Update: Boys expected to make a full recovery, family is reuniting after hospital stays
Too often stories of someone gone missing in a fierce Alaska winter storm have a grim ending. So the news that four children lost in a blizzard in western Alaska were found alive has caught the attention of Alaskans. Christopher Johnson, 14, Frank Johnson, 8, Ethan Camille, 7, and Trey Camille, 2, were found 27 hours after they left Sunday for a short snowmobile ride from their home in Nunam Iqua, a Yup’ik village of 200 in western Alaska.
The odds were very much against them. After all, adults with years of outdoor experience, in weather not as cold, and sometimes within easy reach of shelter, have succumbed to hypothermia—as a sample of headlines on Alaska deaths due to exposure shows.
“Overdue [22-year-old] snowmachiner found dead, apparent victim of exposure,” Jan. 2020
"Missing [26-year-old) hiker found dead in Chena River Recreation Area,” Nov. 2019
“Local hikers in Alaska might have died due to exposure to the elements,” July 2019
“Wasilla Woman Dies on ATV Trail; Hypothermia Suspected,” March 2018
“Palmer man dies from apparent exposure [blocks from his home],” Feb. 2013
In fact, Alaska has the nation’s highest rate of deaths related to hypothermia. That’s not too surprising given Alaska’s northern latitude, and its short daylight hours and low temperatures in the winter. Hypothermia causes confusion and disorientation, so once it sets in, people may not take steps to warm themselves. And no one may happen across them because vast areas of the state are uninhabited and lack roads due to Alaska’s small population relative to its size. People disappear and are never found, or their bodies turn up months or even years later.
(Previous story: Children found safe after going missing during Alaskan blizzard)
Herschel Sundown lives in Scammon Bay, a village of about 500 people located 50 miles south of Nunam Iqua. He was one of the members of the search party that found the children.
“We were very surprised [to find them]. I personally wasn't expecting to find them. I thought another crew would in a different area. But we happened to come across them. I was surprised,” he said.
Sundown said his surprise stemmed from them being found so far, 18 miles, from their home in Nunam Iqua.
He said three teams of four people met in Scammon Bay Monday morning to decide their search routes. After traveling east for about two hours, his group of four met a team that said they had searched the area but his crew leader decided to stick to their plan to head that direction.
“The weather was bad when we departed from Scammon Bay… It was blowing snow and visibility was very, very poor. Once we got to [a campsite called] John Barbers, that's when it lifted,” he said. “That’s where it quit snowing and then we were able to see far enough. Just around the time that we found them, the weather lifted for us.”
Sundown said it was pure chance they spotted the children.
“I had stopped near a [frozen] river-slash-lake and my partner went out into the middle and stopped to wait for me. He turned around and he looked, and he thought he saw something out of the ordinary, like a hint of blue color,” Sundown said. “He went towards it and as he went towards it, it began to move. So he went to it and he found what he thought was only one person, but it was all four kids. All four kids huddled together, huddled over the baby, the two-year-old.
“There were several of us [searchers] around in that general area and he waved us all down. We went over and began to assess their condition and from there we just tried to warm them up and try to get the wet clothing off as needed.
“They [the kids] were in very bad shape as far as their condition health wise. They were very cold. They were hypothermic. You could just tell that they were in bad shape because they weren't responding the way we wanted for them to. They were quiet. [They were] confused. Not unconscious. Confused,” Sundown said. “Very cold. Too cold to really respond to our questions. It was hard to understand them.…The baby, the baby was trying to stay awake but couldn’t, pretty sure he was very tired. One [of the boys] was crying out of happiness.
“But eventually after warming up, they began responding, answering our questions,” Sundown said.
Sundown had worked in the health profession so he knew that a severely hypothermic person is susceptible to heart failure, so “I was very concerned… I was worried that one of these kids might, something might happen if they're that cold that their body might react opposite of the way I wanted it to. But we were fortunate to where they reacted good.”
Sundown said the kids did several things right.
“For one, they dug themself a little hole about a foot deep and three feet in diameter, and they cuddled together,” he said. “They were trying to stay together, that way they wouldn't lose so much of their body heat.”
He said although one had on a light jacket and thin pants, the other three of the four were dressed appropriately for the weather. And he praised them for the care they gave the two-year-old.
“They got together and shielded the baby at the same time.…For these boys to shield their baby brother, they did well. They protected each other. They protected the baby, and that's one thing that stood out. They shielded that baby from the elements.”
Sundown, age 36, is the father of four children almost the same age as the kids that were found.
“[Mine are] thirteen, eight, seven and one is going to be two in April, our baby. So this really hit home.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows during from 1999 to 2002 the highest annual rates of deaths related to hypothermia per 100,000 population were in Alaska (4.64), Montana (1.58), Wyoming (1.57), and New Mexico (1.3).
UPDATE: The boys' aunt told KYUK reporter Greg Kim the boys are expected to make a full recovery and are reuniting with their family. Their mother Karen Camille and grandmother were with three of the boys at the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Center in Bethel on Thursday. Two of the boys, 8-year-old Frank Johnson and 2-year-old Trey Camille, will be returning to Nunam Iqua with their mother. According to KYUK, the grandmother is traveling to be with 7-year-old Ethan Camille, the boy in the most serious condition, who is receiving care at Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage. His condition has improved from "serious but stable" to "good." The oldest of the four boys, 14-year-old Christopher Johnson, will be with his father, Frank Johnson Jr., who is already in Bethel, KYUK reports.
Their mother has launched a GoFundMe fundraiser to cover travel, clothing, and other expenses to "go see my babies."
Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a long-time Alaska journalist and a national correspondent for Indian Country Today.