Local duck hunters find stranded peers by Randy Dockendorf Mark Rife and friends Rod Fredrickson and Larry Mahr planned to celebrate the final weekend of duck hunting season. Instead, they are celebrating life, surviving a 24-hour ordeal in freezing cold with no food or water.
They were rescued by two Vermillion duck hunters, Bill Willroth Jr. and Pat Gross, at mid-day Sunday after spending the night at the headwaters of Lewis and Clark Lake.
The South Sioux City, NE, men remain in good physical and emotional shape, but not before they had all but given up hope.
�We planned to commemorate the final duck season of the millennium,� Rife said. �Instead, we are so happy to be alive.�
Knox County Sheriff Wes Eisenbeiss said the trio were victims of bad luck and getting caught on one of the coldest nights of the season.
�Duck hunters are dressed for the elements, but it was a very cold night and kind of wet,� Eisenbeiss said.
The friends� trauma began at sunup Saturday. Mahr and Rife dropped off Fredrickson at a duck blind east of Santee, they went seven to nine miles upstream to hunt on an island.
�We have been doing this for 30 years, and we know this river,� Rife said. �We stepped out of the boat for two minutes, but the wind was in the right direction and the anchor was not good. When I saw the boat floating 100 yards away, I wanted to puke.�
The men were already hungry and exhausted, he said.
�We ran all the way the length of the island,� Rife said. �We were sweaty and really cold. We had no food or water because it was in the boat. We had on every piece of survival gear. If our boat broke down instead of drifted away, we could have floated or done anything.�
Rife realized that no help was near.
�I knew we were so far up the river, and we had not seen anybody,� he said.
The two friends found themselves stranded on an island three-quarters of a mile long and 15 yards wide. Hunters passed by Fredrickson, unaware of his friends� plight.
�The ironic thing was that there were two cell phones in the duck blind, but Rod didn�t go through our stuff,� Rife said. �Why would he? He felt just terrible.�
Rife and Mahr scoured the island seeking something to burn for warmth. They burned the little available brush and weeds, taking turns sleeping and keeping the fire going.
�There was nothing on the island to help us, not even garbage,� Rife said. �We were going to freeze to death or try to get on the log and paddle across the river using our shotguns. And once we got into the water, we had 20 minutes before we freeze.�
Fredrickson shot his rifle to no avail. Mahr and Rife shouted for help, but the wind shifted and took away their cries.
�It was like everybody in the world was against us,� Rife said.
The windchill temperature stood at 12 degrees, and the wind shifted from the southwest to the northwest with steady rain. The wind gusted up to 50 miles an hour.
Fredrickson realized at 7 p.m. Saturday that his friends weren�t coming back, and he ran out of heat at 1 a.m. He had no food or water.
�Rod was alone with his own thoughts, while I had Larry to keep me company. And each of us had a dog,� Rife said.
Friends and family at first thought the trio decided to rough it, not thinking anything unusual of their vehicle sitting in place for a full day. And people on shore didn�t see the boat floating without its occupants.
�We didn�t know what was going on back at Santee. We wondered, why isn�t anybody starting a search party?� Rife said. �Then it started to snow and we couldn�t see or hear any boats.�
Rife said his thoughts turned to the worst.
�We were physically and emotionally drained,� he said. �I thought how we didn�t have a billfold or any ID on us. If we were found dead, no one would know who we were.�
Eventually, family and friends found Fredrickson, who told them of his missing hunting partners.
A rescue effort was organized by the Niobrara Fire Department, the Santee Wildlife Management, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, the Knox County Sheriff�s Office and volunteers.
�When I talked to the fire department, their district had already gotten some boats. I was surprised at the number of firemen who were already organized,� Eisenbeiss said.
Upstream, Willroth and Gross came upon the missing men.
�It was a strange deal. We were going up the river and we saw this guy on the bar waving his arms. They were cold, scared and miserable. They were pretty happy campers to see us,� Willroth said. �They were about four miles up the river, about midway between Santee and Running Water. We found their boat down the river. It had drifted almost back to Santee and was hung up on the island. The guys hopped in it, started the boat and headed for the duck blind.�
Willroth said he didn�t think the stranded men would have survived an attempt for shore.
�They were a couple hundred yards from the Nebraska shore. It was fast water, and I don�t think they would have made it,� he said. �I can�t believe that no one reported them missing. It was bizarre.�
Willroth added that the missing men were fortunate.
�They were lucky, because the weather warmed up from 18 degrees to 30 degrees by morning. This cold weather was supposed to hit a day earlier,� he said.
�It�s dangerous this time of year, and duck hunters look out for each other,� Willroth added. �They were far enough up the river where most people never go up and hunt. We decided to go up the river a little further than usual. Otherwise, we would never have gone there.�
Rife said he is grateful to his rescuers.
�I was never so happy to see anyone in my life. I wish there was something we could do for the guys that saved us,� he said. �If we had stayed one more night, I would have had an extremity amputated or I would be dead.�
Rife considers the 24-hour ordeal a life-changing experience.
�You read about these things, but you say it would never happen to me,� he said. �It gives you a whole new appreciation for life.