A human's will to survive can reach unbelievable limits but what happened to Barrow's Craig Johnson last week can only be described as a miracle.
Johnson, 38, crashed through the sea ice on his snowmachine last Monday during a trip from Wainwright to Barrow and managed to survive outside for three days before being rescued.
Along with being in wet, then frozen, clothes and enduring subzero temperatures with a wind chill estimated at 35 below zero, Johnson was being stalked by a wolverine, which he tried to shoot but ultimately ended up keeping at bay by stabbing at it with a stick. Johnson suffered severe frostbite, hypothermia, dehydration and internal injuries from the snowmachine crash but he is alive and recovering at an Anchorage hospital.
How he survived is a mystery.
"We have repeatedly asked that question amongst ourselves," said April Brower, the director of the North Slope Borough Search and Rescue Department. "I think it had a lot to do with his will to live."
On Dec. 15, Johnson left Wainwright and headed for Barrow, about 80 miles away. About halfway, his snowmachine broke through the ice and Johnson was submerged in water up to his chest, Brower said on Monday.
He managed to get out of the ocean and, after spending an indeterminate amount of time on the sea ice, made his way in frozen clothes about 1.5 miles inland to the closest thing to shelter he could find, a platform that is used in the spring, summer and fall to erect wall tents that house hunters, Brower said. There was no heat source and Johnson did not have the tools to start a fire, nor did he have any survival gear with him, she added.
Johnson crawled inside, or under, the platform and stayed there for three days. During that time, he was stalked by a wolverine. He emptied his gun trying to shoot the animal and wound up jabbing at it whenever it came close, Brower said.
"There were some foxes too but they didn't bother him as much," Brower said. "It was the wolverine that gave him some problems."
The rescue efforts began after Johnson's friend in Wainwright called in the overdue person report.
Over the three days that followed, volunteer searchers from Barrow, Wainwright and Atqasuk were mobilized on snowmachines, in a plane and in a helicopter.
On Dec. 18 at about 6 p.m., Johnson was located. Rescuers on snowmachines had circled the platform without seeing any tracks or signs of him. It wasn't until they heard him yelling -- over the sound of their running snowmachines -- that he was found and airlifted by helicopter first to Samuel Simmonds Memorial Hospital in Barrow, then medevacked to Anchorage.
The rescue effort involved dozens of people on snowmachines, a Beechcraft King Air turboprop aircraft, a Bell 412 helicopter and a tracked tundra vehicle using grid patterns to search the vast Arctic expanse.
Johnson wasn't wearing a personal locator beacon (PLB) and his personal GPS sank with his snowmachine.
According to a post-rescue report, the helicopter flew over him on the coast on the first day but it was dark and snowing, and though the crews were using night-vision goggles, they did not spot him. He didn't have any other signaling device.
Chief Pilot Richard Patterson flew along the coast with the King Air TABI (electronic imaging) on the first flight. A helicopter equipped with searchlights was also seen in the vicinity, according to what Johnson told rescuers, but it was not close enough to spot him.
The temperatures were subzero on all three days Johnson was missing.
"When they found him, he was frozen chest-high," Brower said. "From what my guys told me, he was in a lot of pain."
Clifford Benson, a Barrow-based borough employee of the Search and Rescue Department, found Johnson approximately 40 miles from Barrow near Peard Bay. When they found Johnson, rescuers erected a tent to try to warm him up before the helicopter arrived.
"Our department used every resource that we could think of and … it took a lot of people for this mission," Brower said. "It never got to the point where we were going to look for a body instead of a person."
Brower added that personal locator beacons are free for public use in Barrow and other North Slope communities, and urged hunters and travelers to use one and write down their trip plan before heading out.
She added that once a PLB is activated, search and rescue personnel start looking within half an hour if the weather is safe enough.
"We're just really happy with this successful search," Brower said.
According to the Alaska Native Medical Center and Providence Health and Services, Johnson is not a patient there. A call to Alaska Regional was not returned by press time.
This article originally appeared in the Arctic Sounder. It is republished here with permission.