As wildlife advocates mourned the plane-crash death of Gordon Haber, the biologist who spent 40 years documenting the lives and societies of Denali's wolves, his pilot was recovering Friday in a burn center in Seattle after hiking 20 miles back to civilization.
Details of the crash and rescue operation in the heart of Denali National Park emerged Friday, two days after the Cessna 185 used by Haber crashed in spruce trees near the East Fork of the Toklat River, the locale of one of the wolf packs Haber was studying.
The pilot, Daniel McGregor, 35, told a park ranger that he was able to free himself from the wreckage, according to Clint Johnson, senior investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board.
But as McGregor struggled to free Haber, the plane caught fire and he had to abandon his efforts, Johnson said.
Johnson said he didn't know if Haber was conscious -- or even alive -- at the time, but hoped to get that information from McGregor when he recovers sufficiently to be interviewed, probably in the next week or two, he said.
Haber's loss was a huge blow to the conservation groups that sought to expand the area of protection for wolves outside the boundaries of Denali Park and who opposed frequent state efforts to kill wolves and bears to increase game populations.
"He cherished the wolves he chose to study," said his main benefactor, Priscilla Feral, president of Friends of Animals of Darien, Conn. "Our role was to finance this to help make it possible. I considered it essential to good arguments in Alaska -- you can't blow holes in the state's data without somebody that committed and that devoted to cracking the science. That's what he did, and he captured everybody's imagination."
Friends of Animals provided $150,000 a year to Haber for his research, she said. Since posting the news of his death on their Web site, "across the country, people are calling here, writing here," she said. But Haber also had bitter enemies, and Feral said she expected some were celebrating his death.
"The trappers and hunters there -- they're going to feel like they're off the hook now. I'm devoted to see that that not happen," Feral said.
Haber's regular pilot recently moved to New York, and he only started flying with McGregor about three weeks ago, she said.
Johnson of the NTSB said McGregor is a pilot during the summer for the flightseeing company Denali Air, which has an airstrip just outside the park boundaries. McGregor is featured in a commercial on the Denali Air Web site. But Johnson said he doesn't know yet whether Denali Air had any role in the Haber flights, whether McGregor had started his own charter company, or whether he was flying Haber as a friend or volunteer.
A message left Friday at Denali Air wasn't returned.
HEAVY WINDS IN VALLEY
Haber had a permit to study Denali wolves. In the air over the park Wednesday afternoon, he picked up a signal from a wolf's radio collar in the East Fork Valley, Johnson said, and McGregor began flying an orbiting pattern as they spotted the pack. It was gusty.
Nick Rodrick, a camper who drove McGregor out of the park, said McGregor told him that heavy winds coming down the valley "caught the plane wrong."
"He was pulling up trying to control the plane and he just lost it," Rodrick said.
McGregor told rangers he hit the trees at about 90 mph.
No one received an emergency locator signal from the plane, Johnson said. It was reported missing late Wednesday and a search was launched Thursday.
While the Civil Air Patrol, Air Force and Alaska State Troopers launched their search planes and flew in traditional patterns, the Park Service had another idea, according to acting chief Denali ranger Richard Moore: why not put its own wolf spotting plane in the air? They knew Haber would be drawn to wolves.
If the Park Service could use telemetry to find the wolf packs, maybe they would find Haber's plane there too. It was like looking for prey to find the predator.
As it turned out, a Civil Air Patrol plane spotted the wreckage first, around 3 p.m. Thursday. A trooper landed a fixed-wing plane nearby and hiked up to the smoldering wreckage. But it was getting dark and he had to leave. He was replaced by two rangers who planned to camp at the scene.
There were obvious human remains at the crash site, but whether they were those of one person or two wasn't immediately obvious, Moore said. The rangers were supposed to take as much time as needed to figure out whether it was necessary "to activate a new aspect of our search effort" -- to find someone trying to walk out, Moore said.
"I will be perfectly honest -- everybody who had seen the crash site from the air or had seen photos of the crash site, in our professional opinion, the chance that somebody had survived that crash were frankly pretty low," Moore said. "But we were not going to stop searching until we had absolute confirmation that there was nobody alive."
