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Missing hikers say they never felt lost

Even as they trudged through thick forests; even as they portioned out single chocolate chips and spoonfuls of cold mashed potatoes for breakfast; and even as they worried about getting word to their family and friends, Duluth hikers Maria Jacenko and Grace Knezevich never lost faith that they could find their way out of the wilderness.

The two women started out at the head of the Kekekabic Trail in Ely on Oct. 3; they expected to emerge, more than 40 miles and four days later, on the Gunflint Trail. But the difficult terrain, faintly marked trail and, worst of all, a lost map delayed the two hikers for about three days, even as dozens of rescue volunteers searched for them on the ground and from the air.

Jacenko and Knezevich told their story Friday afternoon during a press conference at Westwood Terrace in Duluth, part of the Benedictine Health Center where both women work.

The women had trained for weeks for the demanding hike, and set out confidently with their heavy packs; Knezevich was carrying about 35 pounds, Jacenko had about 50. They crawled over and under fallen trees as they moved eastward, sometimes walking atop beaver dams, sometimes losing the primitive trail entirely.

But they were always able to pick up the trail again, until Monday.

After scrambling up and down steep, rocky ledges and watching as a big bull moose crossed the path in front of them, they arrived at the Howard Lake campsite about five miles from the Gunflint.

As they set down their packs, Knezevich paused.

"Grace asked a good question: 'Where's the map?'" Jacenko said on Friday.

The trail map and field guide, which had been clipped to a backpack, were gone.

At that point, the women had a choice, Jacenko said. They could backtrack more than 30 miles toward Ely, they could stay put or they could keep moving forward through the wilderness. At that point they were solidly on the trail, and they had a compass, so they pressed onward.

But the trail soon disappeared again. The women began making passes north and south, scouting for any sign of a path. When that proved fruitless, they simply started moving east toward the Gunflint Trail they knew they would eventually intercept.

They were never panicked, even when the nights were cold and the rain came, Jacenko said. They had warm woolen clothing, they had shelter, they had a compass, they had each other for support.

And they were moving through beautiful country, Jacenko said. Knezevich snapped pictures of a cool mist rising off a still lake, of a bleached-white moose antler that lay in a tangle of ground cover.

The women began rationing their food as the days passed. They breakfasted on single pieces of dried mango, instant hot chocolate powder and freeze-dried coffee. They woke early so they could begin walking as the sun rose.

"Physically, we were fine, but we knew people at home were anxious and concerned," Jacenko said.

What they didn't know -- and were shocked to find out -- was how news of their situation had spread. Searchers and volunteers from federal, state and county agencies were looking for them, prayer vigils were being held in Duluth and media outlets from across Minnesota were broadcasting the story.

"We had no concept of how many people were involved" in the search, Jacenko said. "Our priority really was to contact our family and friends."

The women saw several search planes. At first, Knezevich assumed that the planes were out looking for other lost hikers. But soon, they tried to signal the pilot by catching the sun's rays with their metal cookware. They lit small fires at night, though they were worried about starting a forest fire.

Finally, on Thursday morning, they set up their white tent atop a rock outcropping, hoping it would be more visible from the air. As a state patrol helicopter flew overhead, the women waved their arms, and were relieved to see the pilot wave back. Finally, they thought, someone would be able to tell their families they were all right.

The pilot landed about 200 yards away, and Jacenko and Knezevich knew they would be going home at last. They were found within about three miles of the Gunflint Trail, and about 75 yards off the Kekekabic. Both women credited the search and rescue crews for their perseverance.

A quick helicopter ride brought them to a resort near Ely, where the women could finally call their loved ones and wash their hands with soap and warm water. Jacenko's partner, John Siebenand of Duluth, drove to Ely Thursday night to bring them home.

Both said the experience hasn't turned them off of hiking; and they might even try the Kekekabic again.

When asked if they were embarrassed at all the attention, Jacenko paused for a moment to consider.

"I'm not embarrassed," she said. "I don't think we could have done much better. I'm proud of how we acted as a team, of the bond we had, and how it worked. I'm not embarrassed; I'm more astonished."