On September 10, an Idaho elk hunt took an unexpected turn for two hunters from Wisconsin. Early in the morning, Ben Wernberg and Eric Plantenberg stumbled upon an elderly woman who’d driven her car 800 feet off a remote ravine near Idaho Falls, saving her from near-certain death.
The pair was on the second day of their annual Idaho elk-hunting pilgrimage, and heading into a new area along a dirt road bisecting a steep south slope.
“The road kind of goes along the south-facing side of a ridge, and we could’ve parked literally anywhere,” Wernberg told MeatEater. “We eventually just picked a spot and hiked up in the dark.”
From there they struck out on foot, aiming for a thick, timbered ravine. As they hiked uphill, the two hunters vaguely saw a pair of car headlights pointed into the ground on the edge of an aspen grove.
Something’s out of place here, Wernberg thought. He approached the vehicle cautiously, one hand on his handgun. “I didn’t know what we were walking into,” Wernberg said. “I thought it could’ve been one of those illegal grow operations like the ones on the MeatEater podcast.”
Instead, they found a confused woman sitting near the trunk of her car. The woman had no recollection of what had happened, where she was, or the severity of her situation. Wernberg and Platenberg put the pieces together and determined that she must have careened off another road about 800 feet higher on the mountain and came to rest in the aspen grove. Remarkably, she was physically uninjured from the crash. Due to her frail state, however, there was no way the hunters could get her out on their own.
Around that time, Platenberg turned to his buddy and predicted, “I think we’re done hunting for the day.”
The hunters put the woman into the front seat of the car and turned on the heat. Then Wernberg took off in search of cell reception to contact emergency services.
The first sheriff on scene met Wernberg on the lower road and was peering just off the edge for the wreck. Oh no, Wernberg informed the sheriff, handing him a pair of binoculars and pointing to a spec of metal way up on the hillside. The sheriff looked incredulously up the mountain.
“Everybody was so baffled,” Wernberg said. And not just by the wreck, but also by the serendipitous circumstances through which the hunters stumbled across the crash. Nobody ever hikes up this mountain, the sheriff reportedly told the hunters. Anyone hunting the area would drive to the top via the road the woman veered off from. Somehow, Wernberg and Platenberg had overlooked this road while scouring maps in the months leading up to their trip. Had they known of its existence, it’s unlikely they ever would have been hiking up the mountain.
“The craziest thing is the odds of it all coming together,” Wernberg said. “If we’d seen headlights from a ways off, or from a different ridge, we would have just assumed it was some idiot on a four-wheeler off trail.”
Within a few hours, an entire search-and-rescue crew was on the scene. They discussed various means of extracting the woman but eventually decided to help her walk out. With the assistance of four men and lots of rest breaks, she hiked up and out of the draw. It took about two hours. A recovery crew later pulled the car out with a huge winch.
The day certainly wasn’t what the two hunters were expecting when they set out to chase bugles that morning, but they likely saved one woman’s life. And it turned out Platenberg’s prediction was correct: there was no elk hunting that day. The pair stuck around the rest of the day to see the whole affair carried out.
All things considered, though, “It was a good trip,” Wernberg said. “We were into elk every day aside from when we were helping that woman out.” In fact, they’re already making plans for next year.
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