the search from Dixie. At 9:27 AM he let us know that there had been no sightings so far from the chopper. Not only were the family members on the trail but also fire fighters from Red River were heading out. Mike Wakefield from Dixie was trying to catch up with the family carrying InReach technology, which not only allows tracking via computers but can also send and receive communication. I suggested bringing in search teams with dogs but was told that it was too late and the scent would no longer be perceptible.
Around 11 AM Joe Viehweg from China Bar moored his jet boat at the Campbell’s Ferry bridge and began hiking up Trail 231 (the Dixie Trail) from the river. Searchers were also dropped off at Rabbit Point but there were still no sightings. Mid afternoon two members of Dave’s family arrived at the Ferry, having hiked down from White Water Ranch. They were not really prepared to hike further and sat under the walnut tree to wait for the rest of the family who were out on the trail. Around 7 PM Joe returned to Campbell’s Ferry to pick them up. He had met up with the family members who hiked from Dixie. Joe had come upon the only evidence that had been found so far. About two miles up the trail he found some hardboiled egg shell and later a full roll of toilet paper. He surmised that Dave had eaten the eggs on route and that the toilet paper must have fallen from his backpack. In that area Joe could also see places where Dave had compacted the tall grass as he walked through. But soon the signs stopped. The tired and distraught family was all gathered onto Joe’s jet boat and he ran them up to Elk Horn Rapid, as far as he could go, and dropped them off to hike the rest of the way to White Water Ranch. Joe returned to Gaines Bar to check at the Wolfe cabin once again.
We got a message that the helicopter was due back tonight to hunt with heat sensing technology. Unfortunately, the weather forecast was for thunderstorms in the area. When we went to bed around 11:00 PM we had not heard it arrive. It took a long time to get to sleep.
Wednesday, July 22
The skies were still overcast when we woke but at least it had not rained perceptively overnight. Dave was heavy in our thoughts. It seemed not only useless but also weird that our lives were going on unchanged except for the worry and the communication efforts Doug was conducting. I drank my coffee remembering that Dave had been sitting on this very stool drinking coffee on Sunday morning. At least the temperatures were forecast to be cooler today, not the mid to high 90s of the past three days.
At nine o’clock Walt flew in with the mail and groceries. One of the owners of Copenhaver was on the plane with him. Doug spoke with them about the search and recounted that Dave had repeatedly mentioned how his mother Reho would hike down a very steep chute below the Dixie trail from a point high above their cabin. Doug was developing a possible scenario where Dave found the trail too overgrown and the temperature too hot and decided to abort the hike by going down his mother’s route back to the cabin. Walt volunteered to circle the slopes above Gaines Bar on his way down river to survey this area.
Around noon Jeremy called to update Doug on what was happening in Dixie. He said Stan Denham, Lucas Swanson, a Fish & Game officer, plus two interns had started down the trail early that morning, walking the reverse of Dave’s planned route. These were experienced trackers who were trained to notice signs. We were sure that they would be able to find something. They were also going to explore some side routes that Dave might have taken. Two other individuals were taking motorbikes from Churchill Mountain out to Rabbit Point to look for signs. The Two Bear SAR helicopter was unable to fly last night but they planned to be back tonight.
At three in the afternoon we saw Tim Viehweg’s private helicopter from China Bar flying making numerous passes over the route. About an hour later when the Viehweg’s were back at China Bar, Joe call to say the had made numerous flights, trading off spotters. They traced the trail and made low passes over Rabbit Creek, Rabbit point (where they saw the dirt bikers), up Spring Creek and followed the trail to the end of the road where they saw the sheriff’s and Fish & Game’s vehicles. They also flew the ridge above Gaines Bar and made multiple passes up and down the face that drops down to the Wolfe cabin. Joe said that the springs and creeks were so brushy that it was impossible to really see down into them and that there was so much timber at Rabbit Point that the visibility there was compromised.
The high temperature for the day was 75 degrees so less challenging than before. At 9:00 PM Jeremy called to ask if we had heard from Stan but we had not. We had thought that Stan and the Fish & Game trackers might come over to the Ferry at the end of their search. Stan’s son Cody was tracking them with InReach so Doug gave Cody a call. It turned out that they double backed once the reached the end of the trail, had just reached their vehicles and were driving back to Dixie. Stan’s wife Neely called to say that Stan would call to update us when he got home.
At 10:45 PM Stan called to say they had searched thoroughly, including exploring places where Dave might have strayed from the trail or taken an alternate route. They found nothing. Our hopes had been with Stan and his search team so it was very disheartening to get this bad news. We began to consider a cougar attack. He said that they were coordinating with Tim Viehweg to fly a search team with a dog into the area in the morning. Hmmm…wasn’t I told yesterday that it was too late for a dog search team. What was different? Was this a cadaver dog rather than rescue dog? Is there a difference?
Thursday, July 23
More thunderstorms were in the area preventing the Two Bear SAR helicopter from searching again last night. This area is over 200 miles from their base in Whitefish.
