Cook County Sheriff Mark Falk said two Duluth hikers "did everything right" after getting lost along the Kekekabic Trail in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Seventy hours after they failed to emerge from one of the BWCAW's most grueling trails, searchers Thursday found Maria Jacenko, 42, and Grace Knezevich, 23, alive and well.
Measures the two health-care workers took to be found included starting fires, wearing bright clothing, signaling aircraft and moving to high ground, Falk said.
The women were spotted by a State Patrol helicopter on the north side of Glee Lake, 30 miles northwest of Grand Marais, about 3:15 p.m., Cook County Chief Deputy Leif Lunde said.
"It appears they were healthy," Lunde said. "They were waving to the helicopter when it flew over."
Ground searches began Wednesday, joined by air searches Thursday, after the co-workers at the Benedictine Health Center in Duluth failed to show up from a hike along the 43-mile Kekekabic Trail.
Falk said the two women lost the trail Monday between Howard and Bingshick lakes. He said the women had a compass and continued to move east, trying to find the trail. In an effort to be found, they started fires but kept them small.
"They were worried about forest fires," Falk said.
One of the biggest challenges facing Jacenko and Knezevich, besides the Kekekabic Trail's rugged and overgrown terrain, was the weather, Falk said.
"We had snow up the Gunflint last night," he said. "You have to be prepared for all weather."
Whenever the women saw search aircraft, Falk said, they moved in that direction, figuring searchers were flying along the trail. It appeared the women were north of the trail when they were found.
"This is a good ending," he said. "A very good ending."
FOUND IN GOOD CONDITION
The State Patrol helicopter, which had taken off from the landing zone near Smitty's on Snowbank, a resort east of Ely, flew to the east end of the hiking trail and was following the trail west when spotters found the women.
After the helicopter pilot found a place to land, a searcher went on foot to the women and guided them to the helicopter. The women were in good condition, though a little hungry and thirsty, Falk said.
Once they were aboard the helicopter, Jacenko and Knezevich were flown to the landing zone near Smitty's and taken to the resort to be checked by EMTs.
As about eight members of Duluth, Iron Range and Twin Cities news organizations were corralled several hundred feet away by law enforcement officers, the women stepped out of the helicopter, went to a rear storage compartment, shouldered their packs and walked to a waiting vehicle. They declined to speak with the press.
Their families said law enforcement officers would be driving them back to Duluth on Thursday night.
Jacenko and Knezevich both work at Benedictine Health Center in Duluth, Jacenko as a physical therapist and Knezevich as a registered nurse. Employees at the Benedictine Health Center wore yellow ribbons Thursday to show support for the women.
Taking part in the search were the Cook and Lake county sheriff's offices, the U.S. Forest service, Border Patrol, the State Patrol and the St. Louis County Sheriff's Volunteer Rescue Squad.
Falk said searchers from the air used a Forest Service float plane and a helicopter each from the Border Patrol and the State Patrol. Helicopters were used to set down five groups of two people each along sections of the hiking trail.
Authorities talked to two men who met the missing women Saturday near Thomas Creek as the men hiked the Kekekabic Trail from east to west. Thomas Creek is about 10 miles from the western end of the trail. The male hikers told Jacenko and Knezevich that the trail ahead was rough, Falk said.
The men said the women "didn't seem concerned. They were in good spirits."
The Kekekabic Trail runs about 46 miles from Fernberg Road east of Ely to the Gunflint Trail northwest of Grand Marais, according to the U.S. Forest Service. It's a little-used wilderness trail maintained primarily by volunteers with supervision from the Forest Service, said Mark Van Every, Forest Service district ranger at Ely.
"Like any of those wilderness trails, it's not maintained to high standards," Van Every said.
The 1999 windstorm and blowdown and subsequent fires have allowed new growth to emerge. Even with volunteer trail clearing, it can grow rapidly in one season and obscure the trail, Van Every said.
"There are sections of the trail that will be difficult to follow because of the amount of brush that grew up over the summer," he said. "Beaver dams and ponds are always an ongoing thing that can create complications as well.
"We are in a wilderness setting," Van Every said. "It's a wilderness trail. It's not like walking down a path in a park."
News Tribune staff writers Janna Goerdt, Sam Cook and Mark Stodghill contributed to this report.