How did the Nunam Iqua boys get lost on the snowy tundra? They were chasing a fox.

Irene Camille with her son, Ethan Camille, inside his hospital room at Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage. Ethan and his brothers left their home by snowmachine during a winter storm and ended up lost, 18 miles south of town. They weathered the storm for over 24 hours outside, until searchers found them huddled together in the snow. (Photo by Greg Kim/KYUK)

Lying on his hospital bed, 7-year-old Ethan Camille looks down at his hands. Nine of his fingers are wrapped in bandages.

“I only remember a little bit,” he said. “The weather makes me forget some things.”

Last week, Ethan and three other boys in his family from Nunam Iqua left their home by snowmachine during a winter storm and ended up lost 18 miles south of town. They weathered over 24 hours outside in freezing temperature before searchers found them huddled together in the snow. Searchers said they were lucky to be found alive.

His mother, Irene Camille, sits beside him. She’s also the grandmother of the three other boys who were lost. Her memory of that day is clear — the day her son and grandsons left home and didn’t return.

“That day was supposed to be a good day,” she said. “It was my birthday.”

Both Irene and Ethan said the weather looked ugly that day.

“How come you let us go outside?” Ethan asked his mom.

Irene sighs. She’s been asked that question a lot since that day. Part of the reason, she says, is the boys had been staring at their phones all morning.

“We don’t like them to be on their phones too much,” she said. “We like them to exercise and play in the snow and have fun outside.”

And so, she took away their phones and sent them out. She checked outside her window every now and then to make sure she could see them.

“Then we just…they just disappeared.” she said.

Ethan says he and the boys had been riding their snowmachine around town for four or five hours. Just as they were about to head back inside, something appeared, that lured them away from home.

“We found a real fox and we tried catch it, but it run away super far,” he said.

Ethan and the boys chased the fox until they eventually caught up, and hit it with their snowmachine.

Thinking it was dead, Ethan jumped off to pick it up. But the fox wasn’t dead. It bit Ethan twice. When it ran away, the boys continued to give it chase, driving miles and miles farther away from town.

“So, that’s how we got lost. Cause we were trying to catch a fox to show my mom and my dad,” he said.

The fox disappeared into the storm’s empty whiteness, which had worsened since they left home. That’s when Ethan says the snowmachine got stuck. 14-year-old Chris Johnson worked so hard to free the machine and pull the younger boys out of the deep snow that he suffered a hernia.

Soon, they ran out of gas, and had no phone or compass. Still, the boys were determined to get home. They abandoned their vehicle and started trudging towards what they believed was Nunam Iqua.

But they didn’t know which way to walk.

At one point, Ethan stopped to go to the bathroom. As he took off his gloves, the wind snatched them out of his hand.

The boys never found Ethan’s gloves. They were starting to lose their vision in the whiteness of the blizzard.

“We almost got blinded,” he said. “We almost got white eyes. White eyes.”

After four miles of walking, and no town in sight, Chris, the oldest, decided they should hunker down.

“We tried to dig a hole, but it was too hard,” Ethan said.

Ethan says he was originally on top of 2-year-old Trey Camille, below the older boys. But afraid Trey would suffocate, Ethan joined the outer ring of the huddle — gloveless — so that the baby could breathe.

“And I got tired so I went to sleep I waked up here,” he said. “That’s all I can remember.”

Irene said 8-year-old Frank Johnson was the only one who remained conscious through the night. She said Frank kept prodding the other boys, knowing that if they closed their eyes, they may not open them again.

“At the last couple of hours, I think I almost lost hope,” she said.

Ethan Camille, 7, succeeds in opening his soda bottle with his bandaged fingers. He and his brothers left their home by snowmachine during a winter storm and ended up lost, 18 miles south of town. They weathered the storm for over 24 hours outside, until searchers found them huddled together in the snow. (Photo by Greg Kim / KYUK)

Miraculously, Herschel Sundown and searchers from Scammon Bay found the boys the next day around 4:25 PM. In a few hours, the boys would have faced their second night outside.

Back in the hospital room, despite having nine of his fingers bandaged, Ethan insists on trying to open a coke bottle by himself.

Irene says Ethan and the other boys will make a full recovery. And when they do… she says they can go right back out, into the storm.

“I’ll never ever feel regret that they were outside in the storm,” she said. “I’ll always let them play out in the storm. That’s where they were born, that’s where they come from, that’s where they’re gonna be. There’s always gonna be a storm.”

Irene says, if you don’t understand… that’s because Nunam Iqua is not your home.

KYUK - Bethel

KYUK is our partner station in Bethel. KTOO collaborates with partners across the state to cover important news and to share stories with our audiences.

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