Tim Viehweg took his helicopter to McCall to pick up the dog search team but was grounded this morning by weather. By noon the weather cleared enough that they were able to fly them, landing somewhere up on the ridge near the trail. Doug and I watched them flying overhead.
Greg Metz from Yellow Pine Bar did two shuttles carrying the Wolfe family and friends from WWR down to the cabin at Gaines Bar. They spent the day searching the slopes behind the cabin in case Dave had tried to return
Doug and I spent the day listlessly performing tasks to try to distract us from our thoughts. I knew Doug felt that he should be out there searching for Dave himself but I was so grateful he did not succumb to that urge. We don’t need to be worrying about anyone else.
At 7:45 PM Doug heard a jet boat down by the bridge and ran down to find Joe Viehweg had come to pick up the dog search and rescue team.
Joe and Doug hiked up to the Jim Moore Place and ran into two members of the Valley County Search and Rescue Team, Stan Denham and a dog. They did not find any new sign. Stan said that tomorrow they were bringing in 4 more dog teams from other communities and counties, part of a group called Idaho Mountain Search and Rescue Unit (IMSARU) that was bringing additional resources to the search. Joe boated the group down river, before heading to Gaines Bar to transport some people to the Mackay Bar Road
Friday, July 24
Once again I woke early to a beautiful dawn. I lay still in the bed, looking at the silver pink clouds and writing words in my head to say at a memorial service for Dave. Turning my head I saw Doug lying quietly beside me with his eyes on the ceiling. He was doing the exact same thing.
At 9:00 AM the sound of a helicopter overhead called us outside and we watched it going to Rabbit Point, assuming it was Tim carrying one of the dog teams.
Down river Heinz Sippel had left home early, jet boating to Vinegar Creek pick up supplies and bring them up for the Buckskin Bill Store at his place at 5 Mile Bar. On the way back up river he picked up two searchers at the Mackay Bridge. They unloaded the store supplies at 5 Mile and then picked up the Wolfe family and friends that had been searching at Gaines Bar to take them back up river to their vehicles at White Water Ranch.
Doug went to the barn to work on the mower. I did cabin chores before reading the news on my computer. At 11:18 I heard a ping from Doug’s computer announcing an incoming email. Normally I would ignore it but these were not ordinary times. It might be someone needing help with search issues so I went to his computer and clicked on a message from Steve Shotwell at White Water Ranch,
“Hello everybody. You are all invited to share in the rejoice. Dave Wolfe just stumbled towards my barn where I was putting things away. He is coherent all intact!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Pass the word.”
I ran to the barn calling Doug’s name and as he came into sight I just yelled “David Wolfe”. He ran to me as I relayed the message and then we both ran to the cabin where Doug called White Water Ranch immediately. He was able to speak with Dave Wolfe who said he simply got lost. He was dirty and tired but not hungry, still having 2-days worth of food with him. The reason no one could find him was that he had wandered too far afield. He had even set a signal fire and fired his pistol at times but he never heard (or even knew about) searchers. He said he heard a helicopter nearby once but the brush was so high he could not see it and knew it could not see him. This morning Dave stumbled onto a trail on Churchill Mountain and followed it with no idea where it was going but it ended up at White Water Ranch.
Dave told Doug that the extra water we had given him was a ‘lifesaver’ as was the rain jacket we had returned to him…he had not yet been able to reach his wife. Doug sent word out to folks on the email chain. We hugged each other and marveled at what felt like a miracle. We both felt emotionally overwhelmed and I was teary.
Evidently Dave was somewhat confused. He thought he had been lost for 3-4 days but wasn’t sure. He said he found himself retracing some of the trails he had been on multiple times. At White Water Ranch he took a shower and lay down for a nap. Heinz and his passengers arrived at the WW beach at the same moment as Greg Metz, Sue Anderson, Beth Wheeler, and Kathy Shotwell. Greg and company had jetted down from Yellow Pine Bar in response to Steve’s email. None of the places where Heinz picked up his passengers have Wi-Fi so they were unaware of Steve’s email. Barbara received it but only after Heinz had left 5-Mile and she had no way to contact Heinz on the river so as the family was heading up river toward White Water Ranch, they had no idea they were heading toward Dave. As people debarked from both boats, Sue mentioned that Dave was here. A very forlorn grandson said, “We KNOW he’s here somewhere (waving his arm to the mountain side) and we’re just going to keep looking!”
“No”, Sue said, “He’s here!”
Dave’s son-in-law responded, “Yes, we have faith he’s out there somewhere and we’re intent on finding him.”
Finally Sue yelled at them, “DAVE IS HERE! AT WHIITEWATER RANCH!”
They finally got the message. Eyelids flew open, jaws dropped, and heels started spraying up clouds of dust as everyone sprinted toward the ranch house with euphoria flooding everyone’s eyes and hearts.
Dave was still sleeping upstairs. The group let him sleep a bit longer. Finally Kathy Shotwell walked up quietly and woke him, telling him that a bunch of people wanted to see him. Dave rose and came down stairs to be met with an uproar of love and celebration. Dave told everyone he was fine but his feet were in bad shape so Sue and Kathy sat him down and “doctored them.” After walking through wilderness for 5 days, Dave ended up 4 miles from where he left.
