A.L.A. Himmelwright, a businessman from New York who was on the trip, would later write a book about it. The details he provided painted a picture of a well-outfitted expedition: 125 pounds of flour, 30 pounds of bacon, 40 pounds of salt pork, 20 pounds of beans, eight pounds of coffee, and on and on. He described the guns, including Carlin’s three-barreled weapon that had two 12-gauge shotgun bores side-by-side with a .32 rifle beneath.
The group got to Kendrick by train, where they gathered together the supplies, five saddle horses, five pack horses, a spaniel and two terriers, and set out for a hunt.
Six inches of snow fell on September 22. That concerned guide Martin Spencer. He figured it would only get deeper as they moved higher into the mountains. Carlin decided to push on despite the snow, and although their cook had become ill. George Colgate’s legs had swollen to the point where he could barely hobble around. Everyone else shared in cooking duties as his abilities waned.
In the days to come Colgate rallied, then got progressively worse. One day he couldn’t even stay on his horse. As more snow flew, members of the hunting party nursed the cook while he lay in a tent.
Fifty miles from anything like civilization the Carlin party found themselves in a desperate situation with snow blocking trails and a man who could not be moved on their hands. Colgate was so sick he couldn’t talk. The men debated what to do. Should they stick it out where they were and hope the weather would break? Should they send someone ahead to bring back a rescue party?
While they pondered, another storm struck. Food was running short. They had to get out of there.
Someone struck on the idea of building a raft to float down the Lochsa. They lashed together some logs with cord and wire and attached a long sweep with which to guide the contraption. Before setting out on the raft, Himmelwright would make a dark entry in his diary: “It is a case of trying to save five lives or sacrificing them to perform the last sad rites for Colgate.”
The men set out downriver, leaving their cook behind seemingly on death’s door.
Cutting the story short, the hunting party lost their raft in a rapid several miles downstream. They survived by shooting a few grouse, catching a few fish, and even eating one of their dogs before a rescue party found them on November 21.
And now the story gets strange.
The men of the party were well known, so the tale of their failure to return when expected and their ultimate rescue had been carried in many newspapers, including the New York Times, which also carried the story of the bottle.
What bottle? The one that was purportedly found in the Snake River by one Sam Ellis at Penewawi, some 60 miles below Lewiston. Inside the bottle was this note:
FOOT OF BITTER ROOT MOUNTAINS, Nov. 27.—I am alive and well. Tell them to come and get me as soon as any one finds this. I am 50 miles from civilization as near as I can tell. I am George Colgate, one of the lost Carlin party. My legs are better. I can walk some. Come soon. Take this to Kendrick, Idaho, and you will be liberally rewarded. My name is George Colgate, from Post Falls. This bottle came by me and I caught it and wrote these words to take me out. Direct this to St. Elmo hotel, Kendrick, Idaho.
“Good bye, wife and children.”
The small bottle was corked and fastened to a piece of driftwood with a rag tied to it.
The writing on the note was compared to Colgate’s signature on a hotel register and “was found to be wonderfully close.”
Two relief parties set out to rescue Colgate in the coming months. Neither met with success. Meanwhile, Carlin was adamant that the note in the bottle was a fake designed to somehow extort money from him and ruin his reputation.
The note seems a little pat and the finding of the bottle incredible, so maybe Carlin was right. In any case, his reputation suffered. There was debate for decades about the ethics of leaving a man to die in the wilderness.
And die he did. On August 23, 1894, the remains of George Colgate were found about eight miles from the spot where he was said to have been abandoned. How did he get there along with a matchbox, some fishing line, and other personal articles? Had he rallied long enough to drag himself through the snow that far? Had he lived to write a message in a bottle?