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Wis. snowmobiler who ran out of gas rescued after 2 subzero nights in remote forest

When Craig Friebe’s snowmobile ran out of gas on the frozen, remote Nemadji River in the middle of the night, he knew he was in serious trouble.

His wife, Becky Friebe, also knew something was wrong when he failed to return to their home in Superior, Wis., on Saturday morning. She called police, then went searching.

Craig Friebe spent more than 48 hours — and two nights in subzero temperatures — trying to find his way back to civilization before he came upon a bridge at daylight Monday and waited until a snowplow driver happened by. On Wednesday, Friebe was in fair condition at a Duluth, Minn., hospital, recovering from severe frostbite on his feet and nose.

Becky Friebe did not immediately return a phone message Wednesday, and a spokeswoman at Essentia Health St. Mary’s Medical Center said the Friebes weren’t doing interviews, but the Friebes have been sharing their stories on the website CaringBridge.org. Becky Friebe wrote Tuesday that he was still "defrosting" and "in a lot of pain," but was also in good spirits. Pictures on the site showed his frostbitten feet.

"When Craig came in, his boots were frozen to his feet like casts," she wrote. "They had to cut his clothes and boots off him."

Craig Friebe said, via his wife, that he headed out about 3 a.m. Saturday to a friend’s ice fishing house, then rode up the river, which winds from Lake Superior into the forest on the Wisconsin-Minnesota border.

He said he uttered an expletive when he ran out of gas "and sat there for a while and decided to start walking the same way I was going to find signs of life, houses or anything." He walked upriver all day Saturday, lighting fires to keep warm.

When night fell, he crawled under a tree and lit another fire. But he fell asleep and rolled into the fire, burning his clothes and hair. Then he rolled into a puddle of melted ice or snow and got his boots wet.

Becky Friebe wrote that she called 911 about 11 a.m. Saturday before setting out to find her husband. Nobody at a local snowmobile race had seen him, nor had people at gas stations or bars. She walked along trails with a friend who had seen him early Saturday, and went home around midnight to spend the night pacing.

On Sunday morning, she brought pictures to a fire station where responders went to work on plans for a search, which ended at 4 p.m. Sunday after a small fire was found by snowmobile tracks near the Wisconsin-Minnesota border. Responders planned to resume the search there Monday, she wrote.

Craig Friebe started walking again early Sunday. He got his hopes up when saw something from a distance that looked like a house, but it wasn’t. Later he thought he saw lights from a bar, but was wrong again. He walked along the cliffs along the river but found nothing.

"Then I climbed down and walked all day Sunday. I heard the search planes, and I lit pine needles to make smoke, but they were so high," he said.

As darkness fell Sunday, Friebe came full circle, running into his snowmobile. He said he sat there for a few hours, then, cold and tired, took shelter in a small cave.

"I started to doze on and off but realized if I fell asleep I would die. So I started walking down to where I remembered passing a bridge on early Saturday morning. I walked all night freezing. I finally came upon the bridge at daylight. I climbed up, fell to my knees, put my face in my coat and waited," he said.

It was 15 below zero in Superior when he waved down the snowplow. Just before 9 a.m. Monday, a deputy arrived, put him into her car and started rubbing his arms and shoulders to warm him up until an ambulance arrived.

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