Havre Daily News
Survival stories generally begin with a mishap or mistake. For 74-year-old Vic Keppers of Havre, it happened on the third day of his recent goose hunting trip when he forgot to anchor his boat at a small island at Lake Elwell.
Keppers had taken his truck, his camper and his boat to Tiber Dam on Sept. 30 for a three- or four-day solo trip. A week later, thanks to a few friends who noticed his prolonged absence, Keppers was finally back home. In the meantime, he spent five days on an island with few supplies, through rain and some snow, trying to stave off diabetic shock and get the attention of nearby hunters.
“I always told myself: ‘Vic, be sure you throw the anchor,' because I always go to the damnedest places,” Keppers said Tuesday from the comfort of his living room.
About 5:30 p.m. on Oct. 2, Keppers realized he hadn't done that.
He had spent a few enjoyable days at the lake. That afternoon, after finishing lunch, a drink, and an hour or so of pleasant contemplation at his camper, “talking to God,” as he's wont to do on such trips, Keppers returned to the island where he had set up his decoys and a blind that day. An hour later, after gathering his supplies, he saw that his boat was drifting toward the next island.
“The first thing you worry about is having a fire,” Keppers said. So he went searching for wood on the island. There was none, just a few small pieces of driftwood and some dried sweet clover he tucked under his chair.
Besides the chair, Keppers had a candy bar, a blind, a Visqueen tarp, three matches, a bucket, his decoys, his guns, rain gear and a little toilet paper. On him he wore his long johns, pants, a couple shirts, a sweater, a hunting jacket and a cap.
Just as Keppers realized the predicament he was in, the air cooled. The night of Oct. 2, he wrapped himself up in his tarp and the blind, which was made of chicken wire and covered with leaves for camouflage.
“If it wouldn't have been for that piece of Visqueen, I don't think I would have ever made it,” Keppers said. He woke Oct. 3 to rain and some snow. He spent the day hanging articles of clothing as a distress signal and tried to get the attention of a hunter passing on the mainland who Keppers said looked over, but did not stop.
While he was stranded on the island, Keppers feared one of two things would get him - hypothermia or his diabetes. He could only take care of one problem that day, eating his candy bar before he set up for another night bundled in his hunting supplies.
“I really didn't think I'd make it through the night,” Keppers said.
His priority Oct. 4 was to find something to eat. He had yet to get a goose on his trip, and his attention turned to a duck that was upwind.
Keppers shot at the duck, but missed the first time. Any other time he'd missed a duck, the animal would dive and reappear far away, Keppers said. Not this time.
“I thought he was a godsend duck because he wouldn't dive,” he said.
With his second shot, and some help from the wind, the dead duck arrived at the shore of the island. That night Keppers ate its heart and liver.
On Oct. 5, Keppers thought his ordeal was over. Two friends, Ron Beatty and Richard Green, had driven out to Tiber to visit him.
Keppers had hung some of his few belongings in the bushes as a signal.
“I figured they knew if I was hunting geese, I wouldn't show those stress signals,” Keppers said. But the two were not frequent goose hunters, and did not understand, he said.
“They thought I was having a good time” and didn't want to go out to see them, he said.
After about two hours, the two men left a note at Keppers campsite and disappeared. As Keppers watched through a scope he had, he wondered if the two weren't game wardens of some sort leaving a ticket, a thought that infuriated him. But he convinced himself they had gone for a boat in Chester and would be back. When they still didn't return, he reasoned that they were going to Havre for help. By nightfall, there was still no rescue.
On Oct. 6, with no help but with the duck in hand, Keppers said he figured he could survive another couple of days. He set about making a stove to cook the duck, firing a vent into his metal bucket with a rifle and then gathering what kindling he had. But of Keppers' three matches, one would not light and the other two made small fires that were quickly extinguished. The paper he had on him was moist from perspiration and it was a moist day, he said.
Keppers waited out the day, putting off a meal of raw duck. When it was nearly dark, he realized it was time to have the meal, which he cut into small pieces with a sharp rock and swallowed down with water.
“It didn't taste bad,” Keppers said. “It just tasted like raw meat.”
Keppers knew his diabetes was affecting him and was worried the cold was too. He found himself very sleepy, a sign of hypothermia, and very thirsty, a result of diabetes. He drank out of the hollow bodies of his goose decoys.
The next morning, help finally arrived.
When Beatty and Green realized that Keppers had not returned, they went to get a boat and fetch him, worried they might find him unconscious from diabetic shock. When they went to his friend Adrian Doll's house for a boat, Doll told them Keppers had missed a doctor's appointment on Oct. 5, increasing their concern.
The two borrowed Doll's boat and the three men set out for the dam.
“When I seen them coming around the corner with the boat, it was a sight for sore eyes,” Keppers said. “I could have kissed them guys.”
Their friend was weary and barely able to walk or talk when they found him, they said. He was also extremely happy.
“The first thing he said was, ‘You guys saved my life,'” Green said.
It was a windy day and the lake was choppy, Keppers said. His friends risked their own lives fetching him from the island almost a mile from shore.
Keppers said he realized on Oct. 10 that he needed to see a doctor, because he had suffered diarrhea since returning. His suspicion was confirmed when a doctor said he had a bacterial infection from either the raw duck or the water he drank.
With that cured, Keppers' biggest discomfort is his feet, which continue to hurt. He said today he will see a doctor for swelling in his feet.
While stranded on the island, Keppers said a lot of prayers, and thought about his life, his family members and their lives.
There were moments he was tempted to commit suicide, “but my religion says you cannot kill yourself,” he said. Another thought stopped him too. He worried about the state of his affairs and didn't want to trouble his brother with them.
He has a trip planned for Nov. 1, accompanying his friend Beatty to the Missouri River Breaks. In the future, Keppers said, he'll avoid taking overnight trips on his own.
He said he'll also be more careful to tell people his plans, and is thinking about getting a cell phone.
“The trouble of it is, I am a little unpredictable that way,” Keppers said. “Of course, you don't plan on something like this.”