Last month, a woman from Bethel started a late afternoon hike in Southcentral Alaska that turned into a survival mission that spanned three days.
After getting lost on the trail, she said, she was charged by bears and survived by eating last year’s cranberries.
Fina Kiefer lived in Bethel for the first 38 years of her life. She’s now 55 and lives in Palmer, where she loves to take long hikes. When she started one on the afternoon of June 14, she had no idea helicopters would end up looking for her.
It started with a few bad decisions, Kiefer said.
“I started too late, which was like 3:40 (p.m.), and underestimated how long it would take to actually do it,” she said.
Kiefer was on the Pioneer Ridge Trail near Palmer, an almost 14-mile hike. After starting late in the afternoon, she said that she summited around 10 p.m. She was thinking about how to get down before it got dark.
“Where I made the next mistake was I went off the peak and did my own trail down, thinking, ‘I can go on a shorter route,’” she said.
When she got to the bottom of the route she chose, she saw rocks and deep snow blocking her path. So she rerouted again, ending up in a valley between two mountains. That’s when she spotted two brown animals in the tundra about 50 yards ahead of her.
At first, she thought they were moose.
“The head turned and it was the bear,” she said. “And my eyes and his eyes locked. And he turned around and started charging. At that moment, I thought, ‘God, Is this the way I’m going to die?”’
Kiefer said the brown bear charged within 25 feet of her, with the second bear following it. She unclasped her pepper spray and unloaded it into the bear’s face.
“I said, ‘Hey!,’” Kiefer said. “He was shaking his head, and then before he could adjust I sprayed again. And then the next word I said was, ‘Go!’”
She said the bear appeared startled, turned and started running down the mountain. The second bear followed the first. Adrenaline was still coursing through her body as she texted her husband that she was just charged by two bears.
“He said, ‘Do you need help?’ And then I said, ‘Yes.’ And then my phone died,” Kiefer said.
She was both emotionally and physically exhausted, and it was getting dark. She prepared for her first night outside by spraying herself with bug dope. And she just sat down on the tundra.
“The birds kept me company,” Kiefer said. “And I stayed up that whole night.”
The next morning, she was sleep-deprived and said that she made another poor decision.
Instead of retracing her steps to get back on the original trail, she kept trying to force an alternate way down. She could hear helicopters on the other side of the mountain, but she figured they wouldn’t be able to find her.
“I started eating snow. I ran out of water, and I started eating cranberries,” Kiefer said. “They had just resurfaced from the snow, like being in the freezer, and then you take them out of the freezer and they’re still juicy.”
Kiefer said she was making her way through some trees, when a branch that she had grabbed to support her weight broke.
“The gravity took me, and I fell back and hit my head really hard,” Kiefer said. “And I was laying, like upside down, and I was looking up at the sky and the trees and the leaves, and the still, small voice said, ‘Do not fall asleep. Get up.’ And I said, ‘Okay.’”
But it was getting dark again, and she had to settle in for a second night on the mountain. This time, Kiefer started a fire, using a waterproof fire-starting kit that her husband had bought and convinced her to always carry.
“Each time I’d stoke the fire, I would fall asleep. Stoke the fire again, fall asleep. Stoke the fire again, fall asleep. And I did that all night,” Kiefer said.
When she awoke on the third day, she added birch and moss to the fire to produce more smoke, hoping that she’d be seen. Kiefer began to pray and sing, but her situation only got worse. It started to rain, and then to pour. She heard a voice telling her that she couldn’t wait for help. She had to get down the mountain herself.
“How?” Kiefer said.
The voice told her to follow the creek. Through tears, torrential rainfall and thickets of devil’s club, Kiefer followed the creek down the mountain.
“When I went down, I ran into someone’s lawn. Oh my gosh, I could have kissed that lawn,” Kiefer said.
She rang the doorbell, but no one was home so she walked onto the highway. A truck pulled over and she told the driver her story. With incredulous eyes, the driver said that he was one of the many search and rescue members looking for her.
“He goes, ‘You’re a self rescue.’ And I said, ‘No. God helped me. God helped me get out of the mountain,’” Kiefer said.
Later that evening, Kiefer was in a hospital bed when she saw her family walk in the door. She said that her daughter who flew up from Nebraska was crying, thinking she’d lost her mother.
“I don’t ever want to put them through that again,” Kiefer said. “I want to live and see my grandkids, amen.”
Kiefer soon checked herself out of the hospital.
A month later, and she said she’s now fully recovered from her survival ordeal.
“I feel so thankful to be alive, to live another day,” Kiefer said. “Because it is beautiful: The sky, the trees, the mountains, the trails, the animals.”
Kiefer said that she’s not going to give up her outdoor adventures, but next time she’s bringing a satellite phone.
Editor’s note: This headline has been updated to correct that Kiefer was charged by bears, not attacked.