SPOKANE — In the early morning on Friday, 12 elk were freezing to death in the Kettle River south of Barstow, in Ferry County.
Six of the animals didn’t survive the day. But the other six did, thanks to more than two dozen men and women who spent their Christmas Eve rescuing them from the frigid water.
Brothers-in-law Jeff Stuart and Jordan Fish were out coyote hunting at around 7 a.m. on Dec. 24 when they saw cows and calves that had fallen through the ice and gotten trapped. About 40 elk stood on the far side of the river. They’d either crossed successfully or opted against it when they saw what happened to the first 12.
Stuart called his wife, Rylee Stuart, to let her know he was going to get some rope in Barstow, then head out onto the ice to try and pull the struggling animals out.
“I told him I thought that was a terrible idea,” Rylee Stuart said. “My husband, he’s a very stocky man, so he’s not very light, and so him on the thin ice — I thought that was a terrible idea.”
Stuart’s husband and brother-in-law soon discovered the ice on the bank of the Kettle River was too thin, so they headed home to grab kayaks.
The rescue party quickly grew. Rylee Stuart drove to the river with her mom and five kids and, by the end of the day, more than two dozen people helped pull the elk out, cover them in blankets and warm them by a fire.
It wasn’t a smooth operation. The rescuers had to walk atop the ice, sometimes with one foot in a kayak in case they fell through, to reach the animals.
Stuart said several of the elk were stuck in a rectangular hole in the ice. They were desperately trying to haul themselves out, but failing. Some had big gashes on their bodies from the ice or from kicking each other.
The rescuers looped rope around the elk’s heads in order to pull them out, taking care to not strangle them.
The rescue team managed to pull the first elk out of the water by hand, but that method was exhausting, so for the second elk they used a winch attached to a Toyota 4Runner.
“You had to hook these cows, and then you had to try and unhook them once they got to the bank, without getting … kicked,” Rylee Stuart said, explaining that the rescuers did the best they could to pull the elk out gently. “It wasn’t necessarily the easiest task.”
None of the rescuers was severely injured, but they didn’t all escape unscathed. Gene Brockman fell in the freezing water multiple times. Travis Morris broke his hand when the rope he was holding was yanked by a winch. Jordan Fish got kicked in the back of the head by an elk.
Rylee Stuart said the rescuers tried to get professionals to help them. Stuart said she called the police but was told there weren’t any officers available for an elk rescue. Stevens County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Michael Swim and his wife, Jenni Swim, did join the rescue effort, though.
At first, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife said they couldn’t send anyone to help either, and instructed the rescuers to leave the elk be and allow Mother Nature to take its course. However, Fish and Wildlife District 1 Officer Severin Erickson later drove 2 hours from Newport to join the rescue effort.
“Water rescues are so dangerous,” said Staci Lehman, communications director for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s eastern region. “These people were great, and they did some great stuff, but you’ve got to be so careful around water. So we generally tell people to not do anything until somebody official is on scene.”
Erickson echoed Lehman’s thoughts. He strongly emphasized that, while the rescue went well and the people who helped should be praised, Fish and Wildlife does not encourage anyone to save animals trapped in ice. It’s simply too dangerous, he said.
Even though Erickson spends his days responding to calls about wildlife, he’d never witnessed anything like this rescue. He said people call about a lone animal trapped in the ice fairly often, but to have 12 animals stuck at once is highly unusual.
When he arrived at the scene, Erickson saw something he described as “bizarre”: Three elk, standing next to humans, eating alfalfa. Erickson said he expects hypothermia and shock temporarily made the animals less afraid of humans.
The rescue didn’t end until after dark, at about 8 p.m. Ultimately, four calves and two cows died — members of the rescue team salvaged the meat with Fish and Wildlife’s permission — while four cows and two calves survived.
Stuart said one of the elk was especially memorable.
It was a calf, and when the team got her to the bank of the river, she couldn’t stand. The rescuers covered her with blankets and brought her near the fire. They moved her legs.
For hours, it seemed like she was going to die. All of the other elk who couldn’t stand ended up dying.
But she eventually managed to walk on her own. The rescuers named her Lucky.
“We cried with those elk, we laughed,” Stuart said.
Stuart said that even though no one planned on spending their Christmas Eve out in the cold, rescuing freezing elk from the river, it was an incredible experience for all involved.
Everyone who helped is an outdoorsman who understood how special it was to spend a day saving elk, Stuart said.
“They’re not like other animals,” she said. “They’re majestic. They’re so sought after. They’re probably just the best animal that Washington has to offer, and to be able to hug an elk — to hug a live elk — to give CPR to an elk, to just spend that amount of time with an elk, I don’t think any of us regret it. … We would all do it again.”