As the sun was setting on Dec. 5, Donald Eisenhaur, 68, of Madrid, Maine was out on his sled making new trails in a remote section of the western Maine mountains.
"I had a new snowmobile and don't usually go out that time of day. I usually go out in the morning. I was just doing some riding and breaking trails after a fairly large snowstorm. I like to go looking for moose horn sheds," said Eisenhaur.
"Just before I went out, my wife told me to keep my eyes open for a reported lost hunter in the area. I wasn't out looking for him purposely."
Steven Wright, 53 of Woodford, Vt., had been out muzzleloader hunting in the area. Wright set off on a deer track Monday morning, Dec. 3 at the base of Tumbledown Mountain near Byron, following a storm that dumped 15 inches of snow the night before. His hunting buddies, Michael Harrington and Barry Bishop, both from Bennington, Vt., notified the Maine Warden Service and State Police at about 3:30 am on Tuesday that their friend was missing. By later that day, a full-blown search was underway, including canine units, state troopers, four search planes, volunteers from the Maine Association for Search and Rescue and 26 game wardens. A command post was set up with Wright's relatives taking part in the search too.
"There was a road I hadn't been on for a while and this time they weren't logging it, so I went down the trail four or five miles and I decided it was getting late," said Eisenhaur. "Coming back home I saw something in the distance in the trail and thought it was a moose. As I got closer I saw something orange and just as I pulled up, the man was kneeling down and bent over. I asked if he was the lost hunter, and got him on the machine and got him out."
The story could easily have had a less than happy ending. The first time Eisenhaur went by the hunter, he didn't see him because he was in a ditch.
"When I found him, he was soaking wet. He had fallen into the water a few times and had been out there for two nights," said Eisenhaur. "I knew when I found him that if he had spent another night out he would have serious problems. The past few nights it had gotten down to around 10 degrees. It was nearly dark when I found him and we had to go about 15 miles. I kept reassuring him the whole time that I would get him out. He couldn't talk very well and he was slumped over my steering wheel in front of me. He would periodically lie on the kill switch and turn it off. One time he kicked the sled into reverse."
Although it was a rough ride out with tricky spots and deep snow, the two did make it - and make it out alive. Eisenhaur was able to contact help by cell phone and an ambulance was awaiting the pair when they emerged from the woods near Eisenhaur's home. Wright was taken by ambulance to Phillips, a nearby town, and airlifted to central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston.
Wright, who says he was lost because of a "messed up GPS" played down the situation that was certainly life threatening.
"I was never really lost. I would have been out of the woods the next day if I weren't snow blind," said Wright, who did have second thoughts.
"I kind of thought 'Why is God putting me through all this? He's got me out here - I am blind and this must be the way he wants me to go, but I wasn't even nervous.' On the third day, I got down in a ditch and all I heard was the snowmobile coming. The driver stopped and asked if I was the lost hunter and I got on the machine. He was 68 years old and did a heck of a job. If it was not for him, I probably could have made it another night but it would not have been pretty. If it wasn't for that snowmobiler there may have been a different outcome."
Wright suffered temporary snow blindness and hyperthermia but he was out hunting the next weekend. Game Warden Lt. Pat Dorian called the incident an incredible story of survival.
"This is probably one of the most remarkable stories I have heard in my life," said Lt. Dorian. "The hunter believed he was going in the right direction toward the meet-up location he arranged with his friends, but unbeknownst to him the GPS was sending him in another direction. He ended up on high ground. Whether that was Jackson Mountain or Tumbledown Mountain, we don't know."
Eisenhaur rescued Wright five miles out of the search zone, an area based on where he was last seen. However, Eisenhaur, for some unusual reason was in the right place at the right time.
"I am not necessarily a man of faith but I felt that it was meant to be," said Eisenhaur. "I don't know why I was there. I never go out that time of day - late in the afternoon. There hadn't been a snowmobile in that area because I was breaking new trails. There was no other way to get him out than on a snowmobile."
The story of the dramatic rescue in Maine is similar to snowmobile rescues across the northern U.S. and Canada. While most of us have helped a fellow snowmobiler with something much less serious such as engine trouble or given directions, snowmobiles have proven to be an invaluable tool in remote areas.
The past president of the Association of Wisconsin Snowmobile Clubs, Bill Pfaff of New Lisbon, has had experience with extreme rescues himself. Several years ago on Thanksgiving night, Pfaff was called by the Juneau Sheriff's Department to help lead the search for a lost hunter who was thought to be in the area between Lisbon and the Necedah Wildlife Refuge.
"Our trails run up through there and we know the territory very well. After about four hours of searching, we found the lost hunter. He was out of shells and he had fired his gun a few times and people heard it," said Pfaff. "But he was starting to panic and it was in the middle of the night. It can be real scary to be lost and not know where you are going. He was very happy to get out of there. At the time of the rescue, there was a good foot of snow or more in the woods."
Snow that deep would have made it nearly impossible for rescuers on snowshoes to cover much distance in a short time. Even rescue planes and helicopters need a minimal amount for landing and takeoff making rescue by snowmobile the only option in remote, wooded and mountainous regions.
In the western Maine mountains of the Rangeley Lakes region - just to the west of where the hunter Wright was lost - is the resort town of Rangeley. The Rangeley Fire Department has two rescue sleds - one on each side of town - that are able to carry patients with room for a paramedic and a protective cover. The sleds are set up with a backboard and a fairly substantial medical bag that stays on the units all winter.
"These sleds are ready to roll and they are very important to our rescue operation," said Rudy Davis, Rangeley's fire chief. "If you are laying out there on the trail from a snowmobile accident, this is the only way we can get you back. We've rescued people in 20 below weather with the wind howling. A couple of our rescuers developed frostbite."
Often when rescuers get the call, "chase sleds" are sent out to find the injured snowmobiler, hunter or hiker.
"The chase sleds are like scouts and we physically have to locate the people because the majority of people who call in don't know where they are. We have to rely on our knowledge of the area and trails and sometimes that is a bit of a guessing game."
To locate people, Rangeley has 36 rescues zones along the more than 100 miles of sled trails, or roughly 500 square miles.
"That at least gives us a starting point. A lot of times we still have to search for them because you don't know how far they are from these zones," said Davis. "The fire department's primary mission is to get the medical people out to the patient as quickly as possible and assist with getting them back to the ambulance. We have tough weather up here in the mountains. We can get a foot of snow anytime even when it isn't predicted."
Moreover, no one can predict when emergencies will arise, especially in remote areas where people take part in activities that expose them to the elements.
"When you can rescue someone, you feel real good about it. We have a real good relationship with the sheriff's department," said Pfaff. "We live here and we are involved in the local community and we try to give back to it."
It's reassuring to know that snowmobiles - and snowmobilers are there to help when help is really needed.
Cathy Genthner is a free-lance writer in Maine and a registered Maine Guide.