Sullivan Honors Alaskans of the Week: Boys from Nunam Iqua

WASHINGTON, DC – On the floor of the U.S. Senate yesterday, U.S. Senator Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) recognized Christopher and Frank Johnson, and Ethan and Trey Camille. From Nunam Iqua, these young Alaskans – ranging in ages 14 to two years old – stuck together, toughed it out, looked out for one another when, on February 2, they got lost on the tundra in a blizzard for more than 24 hours. Senator Sullivan recognized these Alaskans, as well as the rescuers, as part of his series, “Alaskans of the Week.”


Mr. President, it is Thursday afternoon, and it is the time I love to come down to the floor. It is one of my favorite times of the week because I get to talk about an Alaskan who has done something really, really important for their community, for their State, and for their country. I know the pages like the speech because I talk about stories in Alaska—the great State of Alaska and what is happening in the State right now. Sometimes I call this person the Alaskan of the Week. Usually, it is one person. Sometimes we fudge a little and recognize more than one person. Today we are going to recognize our Alaskans of the Week. In any case, these are people who help their communities, help their country, and oftentimes do something that is unheralded, nobody knows about, very few know about, so I like to come down and tell the country about what they are doing.

As you know, Alaska is a big State. It holds a lot of imagination for our Nation—the last frontier, with good reason, because we are filled with resilient people, some who have lived in Alaska for thousands and thousands of years, building communities in some of the most extreme weather environments on the planet, and they are tough, my constituents. They are also kind, and they make it through our tough winters. It is below zero in many, many parts of the State—well below zero. We make it through these winters through toughness, ingenuity, and, importantly, looking out for one another. Last week, I highlighted a heroic Coast Guard rescuer, Evan Grills, in a real epic story for those who listened to it—what this young scout swimmer—rescue swimmer did in his first mission ever in the Coast Guard, something that people should remember for a long, long time. This week, I am going to talk about another rescue mission—an only-in Alaska mission—and I am going to recognize four extraordinary young Alaskans who stuck together, toughed it out, looked out for one another, and were rescued in another perilous situation. They are Christopher Johnson, age 14; Frank Johnson, age 8; Ethan Camille, age 7; and Trey Camille, 2 years old. All of them are alive and recovering because of their own ingenuity, determination, toughness, and looking out for one another. 

These four boys are from Nunam Iqua, a Yupik village 495 miles northwest of Anchorage. Home to about 200 people, this village is a close-knit Yupik community on the south fork of the Yukon River. A 2005 mission statement, written by community leaders and elders, describes the village like this: ‘‘a small quiet community of family, relatives, and friends working together [to pursue] our Yupik way of lifestyle with respect to our surrounding land and waters for subsistence.’’ Like many places in Alaska, temperatures there can be extreme, as they would be on February 2, when these four boys were rambunctiously playing in the house. Irene, the grandmother of three and mother of one, was watching them that day. It was her birthday. As boys do, they were getting restless. They wanted to get outside. Irene, wanting to have them get some exercise and play, rightly encouraged them to get outside in the great outdoors, but the weather was turning a little bit ugly. Storms were in the forecast. Irene later said: They have to know how to be outside. They are tough Alaskan kids. There’s always going to be a storm coming. Besides, their elders and their grandfather taught them to be prepared for the weather. This is teaching from their grandparents and mothers and fathers. 

So the four boys—Christopher, Frank, Ethan, and Trey—trudged outside to partake in one of the most popular winter hobbies we have in Alaska, snowmachining. Snowmachining is often referred to as snowmobiling by many Americans, but I am going to call it by its proper name, snowmachining. Due to a lack of road systems in our State, it also happens to be a primary mode of transportation during the winter months across dozens and dozens of villages throughout Alaska. After they went riding around the small village, the boys were going to call it a day, when they spotted a fox. They spotted a fox. Like curious young boys do, the irresistible urge to trace this fox began, and they chased it out onto the tundra. Before they knew it, they lost the fox. The snowmachine was now stuck in the snow, and they were lost in a white blizzard. They were lost. Chris, the 14-year-old—the oldest of the group, the leader—was determined to lift the snowmachine free of the snow. He lifted it so hard that it was later discovered he suffered a hernia. This is one tough kid. Eventually, the machine unfortunately ran out of gas, and the young boys were miles and miles away from their village and lost. They began tracking through the deep snow in whiteout conditions in a direction they thought was the way back home. At one point, one of the boys briefly took off his glove, which the wind promptly took away in the storm. Yet they continued walking and walking into winds as high as 60 miles per hour and wind chills way, way below zero.

