Mexican drug cartels and the DEA. Maybe a fire. When a helicopter circled back around over the treetops in Colville National Forest’s Hoodoo Canyon late last month, swooping just over my campsite, I had already thought of these possibilities.
What I couldn’t have guessed is that it was a rescue team coming to the aid of a man with a tree branch sticking out of his thigh, who was bleeding out in the hot summer sun.
But that’s what was happening.
Hoodoo Canyon is a peaceful place, good for fishing, or spotting the occasional moose. And, apparently, a good place for a medical emergency.
Like me, Tony Beam had set off for the canyon that Friday. He announced to his friends on Facebook that he was “Going on a 4 day camping/bachelor party trip to Hoodoo Canyon!!! (redacted pictures to follow).”
It was a joke, probably, considering that the canyon is no Las Vegas: It’s kind of hard to get in trouble in the middle of nowhere.
But not impossible. Scrambling on some of the big rocks piled around Emerald Lake, Beam lost his balance and a boulder rolled over his left leg.
Not far from there, Air Force Technical Sergeant Chris Poole was hiking with his wife and two adult children.
“My son and I went to explore the lake a little bit further while my wife and daughter rested,” says Poole, 42, who serves as a medic. “I lost sight of my son and I heard this blood-curdling scream.”
Worried, he quickly found his son, and both made their way to Beam. It was just after 3 pm.
“We rounded some rocks … and he was sitting up and his left leg was covered in blood. He was wearing pants,” Poole says. “There was a lump in his leg. He pushed himself with his left leg and the bump disappeared.”
Poole figured it was Beam’s femur that was sticking out and that it had retracted itself when Beam moved. He got to work. After he cut away the pants, he noticed that Beam’s knee was “pretty significantly swollen.”
Poole bandaged the wound and stopped the bleeding. He grabbed one of Beam’s metal hiking poles and strapped it to his leg for an outer splint. His son grabbed a “sturdy stick,” which was used for an inner splint.
With the leg stabilized, Poole’s son found a “big broken-off slab of tree. We shoved that underneath him. … We wanted him level so his leg wasn’t below his heart.” They hung some tarp for shade, and Poole allowed Beam a bit of water — not too much, though, because Poole knew Beam was headed to surgery.
Poole kept an eye on Beam, monitoring for shock, and internal bleeding into the thigh. “It would be tight like a drum, and really big,” he says. “I was really conscious of that.”
Three hours passed.
Bill Beusan got the call from a ham-radio operator in the injured man’s party, who had contacted someone in Seattle, who had called emergency response in Spokane, who finally called Beusan, the coordinator for the Stevens County Team Rescue. “We were getting all kinds of calls,” he says.
Since the rescuers cover a large, rural area, the response is tiered: Hikers locate the injured camper to determine if a helicopter rescue is necessary or feasible. Beusan called MedStar and Fairchild Air Force Base, and both prepared to send helicopters.
First to head out on foot was a team of firemen from the joint Ferry-Stevens Fire Districts 3 and 8, which included an advanced EMT. Beusan’s team of six followed soon after, entering the canyon from the north and dragging behind them a titanium stretcher outfitted with one large, sturdy wheel.
There had already been a handful of parties with pitched tents at Emerald Lake. Then curious hikers and gawking campers began to gather. And now the rescuers piled on: one wayfaring medic, Beuman’s team of six, three firefighters, three more from the Stevens County sheriff’s ambulance service, and three border patrol agents. Poole, the Air Force medic, made his way with his family back to Trout Lake and their car.
But with the sun setting, Beusan says, there was still no sign of a helicopter.
“We couldn’t hear him or anything then — boom — there he was, above Trout Lake,” Beusan says. The radio operator on the ground called the MedStar crew, who didn’t realize they were still one lake away from the scene. Confused, they circled Trout Lake a few times, which in turn confused us campers below, who were still oblivious to what was happening just a few miles away.
Finally, MedStar got to Emerald Lake and began to set down in a muddy, rocky flat.
“It was a really touchy landing,” says Beusan. “I’m pretty proud of those boys.”
Beam was loaded up and taken to Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center, where they determined that his femur wasn’t broken. His kneecap was smashed and a stick the width of a broomstick gored his leg.
The next morning, some hippies came out of the woods to Trout Lake. As they changed their clothes, they asked the other campers if any firemen had been seen. Nope. They talked among themselves about the great camping trip, the excitement and the helicopters.
I eavesdropped and drank my coffee.
Beam, meanwhile, logged into Facebook later that day: “Ripped ACL, 6 inch deep puncture wound, compression damage. Helicopter ride to the hospital. Gosh, what a magical weekend adventure.”