PORT TOWNSEND — Six or eight gunshots rang out as Dave Thielk pedaled his bicycle down Olympic Hot Springs Road — or so he thought. As the sound cracked open the cold December air, he saw something black overhead.
The thing crashed into his right shoulder. Then his back. His right leg.
“It didn’t slow down. It just kept on coming,” Thielk, 66, recalled.
It was a fir tree, an old snag beside the road west of Port Angeles, making the gunshot noise as its roots broke. A moment later, Thielk and his bicycle lay on the ground.
“I was up off my [bike] seat, leaning forward,” he said, “so it kind of pushed me forward.”
Thielk had a moment in a kind of limbo, as he wondered how he could have survived this.
Then, realizing the tree wasn’t going to budge, he managed to pull his right foot and leg out from under it.
In the next of escalating strokes of luck, Thielk pulled out his cellphone. Minutes before, he’d taken a photo of the Elwha Valley and, instead of putting the phone in his backpack as he usually does, he’d slipped it into his pants pocket. Had it been in the pack — now out of reach — he wouldn’t have been making any calls.
At about 12:30 p.m. Dec. 22, Thielk dialed 911. Nothing. He kept trying. On the fourth call, an emergency dispatcher answered.
“Hey, I’m really desperate,” Thielk remembers saying; “I’ve been hit by a tree, I’m really in bad shape …”
Help would arrive in probably 30 minutes, he was told, but he couldn’t imagine medical aid vehicles making it up to his location in such a short time.
But “those guys are amazing. It was about 35 minutes later,” that Clallam County Fire District 2’s ambulances arrived. Working with Olympic National Park rangers, Clallam 2’s crew found Thielk about 5 miles up the road from U.S. Highway 101 near the old Altair campground.
“We got the call at 1:13 p.m.,” Clallam 2 chief Jake Patterson said, adding he felt disbelief when he saw where Thielk had made his cellphone calls.
“It was surprising that he got through at all with that location,” Patterson said.
As Thielk awaited rescue, a hiker, a man in his 20s he believes, found him. The man took off his down jacket and covered Thielk with it, and waited with him. The two men talked some; Thielk doesn’t recall the hiker’s name, only that he’s a wanderer who stays in Port Angeles when he’s not up in the mountains.
Thielk’s phone came in handy again: He asked the hiker to use it to take photos of the scene. The pictures show Thielk crumpled on the ground beside his bike, which is pinned under the tree.
Around 3:30 p.m., Thielk was airlifted to Providence Hospital in Everett, where he learned he had a fractured pelvis, several broken ribs and multiple fractures down his right side, forearm to ankle. His back was a mass of contusions.
“I don’t recall feeling excruciating pain at all,” Thielk said, “until the next day.”
He does remember the moment of impact.
“I thought I was dead; no way a body could survive this kind of battering,” he said.
Yet Thielk’s body and mind have proven their resilience. He’s not only a bicyclist who uses two wheels to get most places he needs to go, but also a contra- and square-dancer and musician. Before retiring in 2016, he worked as a biologist in Alaska and, for many years, a school teacher and creator of the Community Connections program in the Port Townsend School District.
After a mere three nights in the hospital, Thielk had to gain permission amid pandemic restrictions to have his wife of 34 years, Yuko Umeda, come in to get him. She brought him home to Port Townsend on Christmas Day.
A month after what a friend calls “one of the luckiest unlucky moments” of Thielk’s life, he’s on the mend. Shin and ankle pain and the logistics of living horizontally — pressure on his leg makes sitting up untenable — rule his days. He has several more weeks with limbs in various casts.
While Thielk can’t play his banjo, fiddle or guitar, he’s picked up the harmonica with his left hand. Friends visit for socially distanced music-making once or twice a week, and he feels his energy returning.
Does he think about bicycling again?
“Oh, yeah,” he answers without hesitating. Riding the mountain roads of the North Olympic Peninsula is not something he can imagine giving up.
Dec. 22 did illuminate something: Thielk wants to spend more time living in his senses, connecting to the natural world — and less time on the computer.
He also thinks about “cultivating a different mindset,” he said, regarding his personal relationships.
Thielk’s friends in the music and dance community and from the ReCyclery, where he’s a longtime board member, are keeping his spirits up. They’re bringing homecooked meals for him and Umeda, who continues her work as a Jefferson County public health nurse.
They’re helping prune his fruit trees, now that it’s the season for that. And to help with his substantial medical bills, the ReCyclery has begun a fundraising effort at gofundme.com/f/help-dave-thielk-recover.
It’s an outpouring, Thielk said.
Most of all, “my wife and I are so full of gratitude.”
Jefferson County senior reporter Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-417-3509 or [email protected]