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Hikers find man's remains

Jon Little

When two hikers stumbled on shredded blue jeans and a couple of sodden daypacks atop an out-of-the-way peak, they sensed something was wrong. But there was no blood, no body.

If they ever saw the tiny white shards scattered nearby, it didn't click in their minds that these splintered bones were all that remained of what Alaska State Troopers are guessing was a 39-year-old man, a wanderer from out of state who scribbled reflections and weather reports in a small notebook he packed on his journey.

Little is known about the man, who apparently kept largely to himself. Troopers have found no friends or family. They do know he was an immigrant from Vietnam whose last known address was a rescue mission in North Little Rock, Ark.

If it weren't for a passport and driver's license, they wouldn't have that much. Alaska's abundant and efficient predators devoured his remains before the hikers discovered his belongings Sept. 16.

Most of the clean, white bone fragments troopers found were about the size of a quarter. The biggest was 6 inches long, and it was splintered, said trooper Sgt. Brandon Anderson. ''The trouble is, they had all passed largely through a bear,'' he said. ''Several animals had been working on what was left because (the bones) were scattered wide.''

Nobody reported the man missing, and nobody at the Arkansas shelter remembered him, Anderson said. Until troopers find his family, they won't release his name.

Troopers first have to confirm that the bones are human, which Anderson said is almost certain. The state crime lab in Anchorage easily can handle that. But connecting the bones to this particular man is a lot trickier. They hope to do so with the help of the upper half of a denture found among the pants, shirt, leather jacket and wallet strewn about on the unnamed 2,000-foot peak five miles south of Seward.

If they can match those false teeth with dental records, it would be the closest troopers could come to certainty.

They do have a good lead on relatives, however.

Troopers have asked the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service to search for names of people the man listed as his next of kin in 1986 when he took his oath as a U.S. citizen in Houston, Texas.

The man appears to have traveled alone from the Lower 48 to Seward. His journal lists St. Paul and Seattle on April 7, Vancouver on April 9, Prince George, Canada, on April 11 and Tok on April 13.

He jotted down temperature and weather conditions. His last entry, on April 17, says, ''20' clr,'' ''3/12 Noon,'' and ''Indian cottage, 6:23 p.m.'' Beyond the observations, his notes in the 4-by-7-inch weekly planner indicate a man struggling to understand himself.Every other page has preprinted inspirational quotations from famous people. Sometimes he wrote little responses. In the week of April 7, a quote attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt says, ''You must do the thing you think you cannot do.''

Under it, he has written in capital letters, ''TRY HARD TO COMPLETE.'' On another page a cursive hand reflects a belief that God still loves the sinners he casts into hell. It concludes, ''So you have to love yourself more than others. Therefore, you shall know how to love someone.'' Sometime after April 17, the man took a couple of daypacks up a steep trailless ridge through spruce, devil's club and alder thickets before emerging above treeline into the alpine tundra and scree. If it was in April, he would have hiked through snow. He probably wore blue jeans, a white T-shirt and a leather jacket. Troopers have not found his shoes. Once atop the peak, he would have had a commanding view of Resurrection Bay and some beautiful waterfalls along the Tonsina and Spruce creek drainages on either side of him, said Jennifer Roy, one of two hikers who stumbled on his remains.

Her companion, Phil Weeks, was first to reach the top and saw soaking wet daypacks and clothing strewn around. He also picked up a bundle of plastic wrap that protected a passport and immigration papers.

A pair of blue jeans near the packs was shredded, troopers said. The right leg was torn at the knee and the left leg was ripped from the thigh down. His T-shirt was torn and had what looks like teeth marks on its back.

The clothing is stained, but the state crime lab in Anchorage has yet to determine whether those stains are blood, Anderson said. If it is blood, its amount and location may offer a clue. If the man died before the bears got to him, he wouldn't have bled much, Anderson said.

Troopers helicoptered to the site and recovered bone fragments scattered in the steep scree slope about 75 yards below the day packs. Foul play isn't suspected, Anderson said.

Whatever the cause of death, the area's wild animals would have wasted little time moving in, said Gino Del Frate, a state wildlife biologist. ''The area's loaded with bears," he said. "It's got wolves, it's got wolverines, it's got everything else."

In the spring, brown and black bears wake up from hibernation, hungry, and one of the first things they look for is carcasses of animals that died during the winter, he said.