Mark and Kris Wathke of Cornell, Wis., had been missing since Tuesday, Oct. 29. They got stuck in snow after reportedly making the mistake of trying the route suggested by their GPS system over U.S. Highway 212.
The couple was cold and hungry, but otherwise fine when found by K Bar Z Guest Ranch owner Troy Barnett around 8 a.m. Monday.
“They were plumb happy to see somebody,” Barnett said.
The Wathkes had called their family from inside Yellowstone National Park on Oct. 29 to say they’d be home the next day. They were seen leaving Yellowstone’s northeast gate at 4 p.m.
However, the Wathkes never made their reservation at a Miles City, Mont., hotel that night and weren’t heard from again, said Park County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Lance Mathess.
On Friday morning, one of the Wathkes’ family members contacted the sheriff’s office about the missing couple, Mathess said; the sheriff’s office issued a news release Sunday, seeking the public’s help in locating them, and the county’s Search and Rescue volunteers combed highways the couple could have traveled.
Facebook was quickly abuzz with the word of the missing travelers, with posts from the Park County Sheriff’s Office and other organizations being shared a couple thousand times.
One of those who took note of the news on social media was Barnett’s wife, who saw a Billings Gazette story on Facebook late Sunday night. Upon hearing the news, it made sense to Barnett to check the Beartooth Highway for the wayward travelers.
“It’s kind of common,” he said. “That road’s closed in the winter, but you know, the navigation systems always route them over that way.”
The road is snow-packed these days, he said, with traffic generally being hunters who drive up as far as they can for access to the area.
Barnett left his place around 7 a.m. Monday and made it about 13 or 14 miles before having to switch to his snowmobile. After a couple more miles across some drifted areas — and about an hour after leaving the K Bar Z — he spotted the Wathke’s car stuck in snow.
He didn’t know what he’d find inside.
“Once you realize they’ve been out there six days, you don’t know,” Barnett said. When he’d left his truck, the thermometer read 5 degrees below zero.
However, Barnett found “they were fine.” The Wathkes — who’d been scared no one would ever find them — were healthy and relatively warm, he said.
“They had a few tears in their eyes. Just happy,” Barnett recalled.
He said the Wathkes had gone by their navigational system, which apparently didn’t recognize that the Beartooth Highway is maintained only seasonally.
The Beartooth Highway usually closes for the season in mid-October, but shut down in mid-September due to hazardous driving conditions from the weather. The Wyoming Department of Transportation lists the highway as closed on its website and road hotline.
The Wathkes said they didn’t see the sign near the highway’s intersection with Wyo. Highway 296 — where they needed to turn — warning that the route was closed and barricaded 17 miles ahead, Barnett told the Billings Gazette. The couple’s Kia got stuck in snow before reaching that point.
Barnett said Mark Wathke “had decided he’d went far enough, and he went to turn around and that’s when he got stuck.”
Barnett took the Wathkes out on his snowmobile Monday morning and to the K Bar Z in Crandall, where the couple was later picked up by Park County Sheriff’s Office personnel.
The Park County Search and Rescue team had searched the Beartooth Highway up to the snowline on Sunday, but new snow prohibited them from getting as far up as the Wathkes had, Mathess said.
“They (Search and Rescue personnel) were preparing to deploy snow equipment this morning up there when the couple was found,” Mathess said.
Park County Sheriff Scott Steward praised Barnett’s “selfless” actions.
“Mr. Barnett’s actions in this instance possibly saved this couple from serious harm. I commend him for his unselfishness,” Steward said in a prepared statement.
Barnett said his decision to head up the Beartooth was “one of them things that just makes sense, especially in this area.”
Cody Beers, a public involvement specialist with the Wyoming Department of Transportation, said the Wathkes made a smart decision in staying with their vehicle.
“If you do get stuck somewhere along the road, stay with your vehicle ... because you need the shelter that your vehicle provides,” Beers said.
He also added that “if you’ve got one of these GPS’s in your vehicle, one of these navigation systems, use it with care. Don’t accept everything that it tells you because we do have weather in Wyoming in the winter.”
Barnett said he was aware of another instance last week where a navigation system similarly told a visitor to the area to head over the Beartooth Highway from the Red Lodge side.
“You’d think they (manufacturers) could figure out some kind of program that says, you know, ‘Through the winter, this is closed’ and reroute you,” Barnett said. “But it all worked out there fine.”