Lost in the Frozen Wilderness – A Miracle!

Post a Comment » Written on May 1st, 2008     
Filed under: News
By Stan Friedman

WHITE MOUNTAIN, AK (May 1, 2008) – Seventy-one-year-old Karl Ashenfelder thanks God he is still alive after spending three days and two nights lost and alone in the Alaskan wilderness earlier this month.

Ashenfelder, who is an elder at the White Mountain Covenant Church, was 100 miles from home when a pilot spotted him. He is certain he would not have lived another day.

It was a craving for caribou meat – and defying common wisdom – that nearly got him killed, says Ashenfelder. He had left early on the morning of Monday, April 14, to go hunting. Like most other people in the village of 200 people, Ashenfelder lives off the land, eating what he hunts or can grow. That day, he says, “I had other food, but I was hungry for caribou.”

GuitarThat meant riding his snow machine (snowmobile) at least 80 miles to where the caribou could be found, Ashenfelder says. “It took a couple of hours to get there.”

But he made the mistake of going by himself. Even pastor Ross McElwee, who has lived in the village for only two months, knows that is a cardinal sin. “They say rule number one is never, never, never leave the village alone,” he says. “Rule number two is double check rule number one.

“Alaska is a place of extremes,” McElwee says. “It is a place of extreme beauty and extreme danger. There are a thousand ways to get killed.”

But Ashenfelder frequently had broken the rules. “I’ve been stuck outside before, but never anything like that before,” he says.

The experienced hunter had found the caribou when a snowstorm suddenly developed. “There was a lot of blowing snow, and I wound up in a place that was unfamiliar,” Ashenfelder says.

He began following a snow machine trail, and entered a pass thinking he was heading in the right direction towards White Mountain, when in fact he was heading in exactly the wrong direction. He began having snow machine trouble and was running low on fuel when his oil light came on.

He nudged his machine over to the edge of a grove of trees to give him some protection from the wind. What happened next also may have been the first incident to save his life.

Shortly after moving into the grove of trees, a herd of caribou wandered by. Ashenfelder, despite later discovering his riflescope calibration was off, shot one of the animals through the heart, so he did not have to chase after a wounded caribou.

He would eat the caribou, which he was able to cook over a small fire, to help him survive. He also survived by eating snow and eating Spruce gum, secreted from the trees.

But Ashenfelder was lost in a place called Death Valley, where conditions were exactly the opposite of the desert better known by the name. The outcome for someone getting lost in either place generally is the same, however.

“Many have died here, both White and Eskimo,” McElwee says. “People have been found literally frozen on their sleds, their dogs curled up, frozen solid. The valley is beautiful, but catches the weather and winds in such a way that in the winter it is totally merciless.”

LandscapeThe weather showed no mercy, as a stiff wind brought sub-freezing temperatures to nearly 30 below zero at night. Ashenfelder used the cowling from his snow machine to keep himself safe from the elements and was able to keep a small fire burning. But he had to spend his days searching for firewood.

Because he had lost his axe on Monday while traversing a steep incline, Ashenfelder says, “I had to keep busy knocking down wood. It was rotten cottonwood, so you can knock it down easily.”

Meanwhile, he could hear the airplanes and the Army Blackhawk helicopter searching for him, but because Ashenfelder had gone the wrong way, they were looking in the wrong place. By Wednesday afternoon, he had about given up hope.

“I started to cry,” he recalls. “I finally surrendered. I prayed, ‘OK God, there’s no way for me to try to get out of here. I need to be found.’ That’s what we have to do with our lives.”

A cold, snowy day had socked in White Mountain with fog, so flying a search plane would have been dangerous, and searchers would not have been able to see anyway. “We prayed that God would open the heavens,” McElwee says. “By early afternoon, a beautiful blue sky shown.”

Eventually an Eskimo guide who takes hunters to hunt for bear flew over the area and discovered Ashenfelder. “He has exceptional eyesight and can tell the difference between bear prints and moose prints from his airplane – no small feat,” McElwee says.

“He told me he just knew he would find me,” Ashenfelder says.

Ironically, it was warming weather that posed the greatest danger for Ashenfelder had he been stranded another day. “The warming weather made the snow begin to melt and become sticky,” McElwee says. “This would have made it harder for search-and-rescue and definitely harder for Karl to have stayed dry, which is critical for staying warm here in the north.”

Ashenfelder suffered few ill effects from his ordeal, other than minor frostbite on his lips. “I teased him that it was from all the frozen food he was eating,” McElwee says.

While Ashenfelder was trying to stay alive, what he didn’t know was that people around the world had been praying for him. He learned when he arrived home and ate dinner at McElwee’s house.

“He would tell me who was praying for me and I would start to cry,” Ashenfelder says. Then a couple minutes later, he would tell me about another person who had prayed, and I would start to cry again.”

Ashenfelder says he is not a person usually given to tears. He has shed a few since arriving home. “I haven’t cried so much in all my life,” he says. “They have been tears of happiness.”

Editor’s note: the top photo shows Ashenfelder relaxing after his harrowing ordeal. The lower photo reflects the beauty and serenity of the environment that, as Ashenfelder quickly learned, can become one’s worst enemy.

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