WHITE BIRD, Idaho – On the day he crashed his small plane, the off-duty Idaho Fish and Game officer was flying low, scouting a remote rapid on the Salmon River near this north central Idaho outpost for what he thought was the body of a missing angler.
The object Paul Christensen saw during his Tuesday afternoon flight turned out not to be the missing fisherman who likely drowned near Riggins in November.
But the 23-year-old pilot had a new dilemma to deal with: The engine in his Taylorcraft F21 sputtered; the plane was going down.
“I went to give it throttle and it hesitated excessively,” Christensen told the Lewiston Tribune, of the moments before the plane hit the river short of a gravel bar where he was attempting to land.
So began a cold night in remote Idaho backcountry.
The plane flipped forward in the water. Christensen, unhurt, waded to shore in waist deep water, but was unable to recover survival gear from the plane.
Temperatures in the region were near freezing, with the wind gusting through the Salmon River Canyon. Christensen says he was wet from his midsection to his toes and was wearing only blue jeans, a sweatshirt, a jacket and a baseball cap. He kept moving for about four hours until darkness made it unsafe to negotiate the steep river bank.
Resigning himself to spending the rest of the night in the outdoors, he gathered grass from the surrounding hillside for insulation, then hunkered down.
Meanwhile, deputies at the Idaho County Sheriff’s Office in Grangeville were notified that a plane was emitting its emergency locator transmitter signal. A search and rescue operation was mounted by the sheriff’s office, Idaho Department of Fish and Game officers and the Idaho Division of Aeronautics.
Would-be rescuers began searching the Camas Prairie near Tolo Lake, but the river canyon created a big challenge: The emergency signal was bouncing off its steep walls, making pinpointing the downed plane difficult. It wasn’t found until Wednesday.
Christensen resumed his upriver hike at daybreak. Almost simultaneously, Fish and Game officers Roy Kinner, Jim Rolle and George Fischer launched a jet boat to search the river canyon, putting in at Hammer Creek before motoring downstream where they found Christensen just before 9 a.m.
Christensen credits surviving the cold night with keeping calm and approaching his dilemma rationally.
“I had engine trouble and ended up crashing in the Salmon River in the dead of winter and somehow managed to walk away from it,” he said. “I figure I’m the luckiest man out there.”
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