After a Friday and Saturday full of family celebration for his son Peyton’s 18th birthday, Mike Bundy was looking forward to a Sunday spent hunting elk in the North Idaho panhandle on Nov. 15 with his younger son, 12-year-old Parker.
Mike, a lifelong hunter and fisherman, and Parker set out from their home in Post Falls at 4 a.m. Sunday for a spot Mike knew well, up in the hills north of Kellogg, about an hour from home.
Since he resigned from his position as the varsity wrestling coach at Spokane’s North Central High School after four seasons and limited himself to a few private lessons per week or occasionally helping out at the Inland Northwest Training Center, he had more time to enjoy the outdoors.
“My son and I both drew cow tags for the season, and I had seen a cow in that area about a week before but wasn’t able to get a shot off,” Mike said. “I was hoping to find that one again.”
Mike and Parker stalked through steep terrain amid snow without success for over 3 hours.
“Parker toughed it out for a while, but I could see that he was miserable and wanting to go back to the car, so we got there around 11 a.m. and turned on the Seahawks game,” Mike said. “Before we called it a day, I wanted to check out a different area for next time, about 45 minutes away from where we were on back roads.”
On the way to that second spot, Parker thought he’d seen an elk out the window, and Mike pulled over with his rifle ready, but didn’t see anything. Mike decided to keep looking, over a nearby ridge. He asked Parker if he wanted to come along, but still getting warm from the morning’s hunt, Parker fatefully chose to stay in the car, armed with snacks and the Seahawks on the radio.
Before Mike left Parker in the car, he jokingly asked his son if he could drive down the mountain in case Mike got lost, even though he expected to be gone for just an hour. Parker confidently said yes, he could.
It was just after noon on Nov. 15. Father and son wouldn’t see each other again for over 24 hours.
Mike set out from the car on an old forest service road, from which another road split off heading up the ridge. He walked on the second road for 25 minutes and planted himself on a tree stump for a while scouting the terrain.
“About an hour had gone by, and as much as I wanted to stay out there, I promised my son I’d come back,” he said. “I pulled out my phone and used an app called onX Hunt that said I was 246 yards away from the car. Out in the woods, that’s a ways, and I noticed that I only had 15% battery left on my phone. But as I was walking back the screen just went black. I was just thankful I was headed in the right direction before my phone shut off.”
He returned to the road spur he used just after leaving Parker and the car and walked the same five or 10 minutes he had an hour ago, expecting to see his son waiting for him.
“I was thinking to myself, ‘I should have seen it by now,’ ” Bundy said. “As soon as I thought that the road I was on just dead-ended. Just trees and hillside. I stopped for a second and wondered how I could have gotten that turned around.”
He walked up to the top of the ridge to get an aerial perspective, but he looked down and saw nothing he recognized from only 60 minutes before.
“Just fresh snow and trees. Every direction looked the same,” he said.
Bundy continued on along the ridge and ran into another road, which he followed and was momentarily encouraged by the sight of footprints – until he realized they were his own.
“There was that dead end again,” he said. “I walked in a circle around the hilltop. I messed myself up.”
Starting to panic
He came down the ridge and kept running into logging service roads, but never the one he and Parker took to their original destination. Three hours had passed since he left Parker in the car.
“I started to panic a little bit at that point,” he said “I was trying to keep it together and I knew that I had about an hour before dark. I hadn’t planned on going far from the vehicle, so I only had a big puffy Walmart jacket and two guns. It was not a good situation.”
Bundy kept walking and found a rivulet running down a cutback around the hill. He followed the water, hoping it would lead him to something he could use as a landmark. The increasing desperation manifested itself in Bundy running through the woods, following the rivulet.
He finally reached the creek bed, soaked in sweat. As he kept crossing and recrossing the creek, which deepened as he went, Bundy found himself drenched up to his knees. After three more hours of walking, which put him at around 6 p.m., he made a gut-wrenching discovery.
“I wasn’t paying as much attention as I should have. I was just so focused on getting back to my son or getting to help. I walked along the creek bed for three hours in the dark, I saw that the snow seemed deeper than when I started. That’s when I realized I had just walked three hours in the wrong direction. That was a hard pill to swallow. I had walked so far already, it was starting to get colder and I knew I had to backtrack, climb the ridge again and find a road.”
Bundy tried to climb, but it was pitch dark at 8:30 and the grade was steep. At one point he slipped and was saved from serious injury by hugging a tree with both arms. It was a pivotal moment.
“I was thinking, ‘What are you doing?’ ” he said. “This is stupid. If I fell and broke something, I was going to die. Nobody would ever find me. I ended up getting smart and I came to the realization that if I didn’t make it out nobody knew where my son was. I attached my survival to my son’s survival, which really pushed me. Just being a parent and having that worry forced me to just keep going.”
Out in the cold
Bundy backtracked much of the way along the creek bed until after 10 . On a night in which the temperature dropped to 12 degrees and never got above the mid-20s, things were getting more dire with each passing minute.
“It snowed that morning and cleared out, so I didn’t have insulation from clouds anymore,” he said. “It just made everything a lot colder.”
The combination of fatigue and stress began to take its toll on Bundy, who was a two-time state wrestling champion at Lake Stevens High School in Washington, a Cadet and Junior All-American in freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling and wrestled at Indiana University and North Idaho College in Coeur d’Alene.
“I thought I heard something that sounded like a cat, but more of a growl,” he said. “I hadn’t thought too much about animals. I was focused on my son. But the growl was pretty clear, and it obviously freaked me out. I pulled out an old .38 Special, 1955 Officer’s Model that was passed down from my grandpa when he passed away, and I just started looking for eyes, because I couldn’t see anything else.”
