Story last updated at 1:16 p.m. Thursday, March 13, 2003

Mystery flares lead to rescue

Seven lost hikers chilly but OK

by Sepp Jannotta
Staff Writer

A bone-chilling misadventure in Kachemak Bay State Park ended happily when a U.S. Coast Guard HH-60 Jayhawk helicopter rescued six hikers late Saturday night and another just after first light on Sunday morning.

The Coast Guard and Alaska State Troopers launched a search around 10 p.m. Saturday, after an East End Road resident reported seeing nine red flares coming from the area around Glacier Spit.

There was, however, one strange twist in the rescue, which ended with two people being treated for hypothermia at South Peninsula Hospital. According to the Coast Guard and troopers, none of the hikers had carried or shot off any flares, a discovery that had the Coast Guard flying the shorelines of inner Kachemak Bay in search of any other party that may have been in distress. After nothing turned up, the Jayhawk returned to the Coast Guard airbase at Kodiak and a trooper helicopter and K-9 search team en route from Anchorage was called off.

"It's weird," trooper Jim Hibpshman said. "Nobody had any flares. But I believe (the East End resident) saw something.

"In any case, if he had not called 911, we would not have rescued those seven people."

Trooper Jeremy Rupe said, in addition to the Jayhawk, the Coast Guard responded with the Cutter Roanoke Island and the auxiliary vessel Quannah P, while the troopers sent out their marine patrol boat, the Sea Warden.

Roanoke Island skipper, Lt. Cmdr. Kevin King, said his crew launched a Zodiac inflatable and performed a close search of area shorelines with night-vision goggles.

With area temperatures dipping into the low 20s in the Homer area Sunday morning, Hibpshman said he wondered how the already hypothermic hikers among the first six would have fared spending a full night out in the cold.

"It was a whole new definition of cold for me," said Jonathan Walker, the lone hiker who actually did spend the night out.

Walker became separated from his group around 5 p.m. when he ran ahead in an attempt to let a waiting boat skipper know they were running late. The hike to Grewingk Glacier had taken longer than expected, Walker said, because the group had trouble finding the Humpy Creek trail.

While the mystery flares led to a relatively speedy retrieval of the group of six they were picked up around 11 p.m. searchers could not locate Walker.

Walker, who said he had been the de facto leader of the informal Alaska Bible Institute hiking expedition, left the other six hikers in the vicinity of Grewingk Lake.

To make his traveling easier, Walker traded his heavier pack with another member of the group, a move he said he later learned was a big mistake.

With their ride home awaiting them in Mallard Bay, Walker climbed up to Emerald Lake and then attempted a night crossing of the high country of the Portlock Plateau. But, he found that he could not stay with the trail because of snow cover.

"This was the first time I had been on that trail, and I didn't realize how steep it was," Walker said.

As the wind began to pick up, Walker looked for a route off the exposed ground and descended into a small drainage in hopes that the creek would lead him to the bay. But after falling through the ice in the brush-tangled canyon bottom, and seemingly out of options and drenched from the waist down, he climbed back out and decided to sit down to wait out the night.

He was wearing Xtra-Tuffs and had no hat, no gloves and no way to make a fire. Walker said he occasionally jumped up and began exercising to stay warm. Each time he heard a helicopter pass through the darkness, Walker said, he would fire a few rounds from his .38-caliber pistol, hoping that searchers would see the muzzle flash.

While his own pack had been supplied with fire-starting materials as well as some warm layers, wind pants and energy foods the small backpack he swapped it for contained only a couple of candy bars and a windbreaker.

A mildly hypothermic Walker was finally picked up by the Coast Guard helicopter around 8 a.m. Sunday, according to Trooper Jeremy Rupe.

Sepp Jannotta can be reached at sjannotta@homer