Lost, freezing, alone ... until three heroes appeared
She was just a figure in the distance when the three friends from Duluth first spotted her. A woman out walking her dog. Maybe, the men speculated. But on a snowmobile trail?
Curious, they cut their rest short, climbed back onto their sleds alongside Highway 3 -- not far from Betty's Pies and the city of Two Harbors -- and headed back onto the North Shore State Trail. The men, all in their 50s, rode slowly, wary that a dog could dart out from the trees at any moment.
But there was no dog. Just "a little old lady tucked into a little coat," as Terry Eng, a Minnesota Power employee, described his first impression of Patricia Lindahl. "I thought, 'Whoa, what's going on?' "
Lindahl, 65, described exactly what was going on in a column published on this page Tuesday. A frequent visitor to the North Shore, the Minnetonka, Minn., woman had decided to spend a sunny afternoon snowshoeing the Superior Hiking Trail. But by dusk she realized she had gotten turned around and was lost. She backtracked. Under a rising moon, she fell from a small footbridge, her snowshoe wedging underneath, her knee and leg screaming in pain. She scrambled to her feet and kept going, eventually finding a snowmobile trail and then a wider snowmobile trail. The throbbing in her leg persisted and her energy drained as the night became a blur. She fell several more times, wondering with growing concern whether she'd be able to get back to her feet.
When the morning sun came up, Lindahl suspected she was at the end of her endurance. But then she spotted, down the trail, a trio of approaching snowmobilers.
"The gal's nose was just as white as snow with frostbite, so we knew there was a problem right away," said Douglas Johnson, a NewPage paper mill worker.
"She wasn't sure where she was," said David Anderson, a Duluth firefighter.
"She kept mumbling," Eng added.
As quickly as they could, the snowmobilers tore off their coats and wrapped them around Lindahl. They drove her back to Highway 3 and started knocking on doors, hoping to get her inside to warm up. But they found no one home. Johnson tried his cell phone. He had service. In the 15 minutes it took an ambulance to arrive from Two Harbors, the men told Lindahl the overnight temperature had plummeted to nearly 10 below and that it was now almost 11 a.m. She had been out in the cold nearly 24 hours. If they told her their names, she quickly forgot them.
"They rescued me," Lindahl wrote in her column. "So much in the news these days is bad and negative. But there's good news out there, too -- and stories like mine with happy endings. I could never offer enough thanks to the three guys from Duluth who saved my life. But I'd at least like to find out who they are."
She didn't have to wait long Tuesday.
I hadn't even arrived at work when Douglas Johnson's wife left a phone message with names and details. Her call was followed by an e-mail from Terry Eng's daughter-in-law and another from Gayle Coyer, the executive director of the Superior Hiking Trail Association. She hoped to improve signage to prevent anyone else from ever getting lost.
The three snowmobilers didn't call, and when I contacted them later, they dismissed any suggestion of heroism.
"If we hadn't been there," Anderson argued, "someone else would have come along."
On a weekday? And before Lindahl fell for a final, fatal time, adding her name to this winter's stunning toll of freezing deaths? I'm not so sure.
"You'd do the same thing if you came across someone like that. Any snowmobiler would," Eng said. "What kind of person would fly by at 50 mph and just give a wave?"
Indeed. But what kind of person would use his snowmobile to round up, run down and kill deer, as happened this winter in Wisconsin? What kind of person would skip his snowmobile across open water, not caring about the unsuspecting ducks struck, maimed and killed? That happened this winter, too. Twice.
Snowmobilers everywhere had their eyes blackened.
The three guys from Duluth helped put an ice pack on the wound.
Lindahl got to talk to her rescuers Tuesday. "They're genuinely wonderful, warm human beings," she said later. "I discovered three guys who have known each other since grade school, who snowmobile together all the time with their families, and who go camping together.
"It meant everything to me and was very heartwarming to speak to them and to give them my sincere thanks. It was difficult. There aren't words to tell someone what it means when you're in a fix and their wonderful help comes along just in time.
"I'm just so thankful."