Munching down Wyoming snow did nothing to quench the hunter’s thirst after two nights lost in the wilderness.
Dan Mulholland, 67, didn’t expect to get lost after nearly 50 years of hunting big game. But on the evening of Oct. 25, the rugged terrain played a trick on him.
He’d been hunting elk with a friend in the wilderness beyond La Barge, Wyoming, in the area of Twin Lakes. They set out the Friday before and his friend bagged an elk the next day. Mulholland watched for his turn.
A cold wind picked up that Wednesday evening, so Mulholland put on his wool clothes to insulate his nerves. The gesture may have saved his life.
He climbed a ridge and waited for the elk to come out. Darkness settled. No elk showed.
Figuring it would take him to a creek that he knew he could follow upstream back to his camp, Mulholland decided to climb down the other side of the ridge. When his feet hit the bottom, it was full dark. He had a head lamp on and could track his footing, but he lost sight of landmarks.
“Somehow I got turned around and I went the wrong way,” Mulholland told Cowboy State Daily on Thursday. “I went and I went. I kept thinking, ‘I’m going to come to camp any time now.’”
But he was plunging deeper into the wilderness. When he realized the error, he snuggled up under the sheltering arms of an Engelmann spruce tree and built a small fire.
The Englemann spruce is known for its hospitality, Mulholland said.
“They have limbs that come down pretty far to the ground and block the wind, and hold up snow,” he said. “Not as good as a tent of course, but better than an aspen tree.”
He broke off the branches right above his fire and built the blaze small and cozy.
Shrill Wind, Hot Needles
That’s when the snowstorm started, bringing furious gusts and plunging temperatures with it.
Mulholland packed snow onto the dry needles near his fire so his bed wouldn’t smolder underneath him, but he couldn’t sleep anyway. He fed his fire sticks all night.
The Ugly Canyon
In the morning he fired a shot into the air with his rifle, hoping his hunting partner would volley a shot to help him sound out the location of his camp.
When no volley sounded, Mulholland set out into the invisible realm of the still-raging blizzard, and met a trail.
“Great, this trail will take me out,” he thought, and followed it uphill toward what he thought was the trailhead.
But the trail led nowhere. He resigned himself to another sleepless night in the woods. He built a fire and ate snow. The snow couldn’t quench his thirst; he felt he was dying of it.
“The thirst is worse than the hunger,” he said.
Again, he didn’t sleep.
Friday dawned and the clouds lifted. Mulholland followed the trail and climbed up a ridge, hoping for a vantage, but he saw nothing familiar. So, he decided to head east toward the rising sun until he hit a creek or some other harbinger of survival.
The sun drew him into the depths of a steep, ugly canyon where a creek flowed. The creek bore signs of a beaver haven.
“I didn’t care, I had to have a drink,” said Mulholland. “I didn’t give a lick about giardia, I was dying of thirst.”
He followed the creek downstream for hours.
Make An X
A search and rescue helicopter rumbled overhead and Mulholland lurched backward and waved at it, but the helicopter passed him by.
The rescue party would tell him later that because he was standing, they mistook him for a tree. It’s hard to spot a lost person — even a flailing one — unless he lies down and forms an X on the ground with his body, they said.
There was nothing to do but keep walking. So he did, and he hit a trail that led him to a trailhead.
Though it was the heart of elk season, the trailhead had no pickups or side-by-side UTVs cluttered around it.
Mulholland kept walking. He now estimates he zig-zagged about 20 miles over those two days (13 miles as the crow flies), but not all of it was walking. Some of it was more like climbing, and on one bad, bone-on-bone knee past due for replacement surgery.
He had left his phone behind in the truck at camp because he didn’t have service while hunting anyway.
At what looked like 2:30 in the afternoon, a pickup approached and two mountain lion hunters stopped for Mulholland.
“They packed me up in their truck, gave me a couple breakfast sandwiches, a bottle of water, and we made for the telephone hill – a little hump you have cell service at, the only spot for several miles,” he said.
The hunters called Mulholland’s wife Donna. She squealed with joy.
