• Steven Craig survives, thanks to his own wilderness experience, dogged efforts of many friends and volunteers
By Naomi Klouda
The Caribou Hills where Steven Craig found himself lost after dark Friday night offered no place to rest in blowing wet snow, where not even a fire could be lit.
But the three-day ordeal ended as well as it could, thanks to the lifelong Homer resident’s knowledge of wilderness and his strength to keep walking. Also thanks to the hundred people who turned out to search. Charlie and Ryan Kaufman by plane spotted Craig Sunday afternoon considerably further east from the search grid. Then Mike Fell, owner of Pathfinder Aviation, was able to helicopter to a landing and pick him up. Craig was immediately taken to South Peninsula Hospital, incoherent, disoriented and frost bitten, but otherwise okay.
“He just kept walking. He never quit walking,” said his wife, Rita, Monday morning. “That was the only way he could stay warm the entire time. Slush and snow went up to his knees or past them. He tried to lay down on the snow machine but in less than 5 minutes, he was cold again.”
Even removing his helmet would have exposed him to wet and cold, so he kept it on the entire three days.
Steven and Rita Craig live at Mile 18 on East End Road. It’s an easy run, usually, for Craig to set off on his snow machine for the CCL lodge in the Caribou Hills, about 8 miles away. At about 6:20 p.m. Friday, he separated from his friend. He intended to travel alone to the CCL Lodge in the Caribou Hills for a cheeseburger, a place he goes often.
“He was able to call one time, at 7 p.m. to say he was running low on fuel,” Rita Craig said. “I called friends and tried to call him back but he didn’t pick up. Then he called at 7:30 and said his battery was going dead. I told him everyone was coming to get him.”
Craig’s wife contacted family friends and several private parties, including Snomad’s Search and Rescue leader Phil Needham, who went to the area where Craig was last seen. They searched, but were not able to find Craig. Again on Saturday they set out in a storm front, and were unable to find him. On Sunday, the search group was composed of 60 snow machiners broken into teams who also came back mystified by Craig’s location.
While Craig struggled to find a way out, little did he know that about 100 people would eventually be involved in the search, organized by the Kachemak Emergency Services and Snomads.
At about 2 p.m. Sunday, word came that Steven Craig was spotted walking in the Caribou Hills from a private fixed-wing aircraft piloted by Charlie and Ryan Kaufman. They were able to airdrop food and water to him, then immediately reported his whereabouts to the Alaska State Troopers and to Pathfinder Aviation, which had joined the search party.
The Pathfinder Helicopter pilot, Mike Fell, went to the location where Craig was spotted, near Cytex Creek and Ptarmigan Head area, and was able to land. Craig was picked up and was immediately transported to the South Peninsula Hospital, said Spokesperson Megan Peters at 3:20 p.m. Sunday.
“No troopers were able to talk with him yet. We’re not sure about his condition, but he is safe,” Peters said.
The National Weather Service had issued a travel advisory on Friday afternoon for the weekend, warning of freezing rain and climbing temperatures, with a tropical wind blowing in.
Yet, despite the bad weather, low skies and heavy rains continuing into Sunday, both the private plane and the helicopter were able to complete the search successfully. By Tuesday morning he was, “much better,” she said.
Craig was released from South Peninsula Hospital on Sunday evening at about 8:30 p.m., when his wife took him home. On Monday, Rita said her phone was constantly ringing with friends checking in on Craig, but he was resting.
“(At the hospital) they ran I.V.’s to get him hydrated. They were concerned about his feet, some frost bite there, and concerned about his toes,” she said.
Craig is an experienced back country traveler who was raised in Homer. Taking a run by snow machine to the CCL or in the hills is a regular recreation pursuit.
“What got him turned around was the dark and the fog. The biggest thing is he ran out of gas, and that happened from being disoriented but he kept going,” Rita Craig said.
Craig had food supplies limited to candy and jerky, which he rationed. He took invoices from his pocket to try to spark a fire, but nothing could burn in the soggy terrain with more wet snow blowing. He used the shield from his snow machine to form a shelter, but even that wasn’t adequate.
“When he got out, his gear was so wet, it was as though he had been in a bath tub wearing everything he had on,” Rita Craig said. “His socks were dripping water. I couldn’t believe how soggy everything was.”
Craig felt that though he kept walking, he wasn’t getting anywhere because he kept circling back to his snowmachine. But the point was to keep warm.
Once the snow machine was found on Monday they had a better way of gauging how far Craig had traveled.
His machine, located by Rita’s cousins Buck and Phillip Jones, wasn’t far from where Craig was rescued.
Bob Romanko, a member of the Snomads rescue group looking for Craig and a wilderness counselor for Boy Scout Troop 555, described that area as a no-man’s land where a deep wet valley cuts through the hills.
“It’s an ugly place,” Romanko said. “A drainage runs through a valley. It’s difficult to ride there and difficult to walk there. He was north and east of caribou lake – A lot more east than people thought. He was about five miles from the nearest cabin. It’s not something (a terrain) you can get through.”
Without shelter and without fire, Romanko said he can picture what Craig had to do to survive.
“I know what he had to do and it was amazing. Thank God. Evidently he had enough hydration and nutrition in his body so that he was able to last that long.”
Craig’s many relatives expressed relief and joy when Craig was rescued while it was still daylight Sunday.
“We’re unbelievably thankful for everyone. All our lives we have lived here. He has no idea what went on. He figured a couple of friends and family would go looking for him,” Rita Craig said. “He said ‘I didn’t think they would find me because I didn’t think that many people would come.’”
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