Linn S&R member helps rescue stranded family

Benny Westcott

A Salem man and five friends rescued a family of five and a dog on Dec. 5, a day after they were stranded in several feet of snow while searching for a Christmas tree near Forest Road 46 in Marion County.

The road passes through the northern part of the Willamette National Forest into the Mount Hood National Forest, skirting the northern half of Oregon’s Cascade Mountain range. The area is closest to the city of Detroit, about 40 miles northeast of Sweet Home.

Linn County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Joe Larsen said the unidentified Clackamas family was traveling from north to south and intended on emerging at Detroit. However, despite being in a military-type six-by-six vehicle, they got stuck in snow. According to Larsen, they were trapped in the mountains for more than 36 hours without food or water but managed to contact 911.

When the Marion County Sheriff’s Office got the call, Sgt. Matt Wilkinson asked Jeff Chipman, a Salem resident involved in Linn County Search and Rescue, if he would do a rescue. Chipman had previously told Wilkinson, who lives across the street from him in Detroit (Chipman has property in that town in addition to Salem), that he and some friends were going to go snowmobile riding in Breitenbush that day.

Chipman recalls Wilkinson telling him “I need your help, because it’s going to take me four or five hours to get the search and rescue crew from Salem up here with the side-by-side and all that stuff.”

Chipman, who is also vice president of the North Santiam Snowmobile Club and a member of the Mt. Jefferson Snowmobile Club, agreed to the mission, grabbed his radio and went searching for the family. He and his friends found the group of five an hour into the search.

Upon finding the family, Chipman rode back to Wilkinson, with whom he was in radio contact, and retrieved gloves, stocking caps and blankets.

Chipman said the family’s truck was completely out of fuel and they only had a gallon of diesel for a space heater, and no food or water except a package of graham crackers.

And the vehicle was stuck in deep snow. “It was buried up to the doors,” Chipman said.

He added that the vehicle had a winch, but the cable broke twice.

“There was no getting out at all,” Chipman recalled. “The father said, ‘Just bring me a shovel and fuel and I’ll get out.’ But I said ‘No, my job isn’t to bring you supplies. My job is to get you guys out of here. I think it’s a desperate thing. The kids were crying and stuff like that.,The husband was saying ‘We can stay another four or five days. We have no problem.’ I asked if he had any food, and he said, ‘I have a package of graham crackers.’ And I said, ‘Well, you’ve got four other family members, plus a dog.'”

After assessing the situation, the rescuers rode the family off the mountain, putting them on their snowmobiles.

“By the time Marion County got up there with all their squad and stuff, it would have been dark,” Chipman said. “And that would have brought it to a whole other level.”

Overall, he said, “It was basically a pretty easy operation. I kind of knew from the 911 call where they were at, because it came from Estacada way. It was a pretty simple rescue.”

Rescuing the family’s vehicle won’t be as simple.

“[It’s] going to be up there until probably spring,” Larsen said, chuckling. “It’s stuck up there, and just more snow’s going to get dumped on it over the next three months.”

He noted that the rescue situation wasn’t unusual, as families requiring rescues during Christmas-tree searches “honestly happens quite a bit.”

“Whether people are up four-wheel-driving or trying to get a Christmas tree, it just happens where they get stuck,” Larsen said.

He suggested “letting somebody know exactly what you’re going to do, where you’re going to be, and when you plan on coming back. If your GPS tells you to go down a route and it’s looking like it’s not a good decision, you should turn around as quickly as possible.”

Larsen credited the Mt. Jefferson Snowmobile Club, noting that its members have resolved quite a few rescues and searches “quickly. They’re a really good asset to us.”