On Wednesday, August 5th, after Dave had twelve days to relax and recover, Doug had a lengthy telephone conversation with him. We had come up with some questions for him about his experience and feelings.
He was not exactly sure where he got off the trail but surmised that he went down into Rabbit Creek and followed it, thinking it was Rhett Creek. That route led him northeast of Dixie but Dave thought he was still on the Dixie trail when the first night began to fall. He figured that bushwhacking through the brush and timber had just slowed him down so he believed that he was very close to Dixie. When it got too dark to go on he did his best to make a little camp and settled in for the night, thinking he would move on to Dixie in the morning. The next morning he got back on the trail. By mid-afternoon when he had not arrived in Dixie he began to realize he was lost.
From then on he was unsure about timelines and sequence of events. He just kept walking through brush so thick and high that he could not see anything beyond it. He had matches with him and at one point, perhaps the third day, he started a signal fire from a ponderosa root and stayed there all day hoping someone would see the smoke and find him. He fired his pistol at various times but by now he was so far away from the planned route that no one heard it. He heard what was likely Tim Viehweg’s helicopter overhead at one point but the brush was so thick he could not see the helicopter and knew they could not see him.
At various points he came across three huge rattlesnakes. On what Dave believed to be the fourth day he had to shoot the third rattler he saw when it blocked the trail and would not give way. Doug asked if he cooked and ate it but Dave said that he was so tired that he just could not be bothered. He had plenty of trail mix and was never hungry. On another occasion he camped in an open area and tried to start a fire with his last matches but the matches had become wet and fizzled so he had no more chance at fires. In all this time he saw no signage of any kind on the trails he was following except that at one trail junction he saw a tree with a 3 blaze mark on it.
At night he would bed down in bear grass and said it was comfortable. He found his muscles shuddering when he would try to sleep but said he wasn’t cold and thought it was just muscle fatigue. One night there was some rain but he had a plastic cover with him that helped him stay dry. He told us that it seemed to him he had everything he needed except a map, a compass, a lighter, and someone to hold his hand and tell him where to go.
His wanderings had led him up on Churchill Mountain but there was no way he could know that. There he found another trail and started following it without any idea of where it was leading. In a meadow above White Water Ranch he saw his first signage but he still was not sure where he was until he saw Steve’s powerhouse and Greg’s pickup, surprised to find himself at White Water Ranch. Thrilled and relieved, he walked up the rise and headed toward the barn. Steve Shotwell and Dave Wheeler happened to be working at the barn. Steve heard Dave Wheeler say, “Who’s that guy?” Steve looked up, peered through the heavy shade, shook his head and looked again before trusting what he saw. Steve’s first words to Dave Wolfe were, “Hey Man, the whole world is looking for you!!!” Dave said it was a truly awesome moment when he saw Steve. Actually, it was incredibly lucky. The Shotwell’s are not at the ranch that often but had recently been there while rebuilding their water system.
Dave was escorted to the ranch house where he was offered food, water, a shower and a nap. “Do you have a cold beer?” asked Dave. He had his beer and shower but refused food, saying he still had two day’s worth in his pack. He then settled down for a nap. When Kathy woke him he went downstairs to find two grandsons, his son-in-law, a nephew and four friends from Kamiah, as well as Greg & Sue from Yellow Pine Bar and Beth Wheeler. Dave said everything from that point on was kind of a blur. The Sheriff was already on his way to pick Dave up, assess his condition and take him home. The Sheriff made the drive in record time. We did not ask about his reunion with his wife so we don’t know if she kissed or strangled him.
During our August 5th phone conversation Dave told us that he had spent the previous night with Stan Denham discussing his ordeal and said that Stan was very informative and helpful. Naturally, Dave was very appreciative of all the efforts made by so many on his behalf. In the end, I guess, he saved himself but he has promised to never go out in the backcountry again without InReach technology. There is a tentative plan for a family gathering at Gaines Bar in September.
A list of people mentioned (see map for river locations):
-Phyllis and Doug Tims: Owners/caretakers at Campbell’s Ferry Ranch
-Dave and Beth Wolfe: Wolfe family with a family cabin at Gaines Bar
-Linda Karki: Dave Wolfe’s sister
-Amanda and Jeremy Willet: Dave’s daughter and son-in-law
-Kathy and Steve Shotwell: Owners White Water Ranch
-Beth and Dave Wheeler: Helpers at White Water Ranch
-Joe & Tim Viehweg: Owners China Bar
-Barbara Eisenberg and Heinz Sippel: Owners Buckskin Bill & 5-Mile Bar
-Joni and Buck Dewey: Owners Mackay Bar Ranch
-Sue Anderson & Greg Metz: Caretakers Yellow Pine Bar
-Walt Smith: Chief Pilot Arnold Aviation
-Stan Denham: Deputy Sheriff Idaho County