Rescuers stumble across missing vet

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Stuart Nelson, middle, experiences the instability of a canoe while riding with his Swiss rescuers. Nelson had been trapped in the Yukon wilderness when he was separated from his boat during a kayaking trip. (Courtesy photo)

Editor’s note: This is the end of a two-part series on Stuart Nelson’s survival in the Yukon. Check out the beginning in Saturday’s paper or on the web.

SANDPOINT — His boat lost in the Yukon waterways, Stuart Nelson prepared to survive as long as possible in hopes of rescue.

The weather throughout Nelson’s stand on the gravel bar was almost uniformly miserable. Gray, ominous clouds bubbled overhead during the daytime, often drizzling and sometimes pouring down sheets of rain.

Nights were worse. During the darkened hours, Nelson’s chief danger — hypothermia — was at its most potent. It was critical to keep the fire lit at all times. His space blanket next to useless, Nelson constructed a gravel barrier to prevent immolation as he hugged his campfire for warmth.

On his first Saturday while stranded, Nelson heard an airplane. Running onto the gravel bar, he could see the little bush plane flying only about 40 feet overhead. But Nelson was out of the pilot’s line of sight. He rushed to an area within the pilot’s field of vision, waving his arms and yelling, but it was no use. The pilot flew on, completely unaware of his presence.

Many days later, he spotted another airplane. But that aircraft was far overhead, impossible to flag down and certainly not looking for him.

The harshness of Nelson’s living conditions took its toll. Inadequate sleep and nourishment wore on his mental state and sheared weight from his body. He lost one of his precious fishing lures when his line snapped. The constant battle against the wet and cold resulted in an infected toenail that he treated daily with iodine while drying his socks.

One particularly nasty evening, a heavy rain tapered off just as darkness fell. Nelson had a numbingly cold, damp evening ahead of him. More than ever before, it was essential to keep the fire lit. At that point, another presence revealed itself.

“It was like there was someone right beside me keeping me awake and saying, ‘Come on, Stuart. The fire’s going out. You have to stoke the fire,’ ” Nelson said. 

Nelson managed to keep his campfire going all night.

“I don’t know whether it was God or a guardian angel or what with me that night,” he said. “But I sure am thankful.”

On Saturday, Sept. 4, Nelson was drying his socks by the fire. Looking up from his work, he spotted three canoes heading down the river. Jumping from his campsite, he stormed the gravel bar barefoot, wildly waving his arms.

“I must have looked pretty crazy to them,” he said. “I was barefoot, had a full beard and was dressed in filthy clothes.”

The canoes swung toward Nelson and six people emerged. A group of outdoor enthusiasts from Europe, the party consisted of five Swiss and one German. All of them spoke English — some better than others — and Nelson told them his story. They said they were canoeing to an area called Taco Bar, where they were meeting up with a pilot and that they’d be happy to give him food and relay his location to the authorities — Nelson’s satellite phone was lost when he became separated from his kayak.

For Nelson, it meant six more days on the gravel bar waiting for rescue. That evening, the group invited him to dinner at their nearby campsite.

“We had noodles with some kind of meat,” Nelson said. “It was so good.”

During the meal, the group started talking amongst themselves in German. After a brief conversation, they told Nelson it would be better for him to join them on the trip to Taco Bar.

The trip to Taco Bar took six days. Since Nelson had no gear or sleeping bags, he decided to sleep out by the campfire as he had for the past two weeks. That allowed him to keep the fire alive when his traveling companions awoke in the morning. He also dug latrines for the group’s campsites.

“On one memorable evening, we made bush pizzas with lots of cheese and fried in mineral oil.” Nelson said. “That must be the best thing I’ve ever eaten. They were so cheesy and greasy and good.

“After I finished mine, they asked me, ‘Do you want another one?’ and I said, ‘Can I?’”

When they reached Taco Bar, Nelson noticed that the expected bush plane approached from an unanticipated direction. The pilot spotted him immediately upon exiting the plane.

“Are you Stuart Nelson?” he asked.

“Yes,” Nelson replied.

“I can’t believe it’s you,” the pilot said. “The whole world’s looking for you!”

 The pilot flew the party to the small Yukon town Mayo, where Nelson had originally departed three weeks ago. His passport and cash were gone, lost with his boat. So were his truck keys, but incredibly, Nelson found some misplaced spares sitting in the bed. After making some calls, Nelson managed to get some traveling cash and secure his way back home. Days later, he found himself in joyous reunion with his family and friends.

Fellow outdoorsmen discovered Nelson’s boat on Sept. 17. He plans to return this month and salvage whatever was not lost to the river.

In October, one of Nelson’s Swiss rescuers, Pascal Fleury, sent him a letter. “Living in Switzerland … We are probably not really able to get the meaning of being all alone,” Fleury wrote. “I am deeply impressed on how calmly you seemed to accept what had happened to you.”

But in Nelson’s mind, he never really was alone. And when he next returns to the wilderness, it’s likely that the solitude will seem a little less overbearing for his experience.

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