Happy ending wraps up search for snowmachiner

What was meant to be a short, two-hour snowmachine ride with a friend last Friday turned out much differently for Steven Craig, 41, of Homer. After Craig became lost, an estimated 100 individuals on the ground and in the air spent the weekend battling foul weather in hopes of finding the snowmachiner alive.

Their efforts were successful. Craig was
spotted Sunday afternoon.

Earlier this week, Craig, his wife, Rita, and daughters, Kristina and Brittany, shared details of the family’s 50-hour ordeal with the Homer News.

“It was just supposed to be a couple of hours, a really quick ride between here and Caribou Lake,” said Rita Craig of her husband’s outing between their home at mile 18 East End Road and the lake. “He’s always back within an hour of dark. That’s his policy.”

At 7 p.m., Rita Craig received a call from her husband saying fog had set in, he was almost out of gas, it was dark and he wasn’t sure of his location.

“He thought he was at the gravel pit, but he couldn’t guarantee it,” she said of an area along the route he planned to travel.

Craig, who is not new to snowmachining and averages 1,500 miles a year, is usually prepared for emergencies.

“Having some way to start a fire, a SAT phone and having GPS coordinates would be the way to go,” he said “I’ve got that stuff … but I just didn’t have most of that stuff with me.” 

Calling on friends, Rita Craig asked if they would search the gravel pit area and send up a flare for Craig to see. A half hour later, Craig called his wife and asked if help was coming. 

She advised him to stay put, help was on the way.

“He texted us once after that, said his phone was dying and to try to get the GPS coordinates off it. We texted back, said we couldn’t get it, but help was coming,” she said.

When Craig tried to respond, his phone went dead. 

At midnight, the friends called Rita Craig to let her know they hadn’t found her husband, were calling another friend to help and would continue looking.

“I thought for sure they’d find him,” she said.

Saturday morning, with no sight of Craig, the Snomads, a local snowmachine club, and the Alaska State Troopers were notified of his disappearance. Searchers endured heavy rain and strong wind to comb the area where Craig had told his wife he was. The day’s efforts proved fruitless.

Sunday, a larger group of volunteers met at Kachemak Emergency Service’s McNeil Canyon station. With the help of Phil Needham of the Snomads search and rescue group and KES Chief Bob Cicciarella, the volunteers were divided into teams and dispatched to a broader search area.

“I asked the troopers if they could check (Craig’s) last phone call and see which tower it pinged off of,” said Rita Craig. “They said the first phone call was off the Clam Gulch tower, but at 11 am. Saturday, he must have tried to turn his phone on because they got a quick ping off the Anchor Point tower, so that’s why everybody on Sunday headed in that direction.”

As concern mounted, news of Craig’s disappearance went viral.

“My sister said she was getting Facebook messages from different countries that people were praying for him,” said Rita Craig. “It went crazy.”

Meanwhile, Craig was battling to stay alive. Friday night, he stayed with his out-of-fuel snowmachine. 

“I kept having to stomp my feet and move my arms to fight off the chill,” said Craig, who was dressed in FRX snowmachine gear, a helmet and insulated Xtratuffs. “I was already wet by then, but I fought all night.”

The next morning, he left the snowmachine and began looking for familiar signs that would point the way home. Craig continued walking through knee-deep, slushy snow and kept himself hydrated with mouthfuls of snow. The only food he had with him was a candy par and a pepperoni stick. He never heard those searching for him, either on the ground or in the air.

“I was farther out than they thought I was so they never got to that point,” said Craig, adding that he does recall hearing snowmachines, but thinks it was from hallucinations that were beginning to set in. 

Continuing to move kept Craig active through Saturday, Saturday night and Sunday. Shortly after 2 p.m. he heard a plane overhead. It was pilot Charlie Kauffman of Homer who, along with Kauffman’s son, Ryan, was part of the search effort. After being in the air for about three hours, the father and son hadn’t seen any sign of Craig and decided to look in a search area adjacent to the one they had been assigned.

“We had more fuel and more time and I thought we might just as well keep looking. And I just kind of had a hunch,” said Kauffman of broadening his search.

Kauffman’s hunch paid off. The two men spotted Craig walking near Cytex Creek, east of Happy Valley and north of Caribou Lake. 

“We flew over him a couple of passes, threw out a couple MREs (meals ready to eat), water, sandwiches and a blanket,” said Kauffman.” 

Kauffman alerted others searchers they had spotted Craig, returned to Homer and then directed helicopter pilot Mike Fell of Pathfinder Aviation to Craig’s location more than 20 miles from Homer. Needham estimated Craig was within three-quarters of a mile of his snowmachine.

After picking up Craig, Fell headed to South Peninsula Hospital while Kauffman and volunteers Rick Alexander and Todd Green, who were flying with Fell, removed Craig’s wet clothes and put him in a warm, dry Mustang suit.

“He was soaked to the skin. He didn’t know who we were when we landed. He was mumbling and numb,” said Fell. “We started getting fluids into him and getting him warmed up.”

Craig’s family learned he had been found through text messages between one of the volunteer searchers and his wife. The message was accidentally sent to the cell phone of Craig’s son, David, who was in the process of making plans to fly from Las Vegas, Nev., where he is studying, to be with his family in Homer.

“She was trying to text her husband to confirm he’d been found and it accidentally went to my son,” said Rita Craig, laughing. 

After four hours in the hospital, during which Craig was examined and rehydrated, he was released to return home. Concern about possible frostbite on two toes was ruled out by doctors on Tuesday, with the only remaining physical discomfort a mouth and throat sore from ingesting sharp snow crystals.  

Not only is Craig home, so is his snowmachine. Buck and Philip Jones located it and towed it to the Craig home on Monday. 

“If it (the temperatures) had been 10-15, it would definitely have been a totally different outcome,” he said. The National Weather Service reported temperatures ranging between 30-40 degrees Fahrenheit. “I think I was down to like the last two or three hours. That’s what the guys that found me said.”

“That’s what the doctor said, too,” said Rita Craig. “He was pushing the envelope a little bit.”

Continuing to wear his helmet was a wise decision. 

“Losing that much more heat would have made a difference,” said Rita Craig.

Craig’s outer clothing had absorbed so much water they weighed 31 pounds, but were made from fiber that, even wet, offers insulation. In addition, there were the insulated Xtratuffs, chosen footwear by many on the southern peninsula.

The Craig family is grateful for the unwavering effort of family, friends and strangers to bring him safely home. 

“We want to be sure and thank everyone for their support and everybody’s prayers,” said Craig. “It was everybody in it together. And prayers definitely played a part. That’s what brought me home. That’s the bottom line in the end.”

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at mckibben.jackinsky@homernews.com.