‘I would do it again in a heartbeat’: Families spend Christmas Eve rescuing elk from freezing Kettle River

BARSTOW, Wash – When game officials and state troopers did not respond, families in northeast Washington spent hours on Christmas Eve rescuing elk that had fallen through the ice into the Kettle River.

Rylee Stuart first heard about it from her husband the morning of Christmas Eve. He and his brother had gone hunting for coyotes when they saw something they’d never seen before.

“He was like, ‘there’s elk in the river,'” Stuart said.

About 40 elk from the Selkirk herd made it across the river safely. But, 12 fell through thin ice and were struggling to get out.

Stuart’s husband initially planned to go onto the ice, but instead opted for kayaks and rallied other friends to help.

“When we got up there, there was a group of people,” Stuart said. “They had one [elk] on the way to the shore and they one to the shore already. There were still 10 left.”

Initially, the men tried to bring the huge animals to shore by hand. Soon enough, they developed a much more efficient method. They used a winch on a 4Runner to bring the animals to safety.

Still, nothing about the rescue was easy. The animals were scared and cold and had been in the water for hours.

“They were kicking each other, they were drowning each other, they had huge cuts on their bodies from the ice hitting them,” Stuart said.

The rescuers weren’t faring much better.

“We had one cow that was very agitated with us being there,” Stuart explained. “We were trying to hook [her] to get her up on the bank and out of the way. She actually got up on her hind legs and kicked my brother-in-law in the back of the head and the back.”

They worked for hours in the cold, difficult conditions. They gave up most of their Christmas Eve plans to try and save the animals.

The rescuers managed to save six of the 12 that had gone into the river. One of those rescues Stuart will never forget.

“All of the women that were there laid with this last calf,” she explained. “We laid with it, we cried with it. It just kept showing a little improvement here and there. A couple of the guys actually cradled her in a blanket until she could stand on her own.”

That calf, which rescuers named Lucky, managed to gain enough strength to run off with the rest of the herd.

A fish and game warden that eventually responded allowed the families to harvest the meat from the elk that didn’t survive.

“The people who put in the effort took home the meat with them and will feed their family with it,” Stuart said.

Despite the holiday plans lost and the cold and soreness, they all felt afterward, Stuart said she’d gladly do it all again.

PHOTOS: Volunteers rescue elk from Kettle River on Christmas Eve