On the one hand, Eric Valentine, an 80-year-old former Scoutmaster, is lucky that a group of Scouts just happened to pass by in their canoes minutes after he fell down a rocky riverbank, seriously injuring himself.
On the other hand, there’s nothing lucky about a Scout troop being prepared.
Knowing they were entering an area of the Snake River with limited cellphone service, Troop 77 from Eagle, Idaho (Mountain West Council), carried one ham radio, one satellite communicator and several short-distance radios with them.
Knowing it would take a significant amount of time for first responders to arrive in case of an emergency, they had one adult with wilderness first-responder training and several Scouts familiar with basic Scouting first-aid skills.
Knowing that accidents do sometimes happen, they had an adult in a support vehicle on the nearest road with his own radio, just in case.
If luck truly is the result of preparation meeting opportunity, then sure, maybe a little bit of luck saved Valentine’s life.
But mostly it was the youth and adults of Troop 77, who knew exactly what to do when the situation presented itself.
As he was lying helpless on the ground, Valentine asked God to send angels, he told the Scouts during a happy reunion at his Boise hospital bed days later.
He got exactly what he needed in the form of Troop 77.
A critical mistake
On May 6, Valentine was hiking alone through Hells Canyon, taking pictures and otherwise enjoying his day. Everything changed, however, when he bent over to remove a weed that had become stuck in his boot.
Valentine lost his balance and tumbled a terrifying 60 feet from the trail to an area just above the water below. His belongings became scattered across the slope, but that was the least of the man’s problems. The main concern was that he was in intense pain. He had suffered injuries to his ankle, lower leg, back, neck and head.
Valentine knew he was in a position that would make it difficult for anyone to spot him. So he began the painstaking process of crawling back up the slope, attempting to return to the trail, where he’d be easier to spot by passersby.
Then came his first lucky break: A husband and wife saw Valentine from a distance and could tell by his movements that something wasn’t right. The husband — a Boise firefighter — drove off in their car in search of a spot where he could get cellphone service. The wife stayed behind. A short time later, she spotted the first of Troop 77’s canoes.
She waved her arms and got the attention of Scouts McCoy Bondelid and Henry Cavanagh.
“Someone’s fallen off the trail!” she yelled out. “They need medical assistance!”
Henry used his radio to communicate to all of the adults that there was a person up ahead who needed urgent medical attention. Then the two paddled forward, followed not far behind by the rest of the group.
Scouts in Action
McCoy and Henry sped downriver, eyes peeled for the person in question. Minutes later, they spotted a figure wearing a red jacket climbing up a steep slope, appearing to collapse once he reached the top.
The Scouts ran their canoe aground. Henry grabbed their first-aid kit. And the two of them scrambled up the rocks to get to the injured man.
“It was really interesting because he was super calm about it,” says McCoy. “He stuck his hand out for me to shake and he introduced himself as Eric Valentine. I said, ’I’m McCoy and this is Henry and we’re with Troop 77.’”
Valentine told the boys he had lost his backpack, but he had managed to put on his bright red jacket so he’d be easier to spot.
“If he hadn’t had that jacket on, there would have been no way I could have seen him,” says McCoy.
The next person to arrive was Henry’s dad, assistant Scoutmaster Brian Cavanagh. Another stroke of “luck” — the elder Cavanagh is a certified wilderness first responder.
With McCoy providing support for Valentine’s injured ankle and Henry stabilizing his neck and head, Brian Cavanagh went through the patient assessment system, noting a right ankle laceration; pain, tenderness and limited strength and motion with foot flexion; a laceration to the forehead; and tenderness of the upper cervical area.
Cavanagh noted that Valentine was, in technical terms, “oriented X 4,” meaning he knew who he was, where he was, the current date and current situation.
That was a good sign, but it didn’t change the fact that Valentine needed to get to a hospital fast.
Everyone doing their part
As more and more Scouts and adults arrived at the scene via their canoes, more and more people began to help.
Cavanagh asked Life Scout Nathaniel Jacob to take over the important role of keeping Valentine’s head stabilized.
Assistant Scoutmaster Derek Hester brought water for Valentine to drink and for Cavanagh to use to clean the wounds.
Henry grabbed a large orange survival blanket to make their location easier to spot from a distance.
Scout Brendan Karabensh and other youth shuttled medical supplies back and forth from the canoes below. Other Scouts began to gather Valentine’s belongings, which were still scattered across the slope. Adult leader Craig Lemoge stayed with the rest of the Scouts who were still on the river, keeping them safe and entertained during the ordeal.
“I went and got a pencil so we could take notes about the incident,” says Nathaniel. “Mr. Hester, Henry and I took notes about the situation at different times and added to it as more information was gathered.”
Taking notes in a situation like this is a good idea, since you never know what kind of questions an emergency responder might ask, and you can’t always trust yourself to remember every detail under such stressful conditions.
Assistant Scoutmaster Nate Bondelid sent an SOS signal from his satellite communicator, and within minutes was communicating with emergency dispatch services about what was happening.
“They asked about our location and the easiest way to get to us,” says Bondelid.
Knowing a helicopter could not land at their current location, the group discussed making a stretcher with their oars, but ultimately decided moving the man was too risky, considering the significant pain he was experiencing in his back and neck.
Valentine was stable for the time being, but a central problem remained: How could they get him safely out of there?
Finally, help arrives
Right about that time, a motorboat just happened down the river. Thanks to the survival blanket, its occupants were able to spot Valentine and the members of Troop 77. Another “lucky” break!
Remember the firefighter whose wife had signaled to the Scouts as he desperately searched for a spot where he could get a cellphone signal? The group was now in touch with him through a series of satellite hookups, so the adults asked the motorboat driver if they could pick up the firefighter from the other side of the river and bring him to their current location.
Upon arriving, the firefighter agreed with Brian Cavanagh’s assessment — and with the group’s decision to not move the victim for now. The firefighter, it turns out, had driven to a nearby hydroelectric power dam. Employees there had called the local sheriff, then grabbed their own first-aid supplies, including a real backboard that could be used to safely move the victim. Then they got in their own boat and headed down the river.
Emergency responders had arrived on the opposite side of the river, and the group communicated via the radios on how best to get Valentine to safety. In the meantime, the Scouts continued to provide shade and water for Valentine.
About 20 minutes later, the boat from the hydroelectric power dam arrived. With the proper equipment now in hand — and under the direction of the firefighter — the entire group helped carry the man and his belongings to the boat, which transported him to an area where he could be loaded onto a helicopter. From there, he was taken to a hospital and is expected to recover.
A few days later, some members of Troop 77 were reunited with Valentine in his hospital room. The man admitted he had made one major mistake — hiking into the wilderness without a buddy. He told the group how just a few years ago he had been part of a Scout troop that rescued some rafters who had gotten themselves into some trouble.
He never thought he’d be the one who’d need help.
“What are the chances there’d be a troop from Eagle, Idaho?” Valentine said in an article in the Idaho Statesmen newspaper. “That’s almost impossible, but not with God.”
Nothing “lucky” about it.