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Northwest Salmon




Memories 20 years later:

Nelson remembers being stranded

by Amanda Fanger

She thought she was going to die.

It’s one of the things Karen Nelson remembers from an ordeal 20 years ago. During one of the worst winters on record, she got lost in a snow storm while on her way home from work and was stranded for 40 hours before rescuers could find her in rural Day County.

Nelson told of that harrowing experience over the telephone from the comfort of her Watertown home on the 20-year anniversary of the day she was rescued.

“20 years ago I was stranded in a snow storm. That’s what you’re calling about isn’t it?” she asked last Monday. Later in the conversation, she laughed and added, “We’ll see what my brain can remember,” before turning serious and saying, “I can remember every minute of it, to tell you the truth.”

Early on Jan. 9, 1997 Nelson left her home northeast of Webster for her job in Roslyn at Strand-Kjorsvig Living Center, a nursing home. She was to work the 6 a.m. shift that day, aware that there was supposed to be a snow storm coming in later that day. Already, the winter of ‘96-97 had been a snowy one, she recalled.

When the weather started picking up, Nelson got permission to leave work early. That was about 7:30 a.m., as she remembered.

As she attempted to navigate the eight and a half miles to her house northeast of Webster, she said, “All of a sudden, it was like a sheet went over my car. It was just white, like I went snow blind, I guess you call it.”

Nelson said she got confused about what direction she was going then and continued until her pickup got stuck.

“I didn’t get that excited. I just sat there... I cried a little,” she said. She said she sang Christmas songs and flipped through magazines in her mind.

She stayed warm by wearing insulated coveralls and burrowing herself in a sleeping bag.

Nelson’s vehicle ran out of gas at about 4 p.m. the first day. She wasn’t found until about 10:45 p.m. Jan. 10 and then thanks to a from-air cell phone trace. Her husband Marv had just had the bag phone activated the day before.

Although several rescue parties had formed locally, then Governor William Janklow lent support during the search. The airplane that carried the cell phone trace came by his orders, Nelson said.

That bag phone kept Nelson in contact with her husband, family and authorities. At one point during the second day, she said she was speaking to the Day County Sheriff (then Doug Nelson, no relation) on the phone and told him, when he indicated she may need to stay another night in the pickup, “I’m going to die.”

“He said to me, ‘No Karen, we’re going to find you.’”

Nelson was located four miles west and three and a half miles north of Roslyn, just off County Hwy. 19 near a slough about a mile and a half north of Fron Lutheran Church.

With 40-mile-per-hour winds, temperatures reached 70 degrees below zero.

In the meantime, Nelson’s was the top news story in the nation. It was reported that calls came into the Day County Sheriff’s office from all over the country, and even from foreign countries, from people concerned about Nelson’s wellbeing; they had learned about the ongoings in rural Day County through national media.

Afterwards, Nelson was featured on NBC “Dateline” and ABC flew her and her husband to Los Angles for an interview. Interviews and stories were done in Reader’s Digest and Guidepost as well as various radio station interviews. An importance to winter travel preparedness was brought to light.

“I’m just so thankful to all of those people who went looking for me,” she said last week. “Because of them, I’m now healthy and doing well.”

The recent Christmas ice storm last month brought memories of the ordeal fresh to Nelson’s mind.

“I kind of get sick to my stomach when it snows.”

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