DENALI NATIONAL PARK - Two young backpackers rationed peanut butter sandwiches and granola bars, growing hungrier as they wandered for six days in the dense vegetation of Denali National Park, they said Thursday.
Erica Nelson and Abby Flantz were down to their last granola bar Wednesday, the day they were rescued. Trekking through the remote park, they regularly clicked on their cell phone until they finally found reception that led to their rescue.
"We got a signal and I said, 'Wow, I have to call my mom,"' Nelson told reporters before heading with her family to Houston, where she plans to serve as maid of honor Saturday in her sister's wedding.
What started as an overnight hike June 12 turned into an intensive search that cost more than $118,000 and sometimes involved 100 people from volunteer groups and state and federal agencies, according to park spokeswoman Kris Fister.
Rangers estimate the women logged at least 20 miles before they were picked up by a helicopter crew outside the northeastern side of the 9,400-square-mile park, Fister said.
Nelson, 23, of Las Vegas and Flantz, 25, of Gaylord, Minn., had no idea they had trigged a search of that magnitude. They were reported overdue when they failed to show up at work Saturday at Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge, a hotel outside the park.
But after a few days of being lost, they did figure that people might be concerned.
"We were gone long enough, we knew there might be searches for us, but we didn't know it would be this big," Flantz said.
The women said they each packed only bare essentials, such as two sandwiches and granola bars, thinking that would be enough for their short trek. They brought a compass and a map but still lost their bearing, mistaking one river for another. They tried to follow the river, but that proved impossible many times, Flantz said.
"There were steep hills, so we had to get away from them and there was this high brush we had to push through," she said. "I cried a little bit, but not much."
The days wore on and they rationed their food, but ran out of water and drank river water or melted snow. They ripped up a shirt to bandage scratches and blisters. Hiking exhausted them, but they trudged on when the weather was good, hoping their destination was over the next bend. At night they slept in a tent.
Along the way, they saw plenty of bear tracks, steering far from the fresh prints. The only wildlife they saw, however, was a porcupine.
The last couple of days it rained, so they mostly stayed in the tent, conserving their waning energy.
By Wednesday, the cell phone's battery was weak, but Nelson finally got through to her mother, Ellane, who was listening to park officials give a morning briefing on the search. That was the day Nelson's sister, Alecia, and her future brother-in-law were to decide whether to postpone their wedding.
Nelson told her mother she and Flantz were alive and well, but inadvertently gave the wrong location of their whereabouts. Searchers couldn't find them at that location.
Nelson called her mother again about 3:30 p.m., and officials told her to hang up and text message instead to save the dying battery. Then they were able to locate the signal several miles north of the 100-square-mile area they had been searching.
"I'm tired, but I feel good," Nelson said Thursday. "I had a good meal last night and a good breakfast - king salmon."
The search area about 180 miles north of Anchorage is a mix of national park and state-owned lands. The search area includes dense alder and willow, some black spruce forest, but also miles of open tundra.
Flantz, who returns to work on Saturday, said she's not giving up on outdoor adventures, only next time she'll be better prepared.
"Oh, we'll go again," she said.