Perilous Rescue


The five-foot whitecaps smashed relentlessly against the sandy shores of Shoshone Lake. Sam Christiansen and Darrel Gibbons, both in their mid 30s, peered nervously from Moose Creek Campsite on the south beach to catch a glimpse of a little fleet of five brightly colored canoes. They had seen the small craft on the lake before the storm began. Now, although they were grateful to be planted firmly on the shore, their concern for those on the wind-ravaged waters grew with every passing moment.

Both men, teachers at South Fremont High School in St. Anthony, Idaho, and high priests in their respective wards, held a wary respect for Shoshone’s windy temper tantrums. They had learned that failure to clear the lake at first breeze was asking for trouble.

Shoshone Lake is an old volcanic crater measuring several hundred feet deep. Its seven-mile length and three-mile width nestle at the foot of pine-forested mountains in the south central portion of Yellowstone National Park. It is an area of primitive beauty that abounds in wildlife and spectacular mountain scenery. Warm, sandy beaches invite the adventurer to enjoy a true wilderness experience.

Motorized watercraft are not permitted on the lake, and access to it must be by backpacking or canoe. Being expert canoeists, Sam and Darrel looked forward each year to spending a few days in solitude and relaxation doing some real canoeing and fishing for the big wild trout that cruise the lake’s shores. Little did they realize that this trip would be different. Thursday, July 20, 1978, was to have an eternal impact on their lives and the lives of many others.

The day had been cloudy, with intermittent rain, too miserable to do any serious canoeing, or for that matter, even much fishing. Open campfire cooking, mixed generously with dozing and relaxing in the six-man tent, was the height of the day’s activity. Darrel’s father, Ray Gibbons, a Utah dairy farmer, and Sam’s two boys, Craig, 12, and David, 8, accompanied them. Ray Gibbons had commented that the upcoming night might be a long one due to the extra shut-eye.

Earlier that same day, eight explorers and two leaders from the Wilford Idaho Ward had set out for Shoshone Lake. The Wilford area was the first to be hit by the devastating Teton Flood on June 5, 1976. These young men who had lost their homes in that flood were once again to face a life-and-death crisis.

As the day began, their small craft, loaded to the gunnels with food and camping gear, had glided across Lewis Lake, then up the Lewis River four miles to Shoshone Lake. Each canoe was navigated by a team of two. The teams consisted of Kim Bischoff and Brant Kerbs; Van Hansen and Lane Potter; David Bischoff and Wade Singleton; Daren Dayton and Darris Williams; and their leaders, Lane Reynolds and John Bischoff, Kim’s father.

The previous year these boys had been students in Darrel’s seminary classes and Sam’s history and U.S. government classes at South Fremont, making them all more than mere acquaintances. But neither group knew the other was at the lake.

About 3:30 a giant black cloud appeared on the western horizon, soon covering the surrounding mountains like a shroud. When the front hit the lake, it was almost as if an atomic bomb had been detonated in its depths. In seconds the clear glassy surface was whipped into a frenzy. The fierceness of this explosive storm was like nothing Sam or Darrel had ever witnessed before. They knew the canoeists on the lake were in trouble and a lot of it. Even a cabin cruiser would find the going rough. Keeping a flimsy canoe afloat was next to impossible.

From the moment the devastating winds hit, the boys and their leaders fought gallantly to stay afloat, keeping their bows headed into the wind. However, within minutes Daren Dayton and Darris Williams swamped. Clothes provided little protection as the icy wetness rushed to their skin. Their life jackets were securely fastened, but the huge waves slapped and jostled them unceasingly. With only their sopping heads above water, they clung tenaciously to their overturned canoe. The shocking cold made breathing difficult. Already the icy water was beginning its deadly work.

Brant Kerbs and Kim Bischoff were closest to Daren and Darris as they capsized, but any rescue would be impossible in these rough waters. The two still afloat shouted encouragement and promised they would find help and return.

Being closest to the north shore, Brant and Kim decided their best bet was to continue toward it. Icy beads of near freezing water pelted their faces. Their destination seemed hopelessly remote, with progress painfully slow, but 30 minutes found them only a stone’s throw from shore. Just 30 yards away they saw a determined Van Hansen and Lane Potter also paddling toward shore.

At their Moose Creek campsite, Sam and Darrel watched intently.

“Can you see them?” Darrel shouted. Sam and the others a few feet away could barely hear above the rushing winds.

“They’re in that direction heading toward the north shore. I can only see one or maybe two.” Sam strained his eyes, but high waves had all but hidden them from view. “Why are they fighting it? They’d be ahead to turn around and come with the wind.” The campers’ frustration grew as the determined paddlers struggled to reach the north shore.

