MINNEAPOLIS — According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, there are about 3,700 moose in the state, and they can weigh up to 1,500 pounds.
It's rare enough to see them, and even rarer to crash into one. But that's what happened three weeks ago in the Iron Range, leaving a well-loved teenager in the fight of her life.
Eveleth is known for mining and is acclaimed for skating. Nola Kwiatkowski, goalie for Rock Range High School, is missing her ally, Katie Johnson.
"She was always there to protect me, too, because I was the goalie and she was my defenseman. And I just loved how we could talk to each other on the ice too, and just vent about anything," Kwiatkowski said.
The two have been friends since preschool, and teammates in high school. Kwiatkowski says athletics have drawn them together.
"We both grew up doing gymnastics, and then when we were 10 we switched to hockey, so she's always been an athlete her whole life. She's strong," Kwiatkowski said.
Their friend Mikayla Nemanick agrees. She describes their best friend as "smart, courageous, funny, outgoing, caring, kind." Those attributes have sustained in the worst of times.
It was the evening of Oct. 28. The girls were waiting for Johnson to join them at a Halloween party. She never showed up, because a moose stepped into Highway 53 and collided with the car she and her boyfriend were in. Her boyfriend's side of the car was fine, but Johnson's was not.
Kwiatkowski says it was all a shocking situation.
"I've never even seen a moose like in my life before, so I can't believe that really happened," she said. "I've never even seen one, and then [for her to] hit one, like it was just crazy."
Willie Speltz is a close friend of Johnson's father and used to coach her in hockey.
"They don't run wild around here. Deer yes, moose no," Speltz said.
After the shock came the sadness.
"It was really hard to see her like laying in the bed like that, it was just really hard," Kwiatkowski said.
Johnson's family says her legs still aren't working, but her spirit is.
"She still cracks jokes and she always got that smile," Nemanick said. "There is a moose [drawing] outside [her room] at the hospital, so we kind of crack jokes about that, like what a coincidence."
Nemanick added Johnson has joked, "Out of all the animals, why did it have to be that one?"
She has a good support system, too. She just celebrated her 17th birthday surrounded by family and friends at Essentia Health in Duluth.
"The positivity in that room was unbelievable. And I was able to whisper some good things to Katie and a smile come on her face, and you know some good words, and she's just a great kid and we want to help them," Speltz said.
Johnson's former coaches are now helping organize a night to do what they do best: an alumni hockey expo with some of the Iron Range's greats. They are hoping for support near and far.
"If this can reach anybody in the Twin Cities, if they can reach out and help, that would be wonderful," Speltz said.
They are accepting contributions of all kinds.
"If you know Katie and her family, if you don't know Katie and her family, pray for her, keep her in your thoughts," coach Jeff Torrell said. "We know we are in a small community up in northern Minnesota, but you know, prayer goes a long way."
And even though she has a long way to go, Johnson has a will of iron.
The fundraiser in Eveleth Hippodrome is called "A Night for Katie." Here are details about the event:
And, as a quick update, Johnson is now in Colorado. She was flown to a spinal cord care home where she will start rehab. Her mother said, "Her spirit is good and she amazes me every day."
If you want to track Johnson's health journey, click here.
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