ANCHORAGE — When 19-year-old Nathan Miller took a short walk from Kincaid Park Chalet onto the flats of the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge just before sunset Wednesday, he planned to relax and soak in the beautiful surroundings.
He hiked some 250 yards out from the shoreline, began listening to music by Journey and other bands on his iPod.
Distracted by the peaceful view and his music, Miller didn’t immediately notice how quickly the tide was coming in. Once he did, Miller instantly knew he was in trouble. High tide was due at 6:55 p.m.
He began running toward shore, stopping to call a friend on a cell phone with a fading battery. He might be in trouble, he said. Call for help if I don’t return in a couple hours.
Miller reached a 50-foot-wide river of water rushing in on the tide.
“It was quite a swim I had to make,” he said by phone Friday afternoon. “I couldn’t feel the bottom, but I could feel ice hitting my legs. I gave up my jacket, which was weighing me down and had gotten wet. That left me with a long-sleeve shirt and a short-sleeve shirt.”
Despite water that reached his neck, he made it — but then had another swath of water nearly the same width to negotiate.
After the second crossing, he was still about 50 yards offshore. He crawled on a thick 8-by-8-foot shelf of ice, beat.
“My body started to shut down because of the cold,” he said. “There was a lot of shivering,” he said. “I had to work out to keep my core temperature up, so I did pushups and tried to run in place.
“I tried everything to keep myself from giving up, but eventually my body started to shut down.”
He tried to recall tips from televised survival shows, but soon he was just praying and yelling for help. Eventually, he summoned the will to swim over to a third big chunk of ice closer in.
“The tide came in so fast it just totally caught me off guard,” he said. “I decided I was going to wait it out until the tide went back out, so I curled up and waited.”
Time passed. A helicopter flew overhead in the dark but didn’t spot him.
Gradually, the tide receded and Miller made it to the shoreline beneath the bluff, about 300 yards from where the trail heads uphill. But there was no salvation there.
“My legs were completely shot, and it was all uphill,” he said. “I knew I wasn’t going to make it. But I kept praying to God to keep me from giving up and to keep me warm.
“I never did completely lose it.”
Finally, a little after 10 p.m. he heard what sounded like voices, faint at first, then a little stronger.
Miller tried to scream, but what came out was a pleading, weak sound.
It was enough.
Anchorage Police Department officers John Bolen and Julnudda Jackson were on the flats along with Mark Miller, Nathan’s dad, searching for the teenager. At 10:11 p.m., they heard that weak answer.
“I yelled for him,” Mark Miller said. “He was quite a ways away, but he yelled back. We kept on yelling, and he kept yelling back.
“When I first got up to him, he didn’t recognize me right away. His speech was very slurred. He was just soaked to the bone.”
The teenager remembered this: “He gave me a hug and told me he loved me.”
The officers put their jackets on Nathan and called for additional help.
“People do really strange things when they’re hypothermic,” noted police spokesman Lt. Dave Parker. “He was cold. He was in a world of hurt.”
Anchorage Fire Department medics arrived and helped drag Nathan, who couldn’t feel his feet, down the beach and up a less-steep trail to Kincaid Chalet. Soon he was at Providence Alaska Medical Center.
His body temperature was 91 degrees when first measured at the hospital, according to Nathan, but it climbed quickly and was normal when he was released at 6:30 a.m. Thursday. Feeling is slowly returning to his toes and fingertips. He’s expected to fully recover.
How much colder he was on the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge is anyone’s guess.
When body temperature falls below 95, it begins to affect a person’s mental capacity. When core temperature reaches 93, amnesia threatens. Expect apathy at 91 degrees, stupor at 90.
When the body hits 88 degrees, it typically no longer possesses the urge to warm itself by shivering. By 87 degrees many hypothermia victims lose the ability to recognize a familiar face, as happened when Miller’s dad appeared.
Looking back Friday afternoon, Miller, a graduate of Christian Heritage Schools, counted his blessings.