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Missing Duluth hikers 'waving' and 'healthy' when found

Seventy hours after two Duluth hikers failed to emerge from a hike along one of the BWCAW's most grueling trails, searchers today found Maria Jacenko, 42, and Grace Knezevich, 23, alive and well.

The women were spotted by a State Patrol helicopter on the north side of Glee Lake, about 30 miles northwest of Grand Marais, about 3:15 p.m., Cook County Chief Deputy Leif Lunde said.

"It appears they were healthy," Lunde said. "They were waving to the helicopter when it flew over."

Ground searches began Wednesday, joined by air searches Thursday, after the two co-workers at Benedictine Health Center in Duluth failed to show up after a hike on the 43-mile Kekekabic Trail.

Family and friends of the two women were excited and relieved late this afternoon as they awaited a reunion with Jacenko and Knezevich.

Earlier in the day, they said were doing their best to remain calm as they waited out the search.

"She's really a fighter; strong, very strong," Siebenand said. "They'll make it, there's no problem making it. It's just what condition they'll be in."

One of the toughest challenges the women would face, besides the rugged and overgrown trail, was the weather, Cook County Sheriff Mark Falk said this afternoon.

One of the biggest challenges facing the two Duluth women missing in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is the weather, "We had snow up the Gunflint last night. You have to be prepared for all weather," he said.

Jacenko, a physical therapist, is "someone who loves new challenges" with a lifelong love of hiking, according to her partner, John Siebenand.

Knezevich, a registered nurse, loves outdoor activities and stopped by her parents' Duluth home Friday morning to pick up some last-minute camping supplies, her father said. "They were planning to hike 40 miles in four days. It's been a little longer than that, so we're getting a little concerned."

Jacenko and Knezevich left Ely on Friday intending to hike the Kekekabic Trail. Arrangements had been made for the women to be picked up at the Gunflint Trail at 5 p.m. Monday, according to the Cook County Sheriff's Office.

Falk said searchers from the air used a Forest Service fixed-wing airplane, and a helicopter each from the Border Patrol and the State Patrol. Helicopters were used to set down several groups along the hiking trail already today, he said.

As of 3 p.m., the Border Patrol helicopter had finished its search for the day, Falk said. Of the five two-person Forest Service teams walking the Kekekabic Trail, one team had completed its portion of the search, he said.

Siebenand said he received a cell-phone call from Jacenko on Sunday. The two women were still on the trail, everything was going fine, and they expected to finish their hike Monday afternoon, he said.

Falk said the call was made about 10 a.m., and the cell-phone company has been unable to pinpoint where the call came from, though authorities believe the call may have been placed near Kekekabic Lake, where there is an old tower site on a hill that could have given the women cell-phone reception.

Authorities have interviewed two men who met the missing women Saturday near Thomas Creek as the men hiked the Kekekabic trail from east to west. Thomas Creek is roughly 10 miles from the western end of the trail. The men positively identified the women from photographs. The male hikers told Jacenko and Knezevich that the trail ahead was rough, Falk said.

The men said the women "didn't seem concerned. They were in good spirits."

Authorities also are trying to make cell-phone contact with a hiking party of 13 from Wisconsin -- 10 boys and three staff members from an organization whose name Falk couldn't remember -- who also were hiking the Kekekabic Trail this week. A van with Wisconsin license plates is parked at the Snowbank Lake trailhead near Ely.

News Tribune staff writer Mark Stodghill contributed to this report.