Get Out!

What It Takes…

Three harrowing tales of wilderness survival.

By Christian DeBenedetti and Kasey Cordell May 17, 2010 Published in the June 2010 issue of Portland Monthly

… to Save a Family
with a Fishing Pole.

as told to Christian DeBenedetti

ON MEMORIAL DAY weekend 2009, Portland resident Don Elder reeled in the catch of a lifetime when he saved three people from the roiling Sandy River with his fly-fishing rod. A fundraiser with the Western Rivers Conservancy, Elder explains how his lazy summer outing turned into a desperate rescue.

LISTEN UP I heard a commotion: a man was struggling in the water with a little girl in his arms. A woman had swum after them, and she was in trouble, too. It’s very easy for people who aren’t around moving water to underestimate it: how fast you can get into trouble, and how much colder the water is once you get down a foot or two.

GET INTO POSITION I was wearing waders, but I knew that if I went out too far, I would sink in a second. I also knew that if I took off my lure, my fly line would float—it’s designed to. The river was moving pretty quickly. If they were downstream of me, I knew it would be hard for them to hold onto the line, but if I got below, I might be able to steer them in.

MAKE THE CATCH The man and the girl weighed at least 250 pounds together, but I wasn’t worried about the rod snapping. The reel itself is designed to give. I wanted them to grab the fly line. The woman was about 60 feet out, and I’m normally good up to 70, so I just made a regular overhand cast. I eased her to shore in about 60 seconds, stripping the line in by hand. The man holding the girl had been in the water longer, fighting harder. It took two or three tries—they were farther out—but I got them, too. Then I took off to alert the rangers. I never saw the family again. A woman called me once to thank me for saving her family, but I didn’t push for her identity.

{page break}

… to Survive Five Nights on Mount Adams with a Busted Ankle.

as told to Christian DeBenedetti

TWO YEARS AGO this October, Derek Mamoyac, of Philomath, shattered his right ankle in a fall while day-hiking on Mount Adams. With no cell service, shelter, food, or water, Mamoyac, then 27, couldn’t wait for rescue. He had to save himself. Here’s how he did it.

ACCEPT THE REALITY After the fall, I knew I was in deep doo-doo. My right ankle was like a wet noodle hanging at the joint. I was on a steep glacier and I wanted to get to cover, so I crawled, dragging myself slowly off the slope. My next strategy was to find a trail.

BOOST YOUR OWN MORALE A search helicopter flew right over me the second night. I thought, “It sees me, I’m going to get out!” But it didn’t. I had to get back in He-Man mode: set a goal, keep moving, keep warm.

EATANYTHING I started turning over rocks and logs, looking for creepy-crawlies: centipedes, spiders, ants, grubs. I’d just chew a bit and swallow it. By day five, I hadn’t had fluids in three days, so I had to drink my own urine. It didn’t go down like apple juice, but that was my way of asserting that I was willing to do anything.

ENVISION SURVIVAL I’d think about my future. I’d have dreams of friends and family, and I imagined a pizza delivery guy showing up. I thought about hiking around the mountain when I was healthy. You have to keep believing you’re going to get out.

BE VOCAL The last day, I got to a stream. I meditated and tried to get myself together. Then I heard someone yell my name. I yelled back. That ghost voice got closer and closer. It was a searcher. He said some of my relatives were out there. I thought, “Wow, all these people thought I was dead, but I’m alive!” It was like winning the lottery—the best feeling ever.

{page break}


… to Survive a Riptide.

as told to Kasey Cordell

IN MARCH, Matt Baker and seven friends headed out for a day of surfing near Depoe Bay. But when a riptide sucked them out to sea, their spring break adventure turned life-threatening—until the Coast Guard plucked them from the water.

GO WITH A GROUP Most of us hadn’t surfed before. It was a bit choppy, but we were in close to shore and knew about the undertow area. Half of us, like me, were on boogie boards.

WATCH THE WEATHER The weather seemed to come out of nowhere. The waves got bigger, the wind got stronger, and we recognized we were being pulled by the undertow toward the rocks. I thought, “Panic isn’t going to help. We need to swim diagonally toward the beach.” We struggled for probably 10 to 15 minutes when we realized we were going out to sea and there was nothing we could do about it.

DISTRACT YOURSELF The riptide shoved us up north, near Devil’s Punch Bowl. I felt like I was being swirled around in a wine glass. But the four of us were together, so it wasn’t so bad. We started making jokes; two friends started singing worship songs. Someone on the cliff yelled down that help was coming.

RIDE IT OUT The riptide had a rhythm to it: it’d bring us close to the rocks, then push us back out. The waves weren’t huge. Only a few would break on us. You could duck-dive through most of them. When you have that much adrenaline shooting through your body, you’re not really tired.

GIVE THANKS It’s a little bit movie-esque when you get pulled out of the water. My focus was on trying to be as cooperative as possible with the Coast Guard guy. Then you realize you’re flying 60 feet above the rocks. When we were back on the ground, we weren’t overly emotional, just thankful to him for getting us out of there.

Filed under
Show Comments