Hunter gets stuck out in a whiteout

November 17, 2005 11:00 pm
Maurice McKinnis uses this pack to carry extra clothing and other equipment to keep him prepared for the unexpected on his hunting trips. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).
Maurice McKinnis uses this pack to carry extra clothing and other equipment to keep him prepared for the unexpected on his hunting trips. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).

By CHRIS COLLINS

Of the Baker City Herald

After coming across his own tracks as he tried to find his way through a mountain meadow in a snowstorm, Maurice McKinnis knew he'd better change his course if he expected to spend the night in his own warm bed.

But when the elk hunter circled back around to find two sets of his own tracks, he realized that the comforts of home would probably have to wait until daylight when he could get his bearings and make it out to a road.

McKinnis was hunting Nov. 7 with his son-in-law, Jamie Millwood, 60, of Baker City; his son, Ron McKinnis, 49, of Hermiston; and family friend, Rick Badgley, 48, of Baker City.

Badgley, who got his elk the day before, served as the group's chauffeur on that Monday afternoon. He dropped the other three off on Auburn Road about 2 p.m. and was to meet up with them again before dark on Highway 7 at California Gulch.

Maurice McKinnis said his partners also got turned around in the whiteout conditions that hit the area that afternoon, but they were able to get their bearings. Ron McKinnis used his compass to find his way. And Millwood was equipped with a global positioning system (GPS), which provides satellite navigation, and he was able to communicate with Badgley through his hand-held radio to get back on the right track.

Maurice McKinnis, on the other hand, carried no compass.

"I should have had a compass," said the former Scoutmaster who had instructed Boy Scouts, including Badgley and his own sons, on how to prepare for a day in the woods.

"I found myself out there in the dark and the snow. It was a real whiteout," he said. "It was snowing and I couldn't see very well."

And to further complicate his problems, the hand-held radio he carried malfunctioned after getting wet earlier in the day. He was able to send messages out, but he couldn't receive any.

"They heard each of my broadcasts and knew I wasn't hurt or anything," he said.

McKinnis had little food in his well-stocked pack, but he'd had a hearty lunch earlier in the day.

This last hunt was mostly an afterthought, he said.

"We thought we'd go through and find something," he said. "We didn't."

Instead, what started as a three-mile day hike turned into a manhunt in the dark, cold night when his partners realized that he wasn't coming out as they had planned.

Ron McKinnis, Millwood and Badgley searched on their own for Maurice McKinnis until about 8 p.m. Then they called the sheriff's office, which activated its search and rescue team.

About a dozen volunteers responded and began a search of the area about 11 p.m., said Undersheriff Warren Thompson.

Maurice McKinnis, who has hunted since he was a boy and is an experienced outdoorsman, said he was prepared to spend the night, but when he heard the sheriff's department's sirens blaring and saw the vehicle lights, he was able to find his way back to the road just before 1 a.m. Tuesday, Nov. 8.

McKinnis said he followed a fence down to Auburn Road, just about a half mile from where he'd started his trek earlier in the day. There he met Chris Galiszewski, who coordinates communications for the search and rescue volunteers. Galiszewski is also an EMT and a reserve sheriff's deputy.

"I saw a headlight walking out," Galiszewski said. He went to meet McKinnis, who had strapped a head lamp around his neck to light his way.

Galiszewski got McKinnis in his vehicle to warm him up and gave him Gatorade to drink.

"Once he was warmed, I contacted the teams to let them know I had found the subject — or more likely, he had found me," Galiszewski said.

Although wet and tired, McKinnis suffered no lasting effects from the experience, except that his toes were sore from gripping through his insulated boots to make his way through the snow and rough terrain. His main concern was for his family.

"I really worried more about all these guys looking for me," he said.

As he should have, his 69-year-old wife, Beverly, confirms.

"He was fine," she said. "The rest of us were a basket case. He added 20 years to our lives."