After fighting the deep snow and whiteout conditions for 4 miles, Chris decided it was time to try to build a snow cave for shelter. That is a smart young man, knowing how to survive. They did it. They built a shelter out of snow—a hole for them to crawl into and escape some of these most brutal wind gusts. Now, a snow cave is only used as a last resort, but this was the last resort, and these young boys knew it. So they crawled in, and they huddled, and they waited for a rescue. Back in the village, as you can imagine, the boys’ family was getting frantic. They called out to the community to help search for them, and that is what people did. All throughout the community, they couldn’t be found. And then, as often happens in our State, the Coast Guard, the National Guard, and local search and rescue groups from neighboring villages were all activated—Alaskans throughout the State going to look for these four boys. It was all hands on deck. Irene and Karen, one of the mothers, of three of them, were heartsick. Hours and hours went by. The whole State was holding its breath. It had been over 24 hours. The cold night fell. Around 2 a.m., the search and rescue was called off. In the snow cave, however, these young, tough Alaskan boys continued to protect each other. Almost 20 miles away from home, they huddled. They tried to keep each other warm to keep each other alive. Ethan didn’t have a glove. Christopher was only wearing sweatpants, and they were particularly concerned for the 2-year-old, Trey.

First, one of them crawled on top of Trey, but they were afraid that might be too much for him, so they created a kind of crisscross barrier to keep this young 2-yearold alive and warm as best they could. The 8-year-old, Frank, refused to close his eyes throughout the night for fear of falling asleep and really never waking up. So he continuously stayed awake and poked the other boys throughout the night to keep them awake, which was successful. The next morning, the storm had cleared, the sun started to come up, and the search throughout the State, with all of these other Alaskans looking for these four boys, continued. For hours and hours, the search team kept their eyes peeled for anything unusual on the tundra. About 1 hour before the sun was going to go down again the next day, the search party from Scammon Bay— about 50 miles south—saw something. They knew how to read the tundra. They knew what a snow drift would look like, and this one looked different. Then they saw movement. The search party investigated and came upon the four missing boys huddled and bundled together. Because it looked like one big mass, at first they didn’t think any of the boys were alive, and then they realized what was going on. They were protecting the baby. One of the rescuers, Herschel Sundown, told a reporter they were protecting Trey. The rescue team immediately got to work warming the boys up, and within 15 minutes, a Coast Guard helicopter—our brave men and women of the Coast Guard, always on the scene—quickly transported these boys, after picking them up, to a local hospital. Ethan, the 7-year-old, is now recovering from severe frostbite on his hands, but all the kids are back at school and doing well. 

The rescuer, Herschel Sundown said: [Honestly], I don’t know how they survived. The will to survive in these young boys is amazing. I have never seen anything like [it]. Irene, the grandmother of the three and mother of one, is so very proud of them. She said: If I were to get lost in Alaska in the wilderness, I would want to be with these four boys. So would I. She also asked for the prayers of the country for Ethan and for his hand to heal. And that is starting to happen. These are the kind of young men and boys in Alaska who make us so unique, tough, and resourceful. They uplift us, and they make us proud. They are the protectors of their lands, their homes, and, importantly, each other. To the rescue crews, thank you again for your hard work and perseverance and for risking your own lives for these young boys. To Christopher, Frank, Ethan, and little 2-year-old Trey, thank you for your inspiration, for your ingenuity, for your toughness, and for being able to survive in the elements and looking out for each other. Thank you for staying alive and staying safe, and congratulations on being our Alaskans of the Week.