MCGREGOR STUMBLES UPON CAMPERS
As it turned out, after spending Wednesday night at the scene, McGregor began walking south, up the valley toward the park road. The East Fork Valley is wide, with braided river channels, gravel and bluffs. Snow that had fallen earlier had melted.
He was walking while the search was under way, walking when the plane was found, walking when the trooper landed. It was seven miles to the road, and another eight to the unoccupied ranger cabin near the Igloo Creek campground.
The only two campers in the park were at that campground: Rodrick, 19, of Penacook, N.H., and buddy Jesse Hoagland, 20, of Loudon, N.H. The two aspiring filmmakers left home Sept. 25 on an adventure trip in a 1995 Chevy van, planning to produce a documentary of their travels.
Around 7 p.m., as dark was falling at the campground, Rodrick and Hoagland heard something in the distance.
"He thought it was a person, I thought it sounded like wolves," Rodrick said in a telephone interview Friday from Denali Park. "I was like, 'Don't worry about it.' And then we heard it again."
This time, it was clear. "Helloooo, hellloooo."
They walked to the entrance of the campground and spotted McGregor, wet and disheveled and obviously hurt, but coherent.
"He came staggering up to us," Rodrick said. "We saw him -- his fleece was all burned. It kind of freaked us out at first."
They got McGregor back to their campsite. They had no idea there had been a plane crash in the park or that a search had been under way all day.
"He told us he had lost a guy out there," Rodrick said. "He was really in rough shape."
They fed the man crackers, a granola bar and a banana and gave him water, Gatorade and a jacket. Their van was parked about five miles away at Teklanika Campground, the farthest that visitors are permitted to drive into the park this time of year. They set off for the van about 8 p.m.
"He was walking on his own," Rodrick said. "He told us he was starting to see things in the woods. You could tell he had been in the woods, with no food, no water. We kept him talking."
They got to the van but were out of cell phone range. As they headed toward the Parks Highway, they drove right by ranger headquarters near the park entrance. McGregor was finally able to reach someone on his phone, and they met some people at the headquarters of Denali Air, outside the park.
The pilot climbed into a car driven by a friend who was going to take him to a hospital, but they turned back after they called 911 and were told an ambulance was heading in their direction.
Moore, who is also a medic, examined McGregor in the car when it got back to Denali Air, then got him into an ambulance to Healy, the next town north of the park. There, he was met by an air ambulance that flew him to a burn center in Seattle, where he was reported in satisfactory condition.
PRICKLY PERSONALITY HARD TO TAKE
Feral said she is planning a memorial for Haber in Anchorage on Nov. 6.
Haber had a prickly personality and was often difficult to deal with, Feral said. About the only thing the two agreed on was protecting wolves, she said.
"He was a social conservative, I'm the opposite," she said. "He was cantankerous." She finally told him to stop talking to her about the social justice issues she was passionate about.
Rick Steiner, the University of Alaska marine science professor and an outspoken environmental activist who praised Haber's zeal and the quality of his scientific research, also found his conservative politics confusing. Haber supported Sarah Palin as governor even though she was a strong advocate of predator control, Steiner said.
"He didn't blame her for it, he blamed the staff biologists at Fish and Game," Steiner said.
Feral said Haber had one disappointment when he learned of Palin's clothes budget as the Republican vice presidential candidate. "He didn't think anybody should spend more than a dollar a year for clothes," she said, only half-jokingly.
Haber was so devoted to his studies of wolves, he neglected everything else. His apartment in Anchorage, off Tudor Road near Boniface Parkway, was such a wreck he wouldn't let her into it, Feral said, and it had a sign on the door that said, "Go Away." But his cabin near Denali Park, which he used in the summers, was "drop-dead beautiful," she said.
Feral remembers Haber as someone who feared no one, despite the threats he received. He was also someone who could make anyone angry. When he would write something for a Friends of Animals publication, "you couldn't get him off the phone," she said. "We had editors who threatened to quit because it was 45 minutes on a comma. He couldn't take care of anyone's needs other than wolves."
Haber kept himself in excellent shape, she said, and seemed to have a gait that resembled a wolf's.
But he did talk about how he wanted to go, she said.
"The way he wanted to die was to be flying in a plane and hit a mountain at 100 mph."
Find Richard Mauer online at adn.com/contact/rmauer or call 257-4345.