HELENA — After four days by himself in a wilderness area west of Great Falls, 79-year-old Ken White of Augusta was reunited with his family Saturday night.
White was picked up by helicopter at a remote Forest Service cabin on Welcome Creek at about 6:20 p.m. Saturday. White was reported to be in good condition suffering only from a little dehydration.
The cabin where White was found is about 17 miles from the trailhead where he’d started out.
According to White’s son Steve, Ken had set out from the Smith Creek trailhead, west of Augusta, on Wednesday with a couple of destinations in mind. After hiking into the mountains, Steve said, his dad had first headed east and then turned around and headed west. White got to both his intended destinations, Steve said.
White lost track of the main trail on the first day out, according to his son, and spent the first night on a hill. The next morning he got his bearings and found the trail. He spent the second night in the forest and got to the cabin where he was found on the third day. White was traveling light.
“He did it all with nothing,” Steve said. “No food. No water. All he had was a windbreaker and a pistol.”
Steve said after three days, he and the family held out little hope that White could have survived.
“He fooled everyone,” Steve said in a phone interview Sunday. “We didn’t think we were going to find him alive.”
But White was very much alive and even reluctant to come out of the wilderness, according to Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton.
“He wasn’t really wanting to come home,” Dutton said. “He had his mind make up to go on a walkabout and he was enjoying himself.”
The idea to search for White at the remote cabin came from his family in their discussions with Willy Wegner, the search coordinator.
“He (Wegner) paid attention to what they said,” Dutton said. “They came up with the idea — the remote idea — that he could be at the cabin.”
The family knew White had been to the cabin before.
But the cabin, 17 mile trek across rugged terrain in the wilderness, seemed like a longshot to everyone, but they took the shot and it paid off.
“I thought (while in flight to the cabin) that it would be incredibly surprising if he had made it that far,” Dutton said.
When they landed at the cabin, Dutton said, the first thing they noticed was White’s pistol hanging from a post. Then he and Flathead County Chief Deputy Larry Heigh spotted White inside the cabin.
White was flown by rescuers to the Smith Creek trailhead where his car had been left.
According to Steve White, his dad and Sheriff Dutton “went round and around and around” because the sheriff wanted him to go to the hospital.
“Finally the sheriff gave him two choices,” Steve said, “either go to the hospital or, the sheriff said, ‘I’m going to turn you over to the custody of your son and you go home and take your medication.’”
The choices, Steve said, actually were go to the hospital or go with him to have a beer.
Ken’s choice was a beer.
He was evaluated by paramedics at the Smith Creek trailhead and was at home Saturday night.
Family members first reported Smith missing on Wednesday evening. Thursday morning, family members found his car at the Smith Creek trailhead outside of Augusta.
A ground search was launched Thursday with about 25 personnel and three search dogs. A highway patrol helicopter was used to search from above. Initially, the search was fruitless.
According to both Dutton and Steve White, the turnout of volunteer searchers both with Lewis and Clark Search and Rescue and folks who live in Augusta was amazing.
“They were absolutely tireless,” Dutton said.
“Law enforcement and search and rescue out of Helena were wonderful,” said Steve White. “They were wonderful to work with, very professional, and they listened to us and worked with us.”
Steve White and other family members searched the area on horseback, assisted by Bob Chesmore, who’s with the LF Ranch. Chesmore also works as a hunting guide.
“He knows the area real well and was a great help,” White said.
On Sunday, White said his dad was staying with his family and was feeling OK.
“He’s doing well and we thank everyone for their prayers and their help,” he said.