“Even with a life jacket there isn’t a soul who could last more than an hour or so in that water.” Darrel’s recent training in hypothermia had taught him that prolonged exposure to these 45-degree water temperatures would rob body warmth and eventually cause the vital organs to cease functioning. In the advanced stages of hypothermia, a victim’s limbs become stiff, he loses the ability to reason, and finally drifts into unconsciousness and death.

As hard as Kim and Brant paddled, they couldn’t reach land. A cross wind was driving them foot by foot back toward the middle of the lake. Their muscles ached from want of a moment’s relief, but every second was a fight to keep their frail craft from turning sideways into one of the large waves. It was evident that beaching on the north shore was impossible. Disheartened at being so close and yet so far, the boys decided that they must somehow turn their canoe back toward the south. It was a tricky maneuver, one that had to be done with precision or end in disaster. They noticed a rhythm in the swells that caused a brief lull after every fourth or fifth wave. With flawless timing they made the 180-degree turn. Their old bedraggled canoe, the only one without air ballasts and with a bottom you could step through, was still afloat. It plowed a watery furrow before a wind that pushed it like a giant hand.

Several hundred yards away, the food-and-equipment-laden canoe of the adult leaders, Lane Reynolds and John Bischoff, lost balance and spilled both men and supplies into the frothy coldness. Luckily, David Bischoff and Wade Singleton, the least experienced of the group, had stuck close to their leaders all day. When the leaders’ canoe flipped over, the boys maneuvered their craft so Lane Reynolds could, with counterbalancing by Wade and David, pull himself aboard.

Since the two adults weighed over 200 pounds each, taking them both aboard would swamp the canoe. So John picked up the end of a rope that had been used earlier as a tow line and trailed along behind as they also started for the south shore. The heaviness of the canoe and the drag of John’s weight slowed progress to a turtle’s pace.

On the south shore at Moose Creek Camp, the campers continued their vigil. They had lost sight of all the canoes among the mountainous waves but maintained hope that they had reached the safety of the north shore.

Then they spotted it—a bright yellow canoe a half mile out being propelled through the water like a battleship. It was heading straight for them. Sam and Darrel rushed to the water’s edge where in minutes the little canoe and its two occupants were literally thrown on Moose Creek Beach.

As the exhausted boys climbed out, Darrel and Sam stared in unbelief into the fatigue-lined faces of their former students. The boys, in shock from their ordeal, couldn’t believe their eyes as they stared into the friendly faces of their high school teachers. Sam and Darrel hurried the two boys to the warmth of the campfire where they listened intently to the painful news of Daren Dayton and Darris Williams. Already these two young men had been in the water over an hour. Undoubtedly hypothermia was taking its toll.

“There’s another canoe coming this way!” someone shouted. Sure enough, half a mile out a canoe with three occupants was making laborious progress, pitching and yawing amid the swells. They anxiously watched several minutes as it struggled to within a quarter mile of shore. Suddenly a huge wall of water caught the canoe broadside, spilling everyone and everything beneath the angry surface. One by one they popped up like toast in a toaster. David Bischoff, Wade Singleton, and Scout leader Lane Reynolds were all bobbing around the floundering canoe. But where was John Bischoff?

Amidst the shock and excitement, John had apparently lost his grip on the rope. An hour and a half in the water had made his whole body numb from the cold. As soon as he lost his grip on the rope, the lake’s undertow immediately began pulling him back toward the middle.

Sam and Darrel raced to the water’s edge for a better look. The urgency of the situation allowed little time to think. They must now consider a rescue attempt, knowing that such an attempt, especially in a canoe, would be extremely dangerous.

Sam was overwhelmed at the thought of it all—the unbelievably wild lake, the boys in a desperate situation fighting for their lives, his own wife and family so dependent on him. Was such a risk justified? Was it possible in a 16-foot canoe?

Darrel, who was bishop of his ward, had experienced the influence of the Lord through prayer many times. Now he felt an almost desperate need for guidance—a spiritual assurance that a rescue would be possible. Sam, whose past included many faith-promoting experiences, also needed this assurance more than anything he could remember. Humbled by the heaviness of the situation, they knelt together on the beach and prayed for those in the water, earnestly petitioning their Father in Heaven for guidance, strength, and protection. The warm, positive reassurance they were seeking came immediately. They knew unmistakably that the Lord was aware of their plight and would sustain them in their rescue efforts.

Somewhat startled by the quickness of the answer, Sam and Darrel looked at each other without speaking and ran toward their two beached canoes. Darrel’s father Ray then made what proved to be the most important suggestion of the day. “If you’re going out there, you’d better lash your canoes together for greater stability.”

Relieved at this welcome idea, the rescuers grabbed three oars, placed them across the two canoes, and tied them down securely with rope, making a more stable, double-hulled craft.

Within minutes, Sam and Darrel launched toward the nearest victims, praying that the others could hang on a little longer. The launch was rough. The rescue canoe lurched almost straight up at the first wave, throwing Sam backward into the water. Drenched from head to foot, he made a quick recovery and climbed into the canoe more determined than ever.

