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Archive for Sunday, February 22, 2004

Lost skier proves practicality beats panic

February 22, 2004

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Gail Olson wasn't really lost. She knew where she was on the planet. She just ran out of daylight before she ran out of ski trail.

The sun had set. The moon was up. The temperature was headed for 20 below.

Olson, who lives in Duluth, Minn., was alone on the Sturgeon River Ski Trail north of Chisholm on the evening of Feb. 1.

"I thought, 'I've gotten myself into a potentially dangerous situation. I just have to figure out how to stay warm and alive for the next 12 hours,"' Olson would say later.

Olson, 42, had been skiing a 10-mile loop on the Sturgeon River trail system, which is maintained by the U.S. Forest Service. But the trail had not been groomed recently.

Olson and her husband, Erik Peterson, 42, had been breaking trail in about a foot of snow. Olson enjoys bushwhacking on skis more than Peterson, so after a while, he had decided to turn back for the car. Olson wanted to complete the loop and said she would continue on.

But the two of them had overestimated how far they had gone when they separated at about 1 or 2 p.m., Olson said. She broke trail for about another five miles when she began to run out of daylight.

"I started to question my location on the map," Olson said. "I found that this section of the trail wasn't marked very well, and there were lots of intersecting logging roads and side trails."

She also thought she might have missed the road to the parking lot and had inadvertently kept going on another 10-mile loop of the trail system.

Olson thinks it was about 6 p.m. when she could no longer make out the blue diamond blazes on the trees that marked the trail. That's when she considered a new plan.

"I had passed a private road with a 'No Trespassing' sign about a quarter-mile back and decided to turn around and follow it," she said.

Olson was not exhausted. She didn't panic.

"I tried to be practical," Olson said, "but I also tried to remember how beautiful it was out there."

She wrote the letter "G" in the snow with an arrow in the direction she planned to travel on the road. Within a quarter mile, "blessing of blessings," she found a cabin. It was a hunting shack, and its owners had left it unlocked. Inside was a woodstove with dry wood, candles, a battery-powered light. And coffee.

Olson had not gone into the woods unprepared. She and Peterson are experienced backpackers and wilderness travelers.

She had brought along a fanny pack with two peanut butter sandwiches, water, matches, birchbark, a whistle and an extra hat and gloves.

She made herself at home.

Peterson, meanwhile, had become worried so he skied back out and hailed a passing motorist. The driver called 911, which put the county sheriff's volunteer rescue squad into action.

Kristian Jankofsky, a member of that squad, saw the "G" in the snow and followed Olson's skid track to the cabin.

It was about 9 p.m., Jankofsky said.

Olson tidied up the cabin and wrote a note of thanks to the owner before leaving. The next day, she sent a donation to the rescue squad.

"I can't wait to go out skiing again," Olson said shortly after the incident. "But this experience was a good reminder not to get complacent, even on a simple day trip."

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