On a Friday after work, Pat Lusk and his buddy Jason Gritten loaded up Lusk’s truck and camper to spend the weekend on the Salmon River, a routine they’ve gone through many times before.
As the two men pulled out of the driveway May 15, looking excited about a weekend of hiking and canoeing, the daughter of Lusk's elderly neighbors was arriving at her parents' house for a visit. She saw the men and wanted to thank Lusk for helping her mother with some chores recently, but they were already on the way.
"I'll catch him when they get back," she recalls thinking.
She never got that chance. On Sunday evening, when the men were supposed to return, family members reported them missing. Idaho County Sheriff's Deputy Cpl. Jonny Wilson found Lusk's truck and trailer near the French Creek area of the Salmon River, but no sign of the men. On Monday morning, the Sheriff's Office received a report of a capsized canoe matching the description of the one the men were using. Still no signs of them, though.
By 9 am that morning, sheriff's Cpl. Justin Scuka — along with Roy Kinner and Dennis Brandt, two Idaho Fish and Game enforcement officers, and Pat's dad, Alan — were on the river in a 22-foot jet boat. They were optimistic, but the two friends could have been in trouble long before family realized they were missing.
Family members don't usually ride with the search and rescue team, Kinner says, but Alan Lusk thought there was a pretty good chance they would find the men walking down the riverbank. As the boat skimmed across the river, he scanned for any signs of the two friends.
Kinner, an Idaho Fish and Game enforcement officer since 1988, has been involved in many search and rescue missions. Initially, the idea is to look for any sign of the missing people, such as coolers, life jackets, paddles, cushions, clothes or tracks on the shore, he says. Sometimes helicopters are brought in to survey the area, and the Sheriff's Office uses ATVs to canvass the surrounding forest. Eventually, Kinner says, cadaver dogs are brought in, but that hasn't yet been the case for Lusk and Gritten.
"Usually by the time I'm called," Kinner says, "it's a recovery, [not a rescue]."
During the six-hour search Monday, the four men found one of the wooden paddles, a spot on the north side of the river where it looked like a canoe had been dragged ashore and two sets of tracks that led to a hot spring and back. They found nothing else.
In the spring, river levels tend to rise from rainfall and snowmelt. Currently, the Salmon River is running at 30,000 cubic feet per second, a measurement of the volume of water passing any given point in the river. That number is 10 times the river's normal rate.
"When the river is running fast, it doesn't take much to take a small boat," Kinner says. "It's very likely they got pushed under the water and pinned under a rock by the current. When the hydraulics are this extreme and the water is this cold, you can't swim out of it."
The water temperature only compounds the danger of the powerful current. At 50 degrees, it doesn't take long for the body to start losing oxygen. It gets harder to breathe and the muscles cramp up.
"It's paralyzing," Kinner says. "This happens numerous times a year in Idaho, where somebody goes into the river and unfortunately they don't come out."
Pat Lusk was never one to give up easily. Even from an early age, about 6 or 7, he taught himself how to drive an electric forklift in his dad's shop (with supervision, of course). When he got a new cellphone, Lusk would sit, pressing all the buttons, until he had every function mastered. And when his father's four-wheeler started overheating recently, Alan Lusk took it to three different mechanics near his home in Eagle, Idaho. None of them could figure it out.
"Why don't you bring it up here and let me look at it," Lusk told his dad. "I bet I know what the problem is."
Alan Lusk loaded the four-wheeler onto his trailer once more and headed north to Coeur d'Alene, where Lusk lived with his wife, Megan. After tinkering with the vehicle for 12 hours, Alan Lusk says, his son had it ready to go — a buried radiator was caked full of mud.
"He just had a knack for that kind of mechanical stuff, even from a young age," Alan Lusk says. "He could drive and fix anything."
Lusk's mechanical inclination and his affinity for camping and hunting gave his family hope during the week of searching following the men's disappearance. After four long days of looking for his son, Alan Lusk uses the past tense during a phone conversation Thursday evening.
"He was very honest and caring and a hard worker," he says. "A very loving son. We talked every day."
With a lean build on a 5-foot-9 frame, a scruffy beard framing his face and short, cropped brown hair usually matted down by a hat, Lusk was always doing or planning something. He loved the outdoors — camping, hiking, hunting, mudding — and he and his chocolate Lab, Moose, were inseparable, Alan Lusk says.
Lusk always seemed to be thinking of other people. He constantly reminded his dad how much he loved him and made a point to check in on him after his mother died last September. He and his wife grew vegetables in their backyard garden and shared the extras with neighbors. During the winter, Lusk would shovel his elderly next-door neighbors' driveway before they even woke up.
Lusk, 27, and Gritten, 35, met as neighbors, and bonded over a love for the outdoors. KREM 2 reports the men were refurbishing Lusk's camper trailer and were trying it out the weekend they disappeared.
Gritten owns an advertising company and moved to Coeur d'Alene so he could be closer to the outdoors. Pictures of him on a boat, which still sits covered in his driveway, are all over Facebook. Lusk was approaching his four-year anniversary as a lead fabricator at Ground Force Worldwide in Post Falls. He earned employee of the year honors in 2014 and was considered a leader in the company. Employees at Ground Force wore yellow ribbons in support of the family during the week following the men's disappearance.
Last Tuesday, the Sheriff's Office continued the search for Lusk and Gritten, with ATVs and several deputies walking the riverbanks. An outpouring of support on social media drew family and friends to the area where the Salmon River intersects French Creek, but still they found nothing.
By Wednesday, the Sheriff's Office called off its search, but two deputies volunteered to help family and friends who refused to give up.
At 9:20 pm Wednesday, Megan Lusk posted on her Facebook page: "No news yet. Search and rescue has suspended the search. It is up to us now. If anyone has any resources that can aide us we will take it. I refuse to believe anything till I have evidence. Please pray for us and pull your resources in."
A crowdfunding campaign, started to help Megan's search for her husband, has raised $850.
The family continued to search Thursday, with the same results. Reached by phone that evening, Alan Lusk sounded tired from days of searching with no success, but his voice strengthened with pride as he described his son.
"He was very easy to talk to," he says. "He was very patriotic, a hard worker and loved the outdoors. Once he got up in the morning, he didn't stop until the day was done."
He recalls good memories spent at the family's cabin in Round Valley, on about 7 acres where Lusk and his siblings would ride four-wheelers and snowmobiles.
"We all have our time, and it's just far too short for some of those that are close to us," he says. "He lived his life the way he wanted to, but it's just too soon. It looks like the river took him." ♦