The Human Chain

(l-r) Jane Alexander, Pat Kruse, Christina Waletzko, Amanda Oja, Dawn Burke, Jody Behinia, Amy Burke, Jetty St John, and Chris Angelo, who worked together to bring author Karen Neal to safety

I have walked the Cascade River in Northern Minnesota on snowshoes countless times. There is usually a hard- packed trail where boots suffice. However, when ten of us met there on a Saturday in February, things looked different. There had been about 10 inches of new snow, and no one had opened up the old trail. It was also odd to see so much open water. The early snow had formed some “blankets” that provided insulation for the river. When the cold temperatures hit in January, there were a lot of pockets that did not freeze.

Five of us oldies from Grand Marais and five gals in their forties from Duluth headed out. It was beautiful. It was noisy. It was challenging to find the way, but exciting too. After two miles, I checked if anyone was cold (it was –1 degree) or wanted to turn around. “No, let’s go ‘til the dull part.”

I stepped down where I thought I saw the old trail. It gave way underneath, and I thought I was sitting in soft snow. Except my butt was wet. Uh-oh.

Then I saw my snowshoes go underwater. I reached my right hand up along the bank, and thankfully someone grabbed it. Jane, who was right behind me, tried handing me a pole. She was able to lift my snowshoed legs to the edge of the ice. I was so waterlogged by then that my arms were hardly useful.

Heavier by the minute, more exhausted by the minute, colder by the minute, I finally let go of the hand above me and latched on to the ski pole with both hands. Four or five women in a chain tried to leverage me out. We made progress. My top half was out of the water when Christina grabbed me under the arms and lifted me, dripping, to the rim.

There were suddenly lots of jobs to do: Remove the ice from snowshoes. Trade the wet glove for a dry one with a hand warmer. Assess my outerwear and decide whether it was worth the time to put me in someone’s dry pants while my boots were full of water. (No!) Attach my snowshoes again. Talk to me and make me answer. Nobody panicked.

Karen Neal at left

To walk out two miles in that cold temperature was the only option. There was no cell service. I knew I had to move fast. I progressively got worse in the head, body, and arms, but my legs just kept going. It was truly mind over matter. My jacket started to freeze on me. The gals made me stop, remove the jacket, and add pieces of dry clothing that they all contributed.

Jane went without a jacket for over a mile. Amy carried my frozen jacket and fanny pack full of ice. Patty kept offering her ski pants. Chris ran ahead with my car keys to start the car and heated seat. She also alerted the hospital that a hypothermia patient was enroute. Jetty offered me a shortbread cookie, but my mouth wouldn’t work.

I started grunting a lot. To say even a word took more effort than I could muster.

Interesting statistics: The two-plus mile trip in took 99 minutes. The same trip back took 49 minutes. The last mile? Less than 15 minutes.

Once I got in the car, covered with two blankets, I could do nothing but shiver. Violent, uncontrollable, ugly shivers. At the hospital, my core temperature was 94 degrees, which put me into the mild hypothermia category. I cannot imagine the more severe cases.

I have never felt more vulnerable. Those nine women saved me because they are strong, sensible friends.

The dull part of the Cascade River? Maybe we will go back and look for it.