Thursday, October 8, 2009

A Surviving Story



I write this with trembling hands, unsure of where to begin or what to say. This is what I know.

Saturday morning our school secretary (also the mother of several of our students) packed up her sled and four-wheeler and left for a day of caribou hunting. Fall and spring are prime hunting seasons in this area and Wanda is a caribou hunter.

Wanda was taught to hunt by her father. She is an excellent shot and seldom comes home empty-handed. As a single mother, she has continued to hunt, fish, and gather subsistence foods, teaching her own children similar skills. This is what the Inupiat do. This is their way. Six days ago, Wanda began an ordinary journey that ended today with an extraordinary outcome.

She survived.

Late Saturday night, into the earliest morning hours of Sunday, one of Wanda's daughters realized that her mom should be home...and wasn't. Notifying our local search and rescue unit set an enormous effort in motion. And across the village telephone lines burned an incredible and frightening fact.

Wanda was missing.

I won't try to relay the distress that a thing like this produces. The search and rescue team, mostly unpaid volunteers, spent five nights and five days tirelessly scouring the tundra over-land while a chopper and rescue plane searched from above. A grid was mapped out, evidence was analyzed, prayers were prayed, and tears were shed.

Everyone knew all too well how the story could end. Five nights alone on the tundra, braving temperatures in the low twenties with 20-40 mile-per-hour winds seemed like too much to bear. But no one was willing to underestimate the power of a miracle or the strength of a determined Inupiat woman armed with survival skills and fueled by a will to live...for herself as well as for her children.

Yet, after so many days without a trace, brave faces were beginning to weaken. Eyes glazed over as fatigue and fear of the worst crowded in. Rumors proliferated causing spirits to soar then quickly crash against the harsh reality of truth. People of the North are not strangers to this. They have lived for centuries with the vicious bite of the elements at their heels. Death is a part of life, but not knowing is an added burden that no one can be prepared for.

Where is the line between delusion and hope? And who has the right to draw it?

Thankfully, Wanda's family and this community won't have to answer that question after all. This afternoon Wanda was found, not only alive, but in good shape. She was exhausted, sore, wind-burned, possibly a little dehydrated, but conscious and talking and walking on her own two feet.

Her survival skills had served her well and left her with a story to tell. This is what the Inupiat do. This is their way...but I'm not sure anyone expected such a powerful and beautiful end to this particular tale.

This is a surviving story. One that was lost has made her way home.

And for that...we are all incredibly grateful.

12 comments:

mwong said...

yes an amazing few days. everyone was just amazing on all the effort and time. search and rescue crew that spent countles hours/days searching untill they had no engery left. Wanda and all were out there in the bitter cold/ facing the driving wind/ expose to the harsh enviroment. No one gave up. And no one was going to give up either!!!!!

Allmycke said...

What a wonderful story!
A strong woman, knowledgeable in so many ways most of us have only read about...She deserves accolades, as does the S&R teams who didn't give up looking for her.

Kimberlee said...

Mel and Trudie...Thanks for your comments!
I can't say enough about Wanda's determination or the efforts of the Search and Rescue team. I'm immensely proud of both. I can't wait to hear details on both sides of the experience. From what I understand...Wanda walked more than thirty miles from her "dead" four-wheeler toward her family's cabin. Rescuers were BENT on finding her and refused to give up. Thankfully the outcome was more satisfying than in previous such incidents.
I'll share more info as it becomes available.

Jay said...

Thanks for the good reporting here. Our relief in Barrow is great--much rejoicing!

I came across your blog doing some arctic search term or other a coupld of weeks back and much enjoyed reading. I look forward to more.
Jay in Barrow

Dog Hair in my Coffee said...

Wow. What a story. Please update and tell us how she survived, where she was found and the details of her story. I am so glad it had a happy ending, and I also just wanted to tell you I enjoy your blog. I read often, just seldom comment.

Coffeedog

kristina said...

Wow! That is an amazing story. I can't imagine what she went through. I am pretty sure I wouldn't have survived that. I am glad she is ok.

Kimberlee said...

Jay...
Thanks for reading! And, yes, we're all relieved. Wanda has family across the slope and other parts of Alaska, so I think collectively there is a great sigh of relief.

Coffeedog...
Thanks for taking the time to comment! I will definitely write an update as soon as I know more. I'm as interested in hearing details as anyone! :)

Kristina...
I so happy to see that you're still checking in since moving to a whole new state! I agree with your comment about surviving. I'm not very confident that I'd make it under similar circumstances either. So...I don't wander far from home. :)

Floridacracker said...

So glad this turned out the way it did!!

Anonymous said...

Amazing woman, walking 30 miles, but I am sure she was determined. Was she alone? tammy

Kimberlee said...

FC...
You and me both! And a lot of other people too. :)


Tammy...
Very alone, but very determined! :)

threecollie said...

Wow, I am so glad this story had a good ending.

Kimberlee said...

ThreeCollie...
You and me both!