Rescuers are calling it a miracle. Eight days after Mischelle Hileman was lost while elk hunting along the breaks of Alder Creek Canyon, the 39-year-old Wallowa woman was found alive by friends who refused to give up the search long after professional rescuers had given her up for dead.
"It is nothing short of a miracle," said Bill Lehr, who on Sunday found Hileman lying next to a hole she had carved in the ice covering Alder Creek in the bottom of one of Wallowa County's most rugged canyons.
A few hours later Hileman was hoisted from the scene by an Oregon Army National Guard helicopter dispatched from Pendleton. The helicopter took her St. Alphonsus Hospital in Boise, where she is being treated in the intensive care unit for frostbite and other injuries.
The rescue ended a massive search that began Sunday, Oct. 27 when Hileman was reported missing by her father while hunting in the Sled Springs unit, about nine miles north of Wallowa. More than 300 people participated in the search, which covered 24 square miles of steep canyon land in temperatures well below freezing.
Lehr, 44, an avid hunter who sometimes played cards with Hileman at the Wallowa Senior Center, said he and his partner, Wallowa postmaster Marilyn Seifert, had "a really strong feeling" that Hileman was in the bottom of Alder Creek Canyon. "We just pursued her where we were led," he said.
Hileman was found only two miles from the ridge top where her father had dropped her off eight days earlier. Wearing only light clothing - slip-on shoes, a fleece vest, pants and no gloves or hat - Hileman apparently walked to the bottom of the steep canyon, falling and injuring herself along the way. Disabled by the injury, she was unable to crawl out of the canyon.
"She had none of the right clothing, and still she survived," said Lehr. She survived by eating rose hip berries and moss hanging from the trees. She also dug a hole in the ground and covered herself with grass, weeds and tree boughs to keep her core temperature up.
"She said she thought this was her last day," Lehr said of her rescue.
Many searchers felt that Hileman had already spent her last day on earth.
On Thursday, Oct. 31, Wallowa County Sheriff Fred Steen issued a press release stating that the rescue effort had been "scaled back" to eight searchers from as many as 50 earlier in the week. A snowstorm Wednesday night followed by temperatures that dipped into the low single digits reduced Hileman's chances of coming out alive to nil, or so rescuers thought.
"They told us this was going more from a search mode to recovery mode," said Lehr, who took over as the unofficial volunteer leader of the effort at that point. "We told Benny (Hileman) we were going to keep going."
Lehr kept that promise and rallied what was left of the troops for two and a half more days of combing the canyon.
"He kept everybody going," said Bridget Couldridge, a resident of South Africa who is staying with the Hilemans and who acted as the radio dispatcher in the last days of the search. "The teamwork was incredible, like nothing I've ever seen before."
Lehr discovered Hileman after he heard what he thought might be the breathing of a cougar or a bear feeding on something in the brush. During the search he had seen three different sets of cougar tracks.
Lehr said when he heard the breathing he blurted out Mischelle's name and she answered him, saying, "I'm over here."
"When I heard her answer me I just about fell over," said Lehr, who gave the woman his gloves and coat, then radioed Seifert, who was farther up the hill. Lehr gave one of his radios to Hileman, who stayed in contact with Seifert until she could make her way down the hill. Once Seifert arrived she gave Hileman her coat, then hugged the freezing woman in an attempt to warm her body.
Meanwhile Lehr climbed the opposite wall of the canyon to get within radio reach of the rest of the search party. Members of the Wallowa ambulance crew were then summoned and stabilized Hileman so she could be taken by stretcher 200 feet up the hill to an open area. From there she was hoisted by cable onto the National Guard helicopter.
Lehr said it must have been divine intervention that enabled him to work the canyon the way that he did without tiring.
"God gave me a lot of strength," said Lehr, who moved to Wallowa from Tigard two years ago to heal emotionally after his own son, Jared, was killed in an automobile accident at age 18. Lehr said he was a little apprehensive about moving to Wallowa at first because he did not know how he would handle the memories of happier days with his son, who loved to hunt in the same area in which Hileman became lost.
"I guess this is why I was supposed to be in Wallowa County," said Lehr. "I knew this area like the back of my hand."
"Everything happens for a reason," he added. "Losing one of my boys was one of the biggest things of my life. My heart just went out to this family when they couldn't find their daughter."
The incident demonstrates that outdoorsmen need to respect the rugged outback of northeast Oregon, according to Matthew Marmor, Wallowa County search and rescue coordinator.
At a minimum, he said, everybody who goes into the woods should have the right clothing and a survival kit, especially matches or a lighter that can be used to start a fire.
"The ability to start a fire is one of the key things that everybody who goes into the woods should have, whether it is for 10 minutes or 10 days," said Marmor. "A fire helps keep you warm and alerts others to where you are." It is also a good idea to have some food, water, a space blanket, key-chain style flashlight, and "the mentality of what to do if you don't make it back to the vehicle."
Cards and letters can be sent to Hileman c/o ICU, St. Alphonsus Hospital, 1055 N. Curtis Road, Boise, ID 83706.