ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- Snow caves and prayer and a lifetime of living on the tundra tilted destiny toward survival for John and Lucy Jones after their snow machine died, stranding them for three days in a sub-Arctic blizzard along the western coast of Alaska.
Sustained by a pound of peanuts, and packing the presents that had drawn them to Bethel on a shopping trip, Lucy and John battled waist-high snow and minus-50-degree temperatures for three days and nights.
By night they huddled in snow caves dug deep into drifts, trying to remember scraps of wisdom gleaned over the years around campfires from elders who knew how to survive when others died.
"Our thing together was to never give up," John said this week by phone from Quinhagak. "Every night we prayed in our minds we'd be safe." The Joneses left Bethel on Christmas Eve at about 11 a.m. with a full tank of gas and backpacks filled with gifts for their three children, ages 17, 12 and 5. They had driven the five-hour trail to their village of Quinhagak many times.
After a rest stop in Eek, about 40 miles south of Bethel, the wind picked up, John said. Blowing snow cut visibility.
"I knew I missed a marker after half an hour, maybe way less," John said. "I went back to try to find it, but couldn't. . . . I headed south, keeping a little to the left of the sun. That was a big major mistake. . . ."
The powdery snow began to choke the snowmobile engine, so John turned it off. When the weather cleared a little, he tried to start up again, but it wouldn't.
Soon it was dark. Temperatures dropped to somewhere around 50 below with a minus-76 wind chill, according to the Alaska State Troopers, who began searching for the couple when they failed to show in Quinhagak. John said he and Lucy were not afraid.
"We were close to a snowbank with the wind blowing away, so we decided to spend the night there. . . . It's the old people's custom. If they're disoriented or lost, they dig in. . . . I listened to what the elders used to say, how they survived."
"If we would just stand there in the cold, we would still be standing there now -- solid."
Calling up bits of old advice, John and Lucy cut a hole in the roof of their ice cave so they wouldn't suffocate if blowing snow sealed the entrance during the night. They slept in shifts and did not eat snow, which can become an obsession and leach
strength from the body, causing hypothermia, John said. They dug under the snow for tundra grass, defrosted it inside their parkas, then stuffed it in their boots to help keep feet dry.
For two days John and Lucy walked, making slow, hard time, sinking up to their waists in loose snow. They could see the planes so clearly, and, by the third day, they spotted searchers on snow machines crisscrossing the tundra. But the searchers could not see them.
"At first you feel real happy," John said. "You think they're going to see you. You wave at them and wave at them. But they don't seeyou."
Christmas came and went. In Quinhagak, the Jones children feared their parents were dead. Relatives began to lose hope. But John said he and Lucy never doubted they would make it home.
On Friday a search plane spotted them.
It took two men to break John Jones' frozen parka off his body, and two to get his boots off. His socks were frozen to his insoles. But the only damage to his body is a little frostbite on his face and a toe, he said. "That's very amazing."
Lucy's feet were fine. She was wearing native mukluks.