Published January 22, 2013, 12:00 AM

Superior snowmobiler’s subzero survival still unexplained

For now, exactly how missing snowmobiler Craig Friebe survived two nights on the Nemadji River in Wisconsin with temperatures dropping to 15 degrees below zero both nights remains a mystery.

By: Mike Creger, Duluth News Tribune

For now, exactly how missing snowmobiler Craig Friebe survived two nights on the Nemadji River in Wisconsin with temperatures dropping to 15 degrees below zero both nights remains a mystery.

Details on what can only be imagined as a harrowing adventure will have to wait as Friebe gets frostbite treatment at Miller-Dwan Burn Center in Duluth.

His brother, Bruce, said he visited Friebe late Monday afternoon and that he was in intensive care at the center but in fair condition.

Bruce Friebe said he didn’t know the details of Craig’s experience in the cold as his brother was on pain medication and sedatives. Other family members told hospital officials that they didn’t want to talk with the media about the search and rescue of Craig Friebe.

Friebe was found Monday morning in rural Douglas County southwest of Oliver. The last time he’d been seen was Saturday morning with ice anglers on Lake Superior, searchers said.

“Only someone with top-notch survival skills could have had a chance,” John Krull, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Warden, said.

“Usually, that’s not a survival story,” Superior Fire Department Battalion Chief Vern Johnson said.

“God spared him,” Bruce Friebe said. “It wasn’t his time.”

Despite some obvious signs of frostbite, Friebe was a bit incoherent but talking when found. He was sent to Essentia St. Mary’s Medical Center in Duluth and then Miller-Dwan in the afternoon.

The DNR and fire department were involved in the search, along with the Coast Guard, Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, St. Louis County Rescue Squad and volunteers from township fire departments.

Friebe had last been seen near Loon’s Foot Landing on Lake Superior in Superior’s East End. Superior police said he spoke with some people Saturday morning there and said he intended to ride down the Nemadji River. The weather wasn’t bad then. In the afternoon, Superior reached 24 degrees.

Friebe’s wife, Becky, reported him missing and gave authorities some pictures Sunday morning. A search was then on. Overnight, the temperature had dipped to 15 below zero as a deep freeze expected to last into today began.

Krull said the “worst ATV trip I ever took” was down the Nemadji River on Sunday in bitter cold to look for Friebe, who is 51 and lives in Superior. Krull’s search party found no signs of Friebe before open water on the river ended the search just a few miles from the Minnesota border, a trip of 34 river miles from Superior, Krull said.

Friebe was found about 9 a.m. Monday by a snowplow driver near the bridge that is farthest west on the Wisconsin portion of the Nemadji, at the intersection of County Road W, 20 miles southwest of Superior.

Responders who came to Friebe’s aid Monday morning said he was mostly incoherent. They reported that he said his snowmobile ran out of gas, and he then spent Saturday night by a fire he had built. He allegedly had no fire Sunday night.

Krull says he thinks Friebe ran out of gas somewhere in Minnesota on the river and walked back toward Wisconsin and the bridge he must have remembered going under. County Road W and the next bridge, Minnesota Highway 23, are about 10 miles apart, probably double that distance when traveling on the winding Nemadji River.

Why it took so long for Friebe to walk back and get near the road is puzzling, Krull said.

“He must have stayed somewhere,” Krull said, “some kind of shelter.”

Wind kicked up late Saturday, and wind-chill readings reached a deadly level.

The Nemadji River from the Minnesota border to outside of Superior runs through some remote areas. Krull called it “rugged” territory with few houses or cabins.

“There’s nothing up in there,” Johnson said. “If there’s a jungle in the Northland, that’s it.”