SOLDOTNA - With a blizzard starting up around him, musher Rod Boyce struggled in the dark to find the 18 miles of trail leading to the next checkpoint in the Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race.
He went in one direction for a couple of hours before turning around when the paw prints he was following suddenly disappeared. As he headed back, he eventually stopped seeing trail markers, so he turned his 10-dog team around again.
After four hours of confusion, Boyce decided the smart thing to do would be to hunker down.
``I started thinking maybe I should find some shelter,'' he said. ``I was looking to take a break until daylight, so I could get oriented.''
That break started in Sunday's early hours and continued until Boyce, 38, of Two Rivers was found Friday after an extensive search by air and ground. He and his dog team survived this winter's worst storm without injury.
Boyce built a makeshift camp below a ridgeline, and when he realized he had no idea where he was, he had enough sense to stay put and build little fires in his cookstove to melt snow and dry his socks.
He huddled near his camp in the Kenai Peninsula's Caribou Hills, near Eagle Lake, rationing his meager food supply between himself and his dogs.
Boyce said he heard snowmobiles and caught glimpses of helicopters from time to time, figuring they were looking for him. He attempted to use his headlamp as a SOS beacon and once waved an old red jacket, but searchers failed to spot him.
He wrote ``HELP'' using sticks he sawed from shrubs and stamped the same word in the snow nearby. But he didn't hike around a lot, he said, mainly to conserve energy and prevent sweat from soaking his clothing. He just kept waiting.
``I talked to the dogs, thought about my wife and drank a lot of water,'' Boyce said, washing down a bacon cheeseburger with a cold Foster's lager in a Soldotna motel room.
He was only a couple of miles from Homer's East End Road, but he could not see it and did not know it was there.
Storms with winds to 60 mph had blown drifts 8 feet deep, but Boyce's camp only had about 18 inches of fresh snow, he said. He slept in the cramped bag of his lightweight sled.
When the weather cleared Friday, Boyce hiked to a peak and spotted a snowmachine trail.
About that time, Ron Poston, a retired Coast Guardsman, was heading out to search. He saw someone on the well-traveled trail, and wondered what a hiker or skier was doing out there. Not until he got to Boyce did he realize who he'd found.
Boyce told him, ``I think I'm the musher you've been looking for.''
Poston loaded the musher onto his snowmobile and started for the Caribou Lake Lodge. In a few miles he caught up to lodge manager Chuck Hagen, who had spent days on the search, and said, `Guess what I've got.'''
Searcher Dusty VanMeter said he was amazed rescuers hadn't stumbled into Boyce sooner.
``We were right in that area, for crying out loud,'' VanMeter said.
A group of Homer mushers collected the dogs Friday afternoon. Thin but happy, they ate some salmon and halibut and were lodged in a Homer kennel.
Boyce said he was amazed at the statewide and national interest in his plight and at how many people had been out looking for him. Tired but in good spirits, he stiffly rose from his chair to answer a welcome-back call from Gov. Tony Knowles.
``It's like I told the governor,'' said the musher, sporting a weary survivor's grin, ``what a great state to get lost in.''