Seven years ago, a single-engine plane carrying two friends of mine went missing in the mountains near Dixon. It was a Sunday.
I had met Melissa Weaver and Erika Hoefer seven months earlier when they both started working as reporters at the Daily Inter Lake, where I was a sports reporter and fresh college graduate trying out adulthood in a town that felt far from home. The girls were on similar paths, embracing a new stage in life in an unfamiliar place, anxious about all of its uncertainties.
Melissa was from Billings, the oldest sister of three siblings and a recent graduate of the University of Montana School of Journalism. Erika was from Wisconsin, also the oldest in a family of three kids, who previously worked at the newspaper in her hometown of Beloit before moving to Chicago. She departed the big-city life to adventure in Northwest Montana.
We formed a tight-knit group of friends who enjoyed whimsical exploration and makeshift fun. The girls were our affable captains, bright, beautiful presences wherever they were: Saturday mornings in the newsroom, blaring music with sing-alongs; deep-fry cooking parties with late-night card games; adventuring in the wild. It was friendship at its finest.
It was June 27, 2010, when an acquaintance of Melissa’s traveled from Missoula to Kalispell in a small plane. The pilot, Sonny Kless, and his friend Brian Williams organized an afternoon sightseeing trip and invited the girls. We all planned to see the girls that evening at a barbecue when we could hear about their sky-high adventure on that perfect sunburst day.
They began by exploring Glacier National Park before turning south and crossing Flathead Lake. They veered over the National Bison Range. Then they entered the mountains south of Dixon.
We knew something wasn’t right later that afternoon. The girls were still gone. No one could reach them.
What followed over the next three days was a type of desperation I didn’t know until then. My friend, Sydney Jordt, who was also close with the girls, went with me to Dixon and we helped in the search effort. All together, more than 40 people from across the region, including family members and other friends of those missing, participated in the search.
On the afternoon of June 30, searchers spotted the wreckage of the plane. The following day, a search-and-rescue team hiked through dense brush and timber into the rugged mountains and recovered the bodies. All four — Melissa, 23, Erika, 27, Brian, 28, and Sonny, 25 — were carried out that evening.
A year later, a group of six of us, including Erika’s father and sister, hiked to the site of the crash. We bushwhacked up the mountain, six miles in, with the help of two members of the Sanders County Search and Rescue team who volunteered their time and escorted us. It was October and the leaves were changing colors. The site was still charred black with tiny pieces of plane scattered throughout. A helicopter emerged in the sky above and lowered a giant stainless-steel cross, a homemade monument that Erika’s father had received permission to plant at this special location hidden to everyone but us on the Flathead Indian Reservation.
We placed the cross that day, and it bears their names: Erika J. Hoefer and Melissa Weaver, and “Eternal Friends 6-27-2010.”
Without the dozens of search-and-rescue volunteers who devoted those long days seven years ago, we would still be searching.