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. (Greg Kim/KYUK)

Laying on his hospital bed in Anchorage this week, 7-year-old Ethan Camille looked down at his hands, nine of his fingers wrapped in bandages.

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

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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. The searchers said the boys were lucky to be found alive.

In the Anchorage hospital this week, Ethan sat beside his mother, Irene Camille. She is also the grandmother of the three other boys who were lost. Her memory of the day her son and grandsons left home and didn’t return is clear.

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

But both Irene and Ethan said that the weather looked ugly that day.

“Bad. Storm,” Ethan said, describing the conditions. He turned to his mother and asked, “How come you let us go outside?”

Irene sighed. She’s been asked that question a lot. Part of the reason she let them out, she said, was that the boys had been staring at their phones all morning. 

“We don’t like them to be on their phones too much,” Irene 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 outdoors, checking outside her window every now and then to make sure that she could see them.

“Then we just, they just disappeared,” Irene said.

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

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

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

“We rammed it,” Ethan said.

Thinking it was dead, Ethan jumped off to pick it up. But the fox wasn’t dead.

“That’s why it bit me,” Ethan said.

The fox bit his hand 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,” Ethan said. “Cause we were trying to catch a fox to show my mom and my dad.”

The fox disappeared into the storm’s empty whiteness, which had worsened since they left home. That’s when Ethan says that the snowmachine got stuck.

Fourteen-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. They soon 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 toward what they believed was Nunam Iqua. 

Asked how they knew which way to go, Ethan replied, “We didn’t know.”

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

“And I said, ‘Chris, help me,’” Ethan said.

But neither boy could find the gloves. They were starting to lose their vision in the whiteness of the blizzard.

“We almost got blinded,” Ethan said. “We almost got white eyes.”

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

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

Inside the shallow hole that they managed to dig, Ethan says that 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,” Ethan said, referring to his hospital room. “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 that 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,” Irene said. “People’s voices were getting further and further. And I was about same, lost as them.”

Herschel Sundown and searchers from Scammon Bay found the boys during the afternoon the next day, Feb. 3. In a few hours, the boys would have faced their second night outside. 

“It was like they were ready to go if we took a little longer, if we didn’t find them any sooner,” Sundown said.