35 years after harrowing rescue from river, pilot and survivor are reunited

In November 1984, Travis Hovey got up early with his father to go deer hunting in the forests around Napadogan, close to the Southwest Miramichi River. 

What was supposed to be a short hunt, turned into a fight for survival.  

Lost without food or fire, the two ran from what they thought was a pack of hungry coyotes. Then they made their way by canoe toward what they thought was safety, not knowing the river waters ahead churned into dangerous currents. 

Just before father and son were swallowed by the icy water, a helicopter appeared. A daring rescue ensued. 

Now, 35 years later, the rescue pilot has been reunited with one of the survivors, thanks to a chance meeting in a Fredericton coffee shop. 

35 years ago

"In the early, early morning it wasn't super cold," Travis Hovey said as he reconstructed the day he and his father Guy arrived in the woods with a compass and a hunting rifle that had been in the family for years.

The plan was to make their way to a friend's cabin on the river and hunt deer from there. 

"I was wearing a K-Way jacket [windbreaker] and K-Way pants, and a T-shirt." 

The two had been driven from their home, about 65 kilometres northwest of Fredericton, and dropped off in the woods with instructions for getting to the riverside camp. It was a walk that should have taken no more than 20 minutes. 

But as even the most experienced outdoorsman knows, the woods have a way of turning people around.

The Hoveys never made it to the cabin. 

Ed Hunter/CBC

They got lost. And seven hours after they set out, the weather started to get worse. Travis, who was 12 years old at the time, said the temperature dropped to –18 C, the wind picked up and it snowed. 

Neither of them had gloves.  

"I walked onto a beaver pond and fell in, up to my chest in water," said Travis. "And when I got out of it, my K-way outfit froze. It actually helped block the wind." 

Discovering a canoe

Travis and Guy eventually found the Southwest Miramichi. They trudged upriver but they found no camps. As night crept in, however, they discovered a canvas canoe washed up onshore. 

"We were freezing cold," Travis said. "So we took our compass and marked where the canoe was and went about two miles back into the woods to try and get out of the wind." 

Unprepared for a long stay in the forest, the two had no matches, no lighters, no way to make a fire.

We thought 'Coyotes! Chasing us!' So we took off running full-tilt through the woods. We had one shell left in the gun. - Travis Hovey

"We were getting desperate," said Travis. "We thought we might freeze."

His father broke apart all but two of their rifle shells to obtain the ignitable gunpowder inside. He thought he could spark a fire with the rifle's firing mechanism.

"He fired over top of the gunpowder trying to get a fire going," Travis said. "But it just blew all the gunpowder away." 

Next, the pair made a pile of spruce boughs, climbed into the centre and held each other for heat, placing their frozen hands in each other's armpits. 

Despite a miserable, mostly sleepless night, the two got by in the makeshift shelter.

Into the rushing water

But in the morning, they were startled by the sound of howling and barking. 

"We thought 'Coyotes! Chasing us!' So we took off running full-tilt through the woods. We had one shell left in the gun." 

Guy and Travis raced to the canoe they'd found the day before and threw it into the water. Inside the canoe were a pair of work gloves and a 3½-metre fishing pole. 

Travis described the river at the time as "spring high," full of rushing water and jagged ice floes.

"We were just pushing off rocks and ice chunks and just flying down this fast water," he said, estimating they were on the river for about 90 minutes.

"And then we see a helicopter way overhead." 

Getting the pilot's attention

Guy's hands were frozen to the fishing pole, so he waved it around in the air, trying to get the pilot's attention. 

And it worked. 

The RCMP helicopter had been dispatched early that morning to look for the Hoveys. As they flew low along the river, pilot Tom Vickers and Paul Kookisk, the other officer in the helicopter, spotted the pair.

"We saw this canoe with the little guy in the back, and I think we could see him shivering," said Vickers, picking up the tale. 

Ed Hunter/CBC

But their joy at finding the Hoveys was short-lived when they saw what was just downriver from the fast-moving canoe. 

"Not too far ahead of them was an awful set of rough, rough water," Vickers said. "With the conditions freezing, we were afraid that if they had a mishap in that water, there would have been nothing we could have done for them." 

"They had to come down right then and grab us, or we wouldn't have made it," Travis said. "We would have been killed for sure." 

I was like, 'Dad, forget the gun.'  - Travis Hovey

Before the canoe could reach the choppy narrows, the helicopter crew used the loudspeaker to direct father and son to shore. Travis and Guy managed to make it to one side of the river, but steep rocky cliffs left little room for rescue. 

"We couldn't land the helicopter, so we got it in close," Vickers said. "We tried to get one skid down, so we could feel where we are." 

"He had to hover over the water," Travis said. "And my father would always mention he could still see the little pieces of the boughs of trees where the helicopter was hitting the trees on the side hill.

The pilot had to be precise, Travis said, "because we had to jump over the water" to get in the helicopter.

CBC

Travis was the first to jump. Kookisk caught his arm and brought him aboard quickly. 

But when it was time for Guy to jump, he hesitated. Despite everything he'd been through, Guy refused to leave behind his family rifle as the RCMP wanted him to do. 

"He had it loaded with that one shell in it," Travis said. "It had the safety on, but they didn't want him putting the gun in the helicopter, loaded. I mean it makes sense, but it was [like] a frozen a block of ice." 

"I was like, 'Dad, forget the gun.'"

In the end, father, son and family heirloom were airlifted out of the forest. Vickers flew them directly to their home in the Napadogan area, following the winding Miramichi to there.  

"I still dream about that," Travis said. "Flying through the Miramichi Valley." 

We never get to see the people that we're lucky enough to have helped. - Tom Vickers

Back in their community, they were greeted by hundreds of friends, neighbours and family members who had gathered to help with the search. 

Several got to go for short helicopter rides with Vickers and Kookisk. 

"They both told my parents to go get me up in the bathtub," Travis said. "And I remember sitting in the bathtub and I had about 25 friends in the bathroom, all talking to me while I'm sitting in the tub."

Aside from frozen fingers, neither Guy nor Travis had any severe injuries from their ordeal. 

And those coyotes they ran from? It turns out they were rescue dogs searching for the two.

"Understand we hadn't slept," said Travis. "But we were running from the dogs that were trying to save us." 

Ed Hunter/CBC

In the 35 years since the rescue, Guy Hovey died and Paul Kookisk retired in British Columbia.

Travis and Vickers both moved to Fredericton, and though they both often thought about that harrowing day, they never saw each other again.

Then a few weeks ago at a Second Cup in Fredericton, Dan Hovey, Travis's brother and the coffee shop's owner, overheard Vickers recounting his days as an RCMP pilot.

Dan Hovey made the connection, and Travis and Vickers were reunited.

Ed Hunter/CBC

The two have met for coffee and at Travis's job at a truck dealership to reminisce about the rescue.

"I couldn't tell what was a fantasy and what was real," Travis said. "And Tom actually made it sound worse than what I had in my head.

"He was a superstar. And Paul, he had super strength." 

Retired for a little over 25 years, Vickers said it's nice reconnecting with those he helped during his career. 

"It's pretty good to be remembered this way. We never get to see the people that we're lucky enough to have helped."