Instead, they stumbled across a surprising find: a lost hunter desperate for rescue.
"He turned around and immediately his eyes just opened up wide. Like 'Oh my god, there are people and there is a truck,'" Jonathan Ruppert told CBC News.
Ruppert is a post-doctoral adviser for an aquatic conservation program at the university. He and Tyana Rudolfsen, a masters student in the program, had driven from Edmonton to switch out a handful of temperature loggers she had installed in the Flathead River Valley, just north of the U.S.-B.C. border.
The pair was on their way to their final stop Saturday morning, driving their truck along an unmaintained logging road that dipped into the Flathead River Valley.
There, they saw a surprising sight: a disheveled man, frantically waving a silver survival blanket, attempting to catch the attention of a passing plane.
"I asked him if he was okay. He said 'No, I'm lost and I'm pre-diabetic," said Ruppert.
Rudolfsen says the man initially seemed disoriented and was having trouble standing. After a moment's suspicion, it soon became apparent that he was in distress — he was having trouble communicating, and neither Rudolfsen or Ruppert could figure out how he got to the remote area.
"My first thought was 'Where's his ATV, where's his vehicle?'"
No food, no water
Garth McDonald, 67, had been on a birthday hunting trip with friends in a nearby valley when he got separated from his group.
He somehow found his way to the Flathead valley, setting up a makeshift camp metres from where Rudolfsen set up her equipment. The plane was a search-and-rescue craft that had been scouring the area.
By the time the researchers found him, he had been lost for a day and a half, without food or water.
Ruppert happened to have a bottle of Gatorade in his truck, which he gave to McDonald. Once he began to get his blood sugar back to normal, the man was able to explain what happened.
"He had no idea where he was or what road he was on or what river he was next to," Rudolfsen said.
The researchers quickly swapped out their equipment and got McDonald loaded into their truck, before getting back on the highway to take him back to his home in Fernie. Along the way, they placed a call with McDonald's sister, who was unaware that he was missing.
When the trio arrived at McDonald's home, it was empty — his wife and son were back in the mountains, helping with the search.
They stayed with him until they were sure that he was fine on his own. Rudolfsen said the enormity of what happened didn't actually hit her until they left and had time to process it.
"We kind of looked at each other and said 'we got to help this person.' That is amazing," she said.
'Honour' to help hunter
The odds of them actually finding McDonald were dangerously small. It took them only a few minutes to swap out their equipment. On top of that, the valley is laid out in such a way that it would have been very easy to miss a single person, especially one they hadn't been expecting to find.
"The chances that we found him where we found him before his health had deteriorated any more ... that's pretty profound," she said.
It's an experience, Ruppert said, that has changed his perspective. While he said he is always cautious when heading out into the wilderness, he now sees just how easy it is to get into a bad situation.
"Having an experience like this shows you how … we are flirting with dealing with something that could go belly up very quickly," he said.
Both Rudolfsen and Ruppert say they look forward to the next time their research takes them through Fernie, where they plan to stop in and reconnect with McDonald.
"It was a real honour to be able to help him," Rudolfsen said.
"I'm never going to be able to forget Garth as a personality. He turned out to be a really great guy, he was a real sweetheart."
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