Lost hunter built fire, drank bog water to survive 3 days before rescuers pulled him from Minn. forest
LAKEVILLE, Minn. - A 61-year-old hunter from Lakeville spent three nights lost in the woods, drinking bog water to stay hydrated, before being rescued by helicopter Thursday from remote woods in Pine County, officials said.
Robert Kniefel was hungry and tired but otherwise unharmed when rescuers from the Minnesota State Patrol and St. Paul Fire Department reached him shortly after first light in Nemadji State Forest. He went grouse hunting alone Monday, Sept. 18, and got lost.
"He was extremely overcome with emotion ... and extremely grateful," said Capt. Steve Sampson with the St. Paul Fire Department, one of 10 aerial rescue workers and dozens of Pine County sheriff's deputies involved in the search-and-rescue operation that began Tuesday when Kniefel called his wife of 37 years on a dying cellphone to tell her he was lost and needed help.
Once Kniefel was located via a new, $1.4-million State Patrol airplane Wednesday, ground teams tried -- and failed -- on at least three occasions to reach him. The cover was too thick, the boggy ground too soft, State Patrol Chief Pilot Lt. Craig Benz said.
At dawn Thursday, a helicopter team reached him and rescued him via a long tether and rescue vest.
The State Patrol released a video of the rescue.
Through a State Patrol spokeswoman, Kniefel declined to comment Thursday while he recovers.
Several of those involved in the rescue -- members of the multi-agency Minnesota Aerial Rescue Team (MART) spoke to the media Thursday afternoon. The following is based on their account.How he got lost
Kniefel, an experienced hunter, went out Monday morning seeking ruffed grouse, an elusive, chicken-like game bird popular with forest-loving hunters. At 93,000 acres, with large tracts managed especially for grouse habitat, Nemadji State Forest is one of the most expansive grouse haunts within a relatively short drive of the metro.
For a solo hunter without a dog, a common technique to hunt grouse is to make forays into dense, cheek-thwacking thickets of young trees, where the birds hunker to avoid owls, hawks and other predators.
This is what Kniefel was doing, walking along a trail and making loops of 10 to 20 paces into the brush in hopes of flushing a bird.
He planned to hunt for four hours. His food: six peanut-butter crackers.
"At one point, when he tried to go back to the trail, it wasn't where it was supposed to be," said Capt. Jim Englin, a State Patrol pilot. "As is common in these cases, he essentially walked in circles as he tried to find his way back."
By noon Monday, Kniefel had eaten the crackers. At nightfall, he was still lost.
Thankfully for him, it wasn't particularly cold, and he carried a Bic lighter. Eventually, he lit a fire and hunkered down for the night.
On Tuesday, Kniefel reached his wife on his cellphone and told her he was lost and needed rescue.
She called the Pine County sheriff's office, and the search-and-rescue began.
Rescuers say experienced hunters generally make good subjects to be rescued. They're fairly self-sufficient and comfortable in the backcountry.
Hunters all know one of the most important rules when you're lost: Stay put; don't get more lost -- and risk injury and exhaustion.
"In general, hunters who are experienced will travel under 800 to 1,000 yards," Englin said. “That's how we approached the search.”
They located his car and set up a base of operations.Drinking bog water
Another good thing about searching for a grouse hunter: They wear blaze orange -- a bright hue designed to catch the eye.
The bad thing about this week in Pine County: The sumacs just began to turn. The shrubby trees cast colors from yellow to red, making Kniefel's blaze orange harder to spot. Searchers found nothing Tuesday.
It rained Tuesday night. Kniefel protected his fire with a pine bough as best he could, but he got wet and cold. Realizing the early-autumn water was now warmer than the air, he sunk his hands in a bog near his hunkering spot. He also drank the water from the bog.
Drinking untreated water from a swamp is "less than an ideal situation," Benz said.
However, the most common risks from drinking untreated water in the wild take days or weeks to manifest. Problems from dehydration surface much sooner.
He was hungry -- but only to a degree.
"There was a chipmunk in the area, and he told us if things ever got really bad, he could shoot the chipmunk," Englin said. "He told us things never got that bad because the chipmunk is still alive."How he was found
Rescuers were frustrated because they couldn't locate Kniefel all day Wednesday. They weren't sure of his condition, and worried about their enemy: time.
"The worst part is when you cannot find someone -- because you know you were flying right over them," Englin said Thursday.
None of the rescuers ever considered giving up, they said, and they credited Pine County officials with vigilance.
On Wednesday evening, Benz made the call to fly over the area with the most-advanced search tool in the state's arsenal: a Cirrus SR-22 the State Patrol bought with a $1.4 million appropriation from the Legislature last year. The Duluth-made aircraft went into service a year ago.
Among its prized accoutrements: a $450,000 infrared Thermal Camera tied into an HD onboard viewing screen. Forward-looking infrared cameras have been around for decades; the helicopter that searchers had unsuccessfully used has a 20- to 25-year-old version. But Benz said the difference is enormous.
"They found him within five minutes," he said.
The plane is also equipped with global-positioning laser technology that allowed those in the plane to transmit Kniefel's exact location to the rest of the rescue team.
He was about 1,000 yards from his car.
But they still couldn't reach him. And Kniefel knew it. He'd have to spend another rainy night alone.
"He said that was absolutely the low point," Englin said. But he respected that Kniefel had the discipline to wait. "He said it took every fiber in his body not to try to move, to get out. ... His ability to stay put is telling of his strength."Main concern: his wife
After ground crews failed to reach Kniefel, rescuers decided a "rappel rescue" -- vertically via the chopper -- was the only way. With the blessings of a ranching family near Nickerson Township, they essentially commandeered a pasture.
They left at first light Thursday. They spotted Kniefel waving a 15- to 20-foot branch with his blaze-orange hunting cap affixed to the end.
From a procedural standpoint, the extraction went "according to Hoyle," Englin said.
The cost for the operation, which has not been tallied yet, will be absorbed by MART's budget, officials said.
Sampson, the captain with the St. Paul Fire Department, said Kniefel had one immediate request.
"His primary concern was getting a message to his wife that he was OK," Sampson said. "We did that."
When asked whether Kniefel thinks he should have done things differently, Benz responded: "He said the first thing he would do is buy a GPS unit."