What started as a trip into the mountains of eastern Bingham County to find a Christmas tree almost ended in tragedy.
An SUV carrying two adults and five children on the tree-hunting trip got stuck in Wolverine Canyon during Sunday’s snowstorm and for nearly 18 hours the whereabouts of the seven individuals was unknown.
For Shanelle Elmer of Blackfoot, the mother of three of the children, waiting for news of their fate was an ordeal she will not soon forget.
“I don’t even think I could describe how horrifying it really was,” Elmer said. “As a mother, there are no words to explain not knowing that your children are safe. I wouldn’t wish that feeling on anyone.”
All seven of those missing later turned up safe and unharmed at a local gas station after freeing the stuck SUV from the mountain snow. They would later learn that during the snowy night they spent in the below-freezing temperatures of Wolverine Canyon northeast of Blackfoot, emergency responders from multiple counties were trying to find them.
The frightening ordeal began for Elmer around 5:30 p.m. Sunday when the father of her children, Jorge Rivas of Blackfoot, didn’t show up to meet her and drop off the children as expected. Elmer and her husband Jared, drove by Rivas’ home and the home of his girlfriend, Denise Mickelsen, but no one was at either location.
Elmer said she began to worry around 7:30 p.m. Sunday after hearing nothing from her children — Kayden, age 12; Bella, age 11; and Julia, age 9 — or their father and every phone call she made to Rivas and her children went unreturned.
“We were trying to call them but every time we called it went straight to voicemail like their phones were off,” Elmer said. “My husband Jared decided to go back over to their houses and there was still no sign of them. He even drove around Blackfoot for a while to try and find them.”
Elmer said she was in a full-blown panic by about 9 p.m. Sunday and with still no word from any of her loved ones she decided it was time to contact the Blackfoot police, who sent out an alert to all local law enforcement agencies about her three missing children and the disappearance of Rivas and Mickelsen.
It was later learned that Mickelsen’s two children were also traveling with the group.
“At 10 p.m. Sunday we still hadn’t heard anything from them,” Elmer said. “That’s when we started calling Jorge’s family members who also said they hadn’t heard anything. The police told me that they had officers from Bonneville County to Bingham County searching for them.”
Eventually, the police used cell phone towers to ping the location of Kayden’s phone and the data indicated that the boy was recently in Wolverine Canyon.
Several members of Elmer’s extended family then loaded up in all-terrain vehicles and snowmobiles to begin searching for the missing people in the canyon.
Bingham County Sheriff Craig Rowland said search and rescue crews from both Bingham and Bonneville counties were activated late Sunday night and searched the Wolverine Canyon area until approximately 4 a.m. Monday.
The search resumed around 8 a.m. Monday, Rowland said, adding that authorities discussed using a drone or helicopters to search for the missing people from the air but the snowstorm prevented them from doing so.
But shortly after 11 a.m. Monday Rivas called Elmer and told her that he, his girlfriend and the children had been trapped in the canyon overnight after their SUV got stuck in the snow.
Rivas told the Journal on Tuesday that he and his girlfriend took the five children on a drive up Wolverine Canyon on an adventure to find and cut down a Christmas tree.
Rivas and the six other people loaded into a 2018 Toyota Highlander and left Blackfoot on Sunday afternoon. At the time they were leaving, Rivas said snow was falling but hadn’t yet begun to stick. When they reached Wolverine Canyon, the snow was still falling but Rivas said the trails through the canyon remained highly visible.
But two hours into the excursion the family reached a point in the uphill section of the canyon where the vehicle was beginning to lose traction so they decided to turn around.
“But the road was not wide enough to turn around so instead of staying on the trail we slipped into this drainage ditch on the side,” Rivas said. “After trying so many times to get out of the drainage ditch we just kept sinking in until one of the tires got trapped between two rocks.”
Rivas said that for hours he tried to free the vehicle from the snow but was unsuccessful. He said he and the others in the SUV were trying to send distress messages to loved ones but none of the messages could be delivered because there was no cell phone reception in their remote location.
Eventually, Rivas realized the family would be forced to spend the night inside the canyon, so he quit trying to free the vehicle in order to conserve gas for the frigid night.
“It was so cold,” Kayden said. “And none of us brought the right winter clothing. I was wearing a sweatshirt and the little kids had snow pants but none of us had winter jackets.”
For the next several hours Rivas would turn on the SUV and run the vehicle’s heater for 20-minute intervals. By morning time, he decided to try and free the SUV once more before trekking down the mountain on foot in search for help.
“I freaked out because we were getting low on gas from turning the car on and off all night,” Rivas said. “So we took a car seat from inside the car, broke it in half and removed all the fabric coverings to use it as a shovel to remove some of the snow around the tires.”
That didn’t work.
“But because we were running the car in the same spot off and on all night much of the snow had melted around the car. I then wedged the parts of the car seat under the tires and I had my girlfriend behind the steering wheel with me and the three older kids pushing the car.”
The SUV rolled forward and struck a fence on the opposite side of the mountain road but only suffered minor damage and was no longer stuck.
Rivas drove the SUV with Mickelsen and the five children to a gas station in Firth where they met up with Elmer and her husband.
Medical personnel checked over the SUV’s occupants and determined everyone was OK.
Though he is thankful nobody was injured, Rivas said that in the future he will be more prepared before taking anyone on a mountainous adventure during a snowstorm.
“Next time, I will make sure that all of the roads are OK before we go out on them,” Rivas said. “I also want to be more prepared by keeping supplies like bottled water or snacks in the vehicle.”
While her children are now home safe and sound, Elmer said the nearly 18 hours that passed without knowing their whereabouts will be an experience she will never forget.
“At the beginning I was a little OK but as time went on I began to lose hope,” Elmer said. “You just can’t stop the infinite number of horrible images from running through your mind. But when (Rivas) called me and I found out they were all safe and sound I felt instant relief. Once I saw the children, we all just embraced and didn’t let go.”