After 20 grueling minutes, their forward progress totaled no more than 20 yards. Incredibly frustrated at getting nowhere, they began shouting at each other to paddle harder. Then, noticing a short lull between every few waves, they started timing their strokes for greater results.

Twenty-five minutes more brought them within reach of Lane, David, and Wade. David and Wade thought they were seeing heaven as they recognized the high school teachers reaching out to them. The three, in a state of shock, could not have been more relieved had the rescue craft been an aircraft carrier. One of the most dangerous moments in a rescue of this kind comes with pulling a victim into the boat, especially when that boat resembles a bucking horse. Sam leaned over one side while Darrel grabbed Wade Singleton and lifted him over the other. David Bischoff followed; then came Lane Reynolds, a challenging 200 pounds. Lane, exposed to the water twice, was virtually helpless from advancing stages of hypothermia. Darrel pulled him partway out of the water, grabbed a leg, and lifted it over the side. Again Sam leaned out over the opposite side as a counterbalance. With all the might Darrel could muster, he pulled the leader aboard.

“Where is the other one?” Sam questioned.

“We don’t know. It’s John Bischoff,” came the reply. “We’re afraid he’s dead. He couldn’t hang on any longer.”

Lane Reynolds needed immediate attention, the kind that could only be properly administered by the warmth of a campfire. Determined to return and look for John, they headed for shore. A hundred yards away John Bischoff, barely conscious, saw the canoe leaving and felt all was lost.

A warm fire and muscle massage followed by hot chocolate and a dry sleeping bag soon brought Lane out of danger.

As Sam looked over the lake to catch a glimpse of John Bischoff or Daren and Darris, a faint cry for help came across the water from more than half a mile away. Almost as if a tunnel of vision had opened, his eyes fell on a tiny orange object bobbing among the swells. Could it be John? It was so far away from where they had just picked up the other victims. The two men rushed to their double canoe and were soon stroking rhythmically toward the distant speck of color.

Sure enough, it was John, incoherent and unable to recognize anyone, but alive. With muscles paralyzed from over two and a half hours in the water, he could offer no assistance. Although he also weighed over 200 pounds, he was pulled to safety like a water-soaked log.

With aching but still powerful strokes, the rescuers propelled the double-hulled canoe toward shore. As they fought their way back through the towering waves, they worried about the boys still on the lake. Over three hours had passed since Daren and Darris had tipped into the water. Lane Potter and Van Hansen were last seen approaching the north shore. The rescuers hoped these two were safe and enjoying the warmth of a crackling fire. But if Darris and Daren were to be found before dark, it had to be soon. Praying for those still to be rescued, Sam and Darrel paddled desperately for shore.

Arriving at last, they beached the canoe and helped John to the fire where they quickly administered treatment. Kim was elated to see his father alive. As John slowly began responding to treatment, the rescuers prepared to go out to find Darris and Daren.

As Darrel looked to the northwest across the lake, the waning rays of the sun reflected like a spotlight off two tiny objects one and a half miles out. Could it be Daren and Darris? Spotting someone so far out in twilight was miraculous, especially when earlier it had been difficult to see even 100 yards.

Again the little lifeboat was launched. This time Ray Gibbons and Kim Bischoff accompanied Sam and Darrel. The wind was beginning to subside, and with extra paddlers they soon pulled alongside Daren Dayton and Darris Williams, who, although unconscious, still held a death grip on their canoe. Their exposure covered an incredible four and a half hours. Suffering advanced hypothermia, the young men unconsciously fought to live. Daren was pulled to safety first, but Darris fought to hang onto the canoe as if it were life itself. Finally Darrel loosened Darris’s grip and lifted him into the boat. As the rescuers turned toward the beach, they began administering first aid immediately by rubbing the boys’ muscles.

Beside the warm fire the group worked over the two young men. Darris began to show signs of reviving while Daren, convulsing and foaming at the mouth, showed little. After 30 minutes, Darris regained consciousness, drank hot liquids, and was soon able to talk, but Daren fought their attempts to help. Two of them held him down while the others continued to administer warmth and massage. After several minutes Daren opened his eyes and said, “Brrr, it’s cold.” The whole group was elated.

“Those are the best words I have ever heard!” Sam exclaimed. They continued the process for another 15 minutes until Daren was fully conscious and somewhat limber.

The night was black except for the flickering fire on the beach as the group ate a tasty, soul-warming supper of hamburger, soup, fried potatoes, and hot chocolate. Each recounted his close brush with death.

