May 30, 2001 11:00 pm
HAPPY ENDING: Sarah Checkal, left, and Emma Rounds were in good spirits at the Union County Airport after being airlifted from the Eagle Cap Wilderness where they had become lost. (The Observer/KELLY WARD).
HAPPY ENDING: Sarah Checkal, left, and Emma Rounds were in good spirits at the Union County Airport after being airlifted from the Eagle Cap Wilderness where they had become lost. (The Observer/KELLY WARD).

By T.L. Petersen

Observer Staff Writer

MOSS SPRINGS Throughout the late afternoon Wednesday relieved searchers on foot and horseback trudged their way out of the Eagle Cap Wilderness Area, shaking off mud and snow.

They had heard via radios that the two Portland women they were seeking had been found safe and unharmed, and had already been flown out to their waiting families.

Emma Alexander Rounds, 25, and Sarah Ann Checkal, 28, were found at 3:37 p.m. by a search helicopter crew from the 304th Air National Guard rescue unit in Portland. The women were lifted from their campsite and rejoined family and friends at the Union County Airport near La Grande.

They had not a clue where they were, said Union County Sheriff Steve Oliver, who talked to the women at the airport.

When the pair realized Sunday afternoon that they had lost the main trail under the remnants of snow and were on a ridge they didnt recognize, they moved down the ridge toward a stream and set up camp.

And waited.

Oliver said the first miscommunication among rescuers was that it wasnt clear when the women had intended to end their outing. One had been scheduled to pick up a family member at Portland International Airport Monday morning, and the other had been expected at work Tuesday morning. When searchers located the womens car Tuesday evening at Moss Springs, they thought the women had written in a hikers log that they would be out May 29 Tuesday.

Instead, it turned out, searchers misread the European-style 7, written with a slash across the 7, and thought it was a 9. They had planned only an overnight hike, from Saturday to Sunday.

Oliver said the women, although dressed in shorts, were well-prepared to camp for several days, with gear, food and water. However, they had left a compass behind.

They lit three signal fires as they waited for rescue.

I told them, Im glad you did that, Oliver said about their decision to set up camp and wait for rescue.

The camp was near the confluence of Huckleberry and Boulder creeks on the side of Youngs Ridge, about 41/2 miles from Moss Springs.

The search, organized and under way Wednesday morning, used combined air and horseback efforts. Only a few people went into the wilderness on foot.

After local search and rescue units in Union and Wallowa counties started the search, aid was sought from air units. These have to be requested by the

Oregon Emergency Management Office through Langley Air Force Base.

Help was quickly sent from both the Portland-based 304th: two helicopters and a C-130 refueling plane; and from the 26th Rescue Flight based at Fairchild AFB outside Spokane: two more helicopters.

One team from the 304th spotted the womens tent and fires and was able to hoist them into the helicopter and out of the wilderness.

Two members of the rescue unit stayed on the ground to put out the fires until being ordered out by the Wallowa County-based ranger for the wilderness area.

Checkals mother met her at the airport. And Rounds mother arrived soon after. The women told rescuers that the nights had been cold and the mosquitoes nasty. But they didnt need medical care, only showers, Oliver said.

In addition to the air rescuers, Union County Search and Rescue had a manned mobile base camp at Moss Springs all day. Seven searchers from the Blue Mountain chapter of Back Country Horsemen searched the trails in teams. A fixed wing plane provided by the Oregon State Police was brought in. A few searchers on foot were with the Forest Service or friends of the women. And four Union and Wallowa county deputies waited at several trailheads in case the women hiked out.

Oliver noted that the support from the air rescue units may have been prompt and quick because the 304th is being considered for a move overseas. Local emergency management groups are working to show a need to keep the reserves in Oregon. The support was not because Rounds is the daughter of the director of public affairs at the U.S.s Korean Embassy, he said.

Air search support was also provided Sunday and Monday during the search near Jubilee Lake in northern Union County for a lost fisherman.