Then she called the Lincoln County Search and Rescue. The agency’s search parties had been roving the woods looking for signs of Mulholland, along with ground searchers from Star Valley Search and Rescue and helicopter and ground teams from Teton County Search and Rescue.
Have Good Instincts
Even though the search and rescue teams didn’t find Mulholland before the hunters did, he was impressed with their efforts, he said.
“They had put about a dozen guys in the woods all day Thursday in that terrible snowstorm ‘til 10 o’ clock at night before they quit,” said Mulholland. “They were back at it Friday morning until they got the call I’d been found. I just can’t say enough about them.”
The rush of snow made tracking Mulholland difficult, says an Oct. 28 Facebook post by the Lincoln County Search and Rescue.
“(It’s) a miracle the hunter was able to withstand all of mother nature’s elements she was throwing at him (while) having very little resources,” said the post. “That’s why it is very important to be prepared and have good survival instincts.”
The agency could not be reached Friday for additional comment.
Cold Beer Doesn’t Hurt Either
The Lincoln County Search and Rescue commander still came up to see Mulholland to make sure he was in fact the lost hunter and it was safe to call off the search, Mulholland said.
“They were great. They hauled me down to their office, fed me a chili dinner — for which I was very grateful — and a cold beer, which didn’t hurt either,” he said.
In The Dark
While Mulholland was lost, his wife Donna was back home in Fort Bridger, Wyoming, clinging to her Bible and fighting back theories about what could have happened to her husband.
Anything could have happened, Dan Mulholland later realized. He could have slid off a rock, gotten a concussion and frozen to death, or broken a leg and been trapped.
“You know how people’s minds don’t have any facts to fix on and they begin to speculate,” he said.
But Donna said she wasn’t frantic. One Bible verse, Isaiah 45:3, revolved in her head for hours. In it, God promised to reveal himself to a pagan king by giving him treasures that have been hidden in dark places.
Donna Mulholland said tense hours like those are an ultimatum of faith.
“When times are rough it’s just – either God is or he isn’t,” she told Cowboy State Daily.
Between The Stained Glass
She wasn’t the only person battling her fears.
Mulholland has pastored the small congregation at Fort Bridger’s Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church for almost 26 years.
Another Lutheran pastor and past hunting buddy, the Rev. Mark Mumme of Riverton’s Trinity Lutheran Church, drove down with his wife Beth on Friday morning to arrange a prayer vigil so Mulholland’s flock could pray for his return.
“(We knew) his wife was suffering in one way; the church was suffering in a very different way, and if he’s not found they lose a pastor,” he said.
Plus, Beth wanted to sit with Donna through the long hours, Mumme told Cowboy State Daily.
Meanwhile, Lutheran pastors and congregations across the state had heard the news and were praying, Mumme said.
Donna got her husband’s phone call after the Mummes got to town.
Mumme shifted gears and organized a thanksgiving church service instead of a prayer vigil.
More than 50 people filled the church – more than double the usual Sunday faithful of about 20 congregants.
Mulholland was amazed, Mumme said.
“He was more amazed by the number of people that turned out than he was interested in telling his story,” added Mumme.
Back At It
On a phone call Thursday, Mumme asked Mulholland how he’s doing.
Mulholland said he must be doing OK; he was out checking his game traps.
“He was back out in the wilderness doing his thing,” Mumme said with a chuckle, adding that as a minimalist hunter accustomed to hunting for days on horseback in the back country, Mulholland is the closest thing he’s seen to a real-life mountain man.
As for Mulholland, he said he made a mistake when he got turned around Wednesday evening, but he’s chalked it up to a learning experience. In the future, he may pack a GPS or load a hunting maps application onto his phone, he said.
“It’s been a good lesson for me, but I’m really surprised anyone would want to read about it,” he told Cowboy State Daily.
On Friday at publication time, Mulholland was back out elk hunting. Donna said she didn’t expect him back until after dark – but he won’t be camping in the woods this time.
Clair McFarland can be reached at Clair@CowboyStateDaily.com.