Teen-agers Martha Foster and Louise Clark are hobbling around Selawik village on walkers this week. They are lucky to be walking at all.
The two disappeared for seven days in a Northwest Alaska blizzard earlier this month and stunned their families when they emerged from the odyssey alive. The Selawik teens were released from a Kotzebue hospital last week and recently told the Empire their story.
There was nothing unusual about Monday, April 2. Foster and Clark planned to ride a snowmachine to nearby Noorvik for a basketball tournament - a 30-mile trip they'd made many times before. But this time, the friends never got there.
"It got real stormy and we couldn't see where we were going," said Foster, 16. "I took the first turn and I was not supposed to."
It was so stormy, the teens could see only the trail markers they passed along the way. They did not know for nearly five hours they were on the wrong trail, one that led to mountains more than 20 miles away. They knew they were lost when they came upon spruce trees - uncommon in the far-flung tundra known as The Flat. The teens had never been to the forest before, but they headed into the woods to escape the storm raging around them.
"It was so stormy that was the most safest place to be. Not in The Flat where it was straight-up stormy," said Foster, who rode deep into the forest thinking the wrong trail might lead to the right one.
But the trail took them over some mountains and across more trails until they utterly lost their way. The duo spent hours trying to find a way out of the woods, but they no longer knew which path led back to The Flat. Then the snowmachine got stuck.
"It was about out of gas, too, and we couldn't pull the snowmobile out so we just left it," said Clark, 19.
Surrounded by mountains and trees, it seemed the only way out was up. The teens figured they eventually would find their way home if they could just find The Flat, but they couldn't see it through the forest.
"We started climbing the closest mountain and we went up there and it was real stormy, real cold," Foster said.
But when they reached the top, they were dismayed to find they were surrounded by mountains so high they could not see beyond them. By then it was getting dark, so the teens prepared for the first of many freezing nights in the wild by breaking young spruce branches and making a mattress under a large tree. The spruce boughs made a barrier between their bodies and the snow - a trick Clark learned from village elders as a youngster. Then they went to sleep on empty stomachs with only snow and ice for nourishment.
"(We were) really shaking and hungry. It was really cold that night," said Clark.
The teens spent the next four days climbing mountains in brutal storms searching for The Flat. But every summit they conquered was lower than the peaks around it, and so the ordeal went on. They tried to set some trees on fire to alert emergency teams, which had launched a massive search. But the trees proved too wet to burn, so they ignited some extra clothes they'd packed for the trip. No one noticed the fire. On the fifth day, they topped another summit only to see the biggest mountain yet. Weak with hunger and barely able to walk, they knew that mountain would help them find their way home - if they could only find the strength to climb it.
"Man, that mountain was so huge," Clark said.
"That mountain was so big we couldn't climb to the very top, but we had to," said Foster. "When we reached the top, we went to see what was on the other side of that. Sure enough it was flat all the way."
The teens made it to The Flat and walked another two days in freezing wind toward home. They had kept their spirits up through most of the ordeal, but Clark was beginning to lose hope.
"All I was thinking was, man, what if I never get found," said Clark, who by now could walk only five steps at a time. On the last day they were hunkering at the bottom of a small hill when they heard a snowmachine in the distance. Clark clawed her way to the top of the hill and suddenly rescuers were all around them.
"They just praised the Lord," Foster said. "They called on the VHF (radio) 'They're alive.'"
Foster's mother, Mildred, was anxiously monitoring the radio from her home in Selawik. When the news came across, the house full of family and friends erupted.
"Everybody was jumping, crying, laughing, in and out the door, asking me how I was," Mildred said. "I was so surprised, so glad they were alive."
They were flown 70 miles to a hospital in Kotzebue and treated for hypothermia - Foster said she almost lost her feet to frostbite. U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens marveled at the teens last week during his annual address to lawmakers.
"I would urge all Alaskans to learn from those two girls. I don't think I could have done it," Stevens said.
Clark credits her survival to the searchers and the village elders who taught her ways to save herself so long ago. Foster looks to a higher power.
"God was watching over us, he protected us," said Foster. "We talked to God all that week and he helped us out."
Kathy Dye can be reached at email@example.com.
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