After 10 minutes of frantic scanning in the dark, Bundy kept moving as the cold and thirst began to overtake him. He drank out of the creek, preferring any bacterial issues that may present themselves a few days later to potential death sooner than that.
“I kind of started to hallucinate a little bit as my body temperature kept falling. I had been walking for 10½ hours,” he said. “I thought I saw something that looked like the Northern Lights and later on I saw what looked clearly like a truck with guys standing in the back of it with hay bales. It turned out to be a boulder next to a downed tree and shrubs. I was definitely not in a good way.”
Realizing that he needed to conserve some energy for a possible second day of trekking through the woods, Bundy sought shelter where he could. He found a tree that had hanging branches that served as a makeshift lean-to, but as soon as he stopped moving, the shivering began. It was so dark that he took off both of his gloves, separately, and laid them down near where he was sitting, but then couldn’t find them again minutes later.
“The shivering got worse and worse to the point where it was uncontrollable and painful,” he said. “I was telling myself out loud, ‘You can make it. You can make it. It’s going to get light pretty soon.’ ”
He drew on his wrestling experience to fight through those predawn hours when his outlook felt the bleakest.
“Growing up as a wrestler, you just develop another level of toughness,” he said. “You put your body into uncomfortable situations, and you have to suck it up.”
Two hours before first light, Bundy said the shivering suddenly stopped and he felt like a heat blanket was placed on the upper part of his back. A mysterious calm came over him, and he felt like he could almost fall asleep. Somehow, he resisted the first good feelings he had in hours, and with what he said was divine intervention, he hauled himself to his feet and started doing jumping jacks, anything to stay in motion.
“It was like God was lifting me up,” he said. “I couldn’t let myself lay down. I kept walking around, like I was doing interval training as a wrestler. I spent 10-15 minutes up and moving, I’d take a drink and then I sat on the downed tree for 10 minutes until I started shivering again. I repeated that until first light came.”
It likely saved his life.
Firmly convinced he wouldn’t survive another night, Bundy summoned the energy to move again at first light. He climbed the ridge opposite him, taking 90 minutes to put 1,100 vertical feet behind him and arriving at a road nearly covered with overgrown foliage.
He kept climbing, and near where he saw the truck that wasn’t really there, he turned to his right and saw a trail that he said looked like it was carved out of the brush with a machete. Bundy followed the trail for about 15 minutes before coming to a road that looked fairly well used to compared to the others he had seen.
Bundy walked on that road for three hours, now in full daylight, until he heard a sound that he initially thought was some grouse but turned out to be the whap-whap of a rescue helicopter overhead. He fired several rounds into the air, but he wasn’t noticed. Bundy didn’t want to waste daylight trying to be seen by the helicopter, so he kept moving down the road until he could see a river and an asphalt road below his position.
Bundy slid down a snowy hill on his backside toward the paved road, which took 30 minutes. Mike was startled to find that he knew exactly where he was – about a mile from where he and Parker had pulled over to investigate the elk Parker thought he saw the previous morning.
In the 24 hours he was alone in the woods, Mike traveled 20 miles in the wrong direction and nearly 20 miles back in the right direction. He continued on, determined to stay on that paved road, come what may.
Out of the woods
“A white Ford F-150 comes pulling up, and if I’m the driver and I saw a guy coming down the middle of the road holding a rifle and a pistol, not walking very well and doesn’t look very clean, I might not have stopped,” Bundy said. “I set my guns down in the middle of the road and he pulled up next to me and asked if I was OK. I said, ‘Sir, I need some help.’ He told me a lot of people were looking for me and he knew exactly where to take me.”
The gentleman in the F-150 was an electrician heading out on a house call and ferried Bundy back to a checkpoint where the rescue helicopter had just landed.
After a quick trip to where search and rescue personnel were based, Bundy was brought into a heated trailer where it took medics three tries to get a few drops of blood from his fingers to check his blood sugar, which was found to be 46 milligrams per deciliter. Any reading below 54 is considered dangerous.
He lost 20 pounds in 24 hours and his core body temperature was 90.6 when he was rescued. A temperature below 95 is the threshold for hypothermia.
“It was pretty much chaos from there, because no one knew that Parker was missing,” Mike said. “I kept asking about him and arguing with the search and rescue people. Finally, someone overheard and told me my son was safe.”
A family friend happened to be coming down the mountain and saw the Bundy’s vehicle, and when neither Mike nor Parker returned home, the friend recalled that and went back up there around 7 p.m.
“I think he scared Parker to death when he came up to the door, but it wasn’t as bad as it could have been,” said Mike, who still hasn’t recovered feeling in his fingertips and toes in the weeks since his ordeal.
That didn’t stop him and Parker returning to the same woods a few weeks later to bag a cow elk.
Mike shut his phone off upon returning home to Post Falls, leaving the 47 text messages from friends and family for another time.
He lauded his uncle, Larry Bundy, his cousin, Jason Abramoski, and friends Josh LaBrech, Tyler Vranich and Lonnie Zuniga for aiding search and rescue teams through Sunday night and into Monday morning.
He also told Kevin Roberts, a North Idaho College wrestling coach during his career with the Cardinals, that if he were not a wrestler, equipped with the unique mindset the sport requires, he wouldn’t be alive.
“If someone is ever out there and remembers my story and it forces them to bring their backpack, have an extra layer of clothes, a lighter or matches or a head lamp, it’s worth it to tell the story,” he said.
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