Robert Higgins Jr. joins his mother, Geraldine "Honey" Higgins, at the family home in Presque Isle. Credit: Paula Brewer / The Star-Herald

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — When two hunters headed out for a relaxing day in the woods, they didn’t dream they’d be spending the night out there.

Robert “Bob” Higgins Jr. often visits his mother, Geraldine “Honey” Higgins, at the family home in Presque Isle. This time he brought his son, Scott, to enjoy Thanksgiving and a bit of hunting.

The two left early Nov. 23 to hunt in the woods near Portage. When they hadn’t returned late that evening, Honey Higgins called 911. The ensuing rescue effort involved the Maine State Police, half a dozen wardens and a pilot, who mobilized in the wee hours of Thanksgiving morning to locate the missing men.

“Most people think it’s kind of a pain when [wardens] check their licenses and so forth. They don’t get a chance to see how wonderful these people are,” Bob Higgins said. “They were spectacular in every way imaginable.”

Higgins, who lives in Hanover, Massachusetts, grew up hunting in the North Maine Woods. He wanted to take his son, a U.S. Navy lieutenant in Newport, Rhode Island, to a favorite spot near Bald Mountain.

Much of the rough terrain was icy, and at one point, the road became a large, frozen pond. Higgins’ pickup tires crashed through, and the truck became wedged on thick ice, leaving the vehicle dangling with its wheels off the ground.

Hunters Scott Higgins and his father, Bob Higgins, pose with some of their Maine Warden Service rescuers on Thanksgiving morning. From left are Scott Higgins, Warden Mark Hutcheson, Bob Higgins and Warden Kale O’Leary. Credit: Courtesy of Bob Higgins

“It didn’t look like the water would be that deep, and I thought we’d be able to drive right through it,” Higgins said.

The men unsuccessfully used a jack to try to raise the truck and maneuver it off the ice.

They had two options: spend the night or walk out. They had enough snacks and water to sustain them, so decided it was safest to stay put for the night and leave in the morning, Higgins said.

They were roughly 15 miles from the Fish River checkpoint, where they had entered the area.

They built a fire, which eventually fizzled, and heard coyotes calling nearby. Scott fired a rifle round into the air, quieting the animals.  

It was about 3 degrees outside, so they stayed in the vehicle for warmth. Though they didn’t have a lot of gas, they ran the truck periodically and the heated seats helped warm their heavy clothing through the night.

At dawn they started walking.

Unbeknownst to them, Maine Warden Service Sgt. Mike Joy had assembled a team that included wardens from central Maine to the St. John Valley: pilot Chris Hilton of Augusta, who in October became chief pilot of the Warden Service; pilot Jeff Spencer of Eagle Lake; Sgt. Adrian Marquis of Fort Kent; Kale O’Leary of Ashland; Mark Hutcheson of the St. Pamphile area; and Kayle Hamilton of the Clayton Lake area.

Hilton began flying over the area to see if he could spot the men or their truck.

Bob and Scott Higgins saw the plane and waved as the plane flew lower, Hilton dipping his wings to acknowledge them.

O’Leary found them first. After learning both men were unharmed, he drove them to their truck and tried unsuccessfully to pull it out of the ice with his vehicle. Hutcheson and Marquis arrived, bearing homemade sausages and coffee.

Using Hutcheson’s large chisels, the team hacked at the ice that held the Higginses’ pickup. That, plus two warden trucks pulling, freed the stranded vehicle. On the way back to Portage, Wardens Hamilton and Joy joined them.

Joy had notified Honey Higgins that her son and grandson were safe.

The group gathered at Coffin’s General Store in Portage, where the Higgins men thanked their rescuers with food and coffee.

“This is on a holiday, their Thanksgiving Day. And they didn’t think twice about giving up their morning to help out,” Bob Higgins said. “It was really very special.”

All of the wardens involved have earned recognition from the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife for other situations. Marquis was honored in 2017 for his work in solving a string of vandalism crimes at Long Lake.

The department’s most recent awards banquet in June recognized O’Leary as part of a team who apprehended a hunter after an illegal kill in Aroostook County; Hamilton for monitoring open-water fishing in Eagle Lake; Hutcheson for his involvement in a rescue of two capsized canoeists; and Joy, O’Leary, Hamilton and Spencer as part of a rescue crew that brought two missing elderly fishermen to safety.

Once she knew the men were safe, Honey Higgins went with friends to their planned dinner at a St. Agatha restaurant. She had no idea the surprises weren’t over. Her son and grandson made it home just in time to clean up and head north.

“Oh, it was something,” Honey Higgins said. “We were sitting at the table, and they were ready to take our order, and they walked in. It was a very good day.”