Daren and Darris had miraculously escaped death’s grip. Even a few minutes longer in the water might have proved too many. They recounted that for the first hour or two they had talked of family and friends and encouraged each other to hang on. As the numbing cold spread throughout their bodies, they became more and more depressed, talking of death and expressing hope they would have a good funeral. Wise canoe instructors had ingrained in them the fact they should stay with their canoe no matter what. So they locked their arms under the end seats in a death grip, determined not to let go. After three hours they began passing in and out of consciousness, finally blacking out and remembering nothing until regaining their senses by the fire. After preparing for death, it was wonderful to be safely on the beach.

It was 11:30 P.M., and Sam lay in his sleeping bag. He couldn’t remember when anything had felt so good. He still wondered about Lane and Van but felt some reassurance since they had been seen close to shore. Then he remembered Ray Gibbons’s prediction that he wouldn’t be able to sleep that night. Sam smiled and drifted off to sleep.

The next morning Darrel and his father arose early and walked along the beach. The sky was still a little cloudy and the air chilly. Along the shoreline they discovered some of the supplies lost from the canoes in the storm. Then they saw it—the overturned green canoe of Van and Lane. They had never made it to the other side. The nightmare returned. Darrel stared at the canoe in utter disbelief, then pulled it ashore. Heartsick, they walked back to camp.

Sam was devastated by the news, but they refrained from telling the other boys just yet until they were sure. Maybe by some miracle the two had survived. The morning was solemn as they prepared breakfast, silently reflecting upon the unbelievable nightmare of yesterday.

As the sun began to peek above the distant mountain horizon, Sam and Darrel canoed to the east end of the lake to the temporary ranger station where they might find a radio, but the log cabin was locked up tight.

A backpacker passing through the area agreed to go for help by hiking to the ranger station at Grants Village several miles across the mountains to the east. By midmorning a helicopter appeared and circled the lake. It hovered for a moment at a spot near the outlet, then landed on the beach at Moose Creek Camp. The ranger stepped out and confirmed that a body had been found. It was later identified as Lane Potter. Van Hansen’s body was to be found the following day. Lane Reynolds, their leader, felt deeply responsible. He sat with his head in his hands, wondering how he could face their parents and what he could say.

The lake was still and smooth. It was hard to imagine that such a peaceful place could have been so ferocious. The group packed their gear in their canoes and headed for home. The serene quiet was interrupted only by an occasional trickle of water from a paddle as the canoes slid silently toward the outlet in single file.

Sam meditated upon the last 24 hours and with wonderment began to analyze the many unusual circumstances.

Could it be coincidence that Sam and Darrel, avid softball players, felt they should go on this camping trip rather than play in a stake championship game? Their two ward teams were playing each other the night they were camped on the Shoshone.

Was it coincidence that Darrel insisted his father come on this outing? It was Ray Gibbons who suggested that the canoes be lashed together. Any attempt to make a rescue in a single canoe would have been doomed to failure.

Was bringing an extra 100 feet of rope just coincidence when normally it would far exceed their needs? It was needed to lash the canoes together.

Was it only by chance that Kim and David managed to guide the only canoe without air balasts all the way to the north shore, then back across three miles of raging waves to land squarely on Moose Creek Beach, literally at the feet of the only two people who could help?

Could receiving a two-day permit to camp at the Moose Creek campsite rather than the normal one-day permit have been a coincidence? Moose Creek site is used as a staging area for incoming campers who move on to a more permanent camp the second day. A one-day permit would have forced a relocation to a spot around the lake where the canoes could have gone unnoticed.

Was it only chance that the two rescuers had been trained in the treatment of hypothermia, were in the best physical condition they had enjoyed for years, and were well rested for the almost superhuman effort?

Could it be coincidence that three of the victims were spotted nearly one and a half miles out when conditions made it difficult to see an object even 100 yards away?

A ranger shook his head in disbelief when told the young men survived four and a half hours in the frigid waters of Shoshone Lake. He said it was impossible.

For those involved in the rescue, the explanation is obvious. The Lord, in his divine wisdom, inspired two worthy priesthood holders to prepare for and perform a perilous rescue. Their sincere, humble prayer was heard and answered with divine assurance that they would be sustained in their efforts. Sam and Darrel had also exercised their priesthood and faith by administering to each hypothermia victim, all of whom recovered.

Everyone affected by this experience agrees it has built testimonies and added depth and meaning to many lives. Four years later, four of the young men who survived that day are serving missions. Another has been married in the temple, and one is serving in the armed forces.

As for the two young men who did not survive, it is a hurt that does not soon fade for family and friends. But the scriptures reveal that our Heavenly Father is aware of every sparrow that falls to the ground, and that every hair of our heads is numbered (Matt. 10:29–30). Surely he knows what is best for each of his children in his eternal plan.

Sam Christiansen and Darrel Gibbons continue enjoying dedicated Church service. They share a quiet gratitude to the Lord for their success and safety in the rescue, for had they failed, all would have perished.

[illustration] Illustrated by Dick Brown