In the early hours of the morning, 12 elk were freezing to death in the Kettle River south of Barstow, Ferry County.
Six of the animals did not survive the day. But the other six did, thanks to more than two dozen men and women who spent their Christmas Eve saving them from the freezing water.
Brother-in-law Jeff Stuart and Jordan Fish were on a coyote hunt around 7 a.m. on December 24 when they saw cows and calves that had fallen through the ice and became trapped. About 40 elk stood across the river. They had either crossed successfully or chose not to 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 to the ice to try and take out the troubled animals.
“I told him I thought it was a terrible idea,” said Rylee Stuart. “My husband, he’s a very stocky man, so he’s not very light, and so him on thin ice – I thought that was a terrible idea.”
Stuart’s husband and brother-in-law discovered that the ice on the bank of the Kettle River was too thin, so they returned home to pick up kayaks.
The rescue group quickly grew. Rylee Stuart drove down to the river with his mother and five children, and by the end of the day more than two dozen people helped take out the elk, covered them with blankets, and warmed them near a fire.
It was not a smooth operation. Rescuers had to walk on 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 get by, but failed. Some had big gashes on their bodies from the ice or from kicking themselves.
Rescuers wrapped a rope around the elk’s heads to remove them, being careful not to strangle them.
The rescue team managed to get the first swing out of the water by hand, but this method was exhausting, so for the second swing they used a winch attached to a Toyota 4Runner.
“You had to hook those cows, then you had to try to unhook them once you got to the bank, without getting… kicked,” said Rylee Stuart, explaining that rescuers had done their best to remove the elk slowly. “It wasn’t necessarily the easiest task.
None of the rescuers were seriously injured, but not all came out unscathed. Gene Brockman has fallen into icy water several times. Travis Morris broke his hand when the rope he was holding was pulled by a winch. Jordan Fish was kicked in the back of the neck by a swing.
Rylee Stuart said rescuers tried to bring in professionals to help them. Stuart said she called the police but was told there was no officer available for an elk rescue. Stevens County Sheriff’s Office Assistant Michael Swim and his wife Jenni Swim, however, joined the rescue effort.
At first, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife said it couldn’t send anyone to help either, and asked rescuers to let the momentum go and let Mother Nature take its course. However,Fish and Wildlife District 1 officer Severin Erickson later joined the rescue effort.
“Aquatic rescues are so dangerous,” said Staci Lehman, communications director for the eastern region of Fish and Wildlife. “These people were great and they did great things, but you have to be very careful with the water. So we usually tell people not to do anything until a manager is on the scene. “
The rescue did not end until nightfall, around 8 p.m. Ultimately, four calves and two cows died – members of the rescue team recovered the meat – while four cows and two calves survived.
Stuart said one of the elk was particularly memorable.
It was a calf, and when the team brought her to the riverside, she couldn’t stand. Rescuers covered her with blankets and brought her to the fire. They moved his legs.
For hours it looked like she was going to die. All the other elk that couldn’t take it ended up dying.
But she finally managed to walk on her own. Rescuers named her Lucky.
“We cried with those moose, we laughed,” Stuart said.
Stuart said that while no one planned to spend their Christmas Eve in the cold, rescuing frozen elk from the river, it was an incredible experience for everyone involved.
Everyone who helped are outdoor enthusiasts who understood how special it was to spend a day saving elk, said Stuart.
“They’re not like other animals,” she says. “They are majestic. They are so sought after. They’re probably the best animal Washington has to offer, and in order to be able to squeeze a moose – hug a living moose – give CPR a moose, just spend that time with a moose, I don’t think any of them. we don’t regret it. … We would all do it again.