The National Guard helicopter flew slowly through mountains north of Fairbanks in a layer of clear air between two blankets of clouds. Its destination: a circle of slowly falling flares, glowing green in the flight crew's night-vision goggles, marking the campsite of the victim of a bear mauling.
The flares, attached to parachutes, had been dropped by an airplane flying ahead of the helicopter in the Brooks Range north of Anaktuvuk Pass.
It was part of a mission that led to the dramatic rescue of hunting guide James Tuttle early Friday morning, two days after he was attacked by a brown bear.
After returning to Eielson Air Force base outside Fairbanks, Tuttle was taken by ambulance to a local hospital, where the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported he was in stable condition Saturday.
An Air National Guard pilot and medic recounted the mission in interviews Saturday, describing their hair-raising flight to the campsite, their landing in a dense patch of brush and their pickup of Tuttle -- who parajumper Chris Bowerfind described as being in good spirits and cracking jokes despite looking like "he'd gone a couple rounds with a UFC fighter."
Details of the hunting trip, and the mauling, were still sketchy, however.
Tuttle is listed as a "head guide" on the website of Arctic North Guides, which is owned by Phil Byrd. Byrd, whose business is based in King Salmon, could not be reached for comment Saturday.
Bowerfind, who was one of two medics helping pick up Tuttle, said the guide told him he had been attacked by a female brown bear while he was walking alone between his campsite and the carcass of a caribou killed by the hunting party a half-mile away.
Tuttle was mauled Wednesday but poor weather kept away rescuers from the North Slope Borough and the Alaska State Troopers, said Maj. Keenan Zerkel, who coordinated the mission for the National Guard.
Zerkel said that Byrd, the owner of the guide company, had apparently flown with a paramedic in a small plane from an unknown location to Tuttle's campsite on Thursday. But the group didn't think they could get Tuttle out without destabilizing him, Zerkel said.
It was unclear Saturday how the mauling was reported and how the rescue was requested.
The Air Guard took over the mission a little before 10 p.m. Thursday, according to Zerkel. At that point, his team was under the impression that Tuttle had been in a tourniquet for more than 24 hours, which made the mission urgent enough that Zerkel did not want to wait until morning.
The rescuers took off in a an HC-130 plane from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson around 11 p.m., then flew to Eielson, outside Fairbanks, where they picked up an HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter.
From Eielson, the crews flew northwest toward the village of Anaktuvuk Pass, some 200 miles away, with the plane scouting the weather and terrain ahead.
Near the village, the conditions started to deteriorate, said the helicopter's co-pilot, Lt. Josh Lester.
"The clouds really started to settle in," he said. "We couldn't go under them -- they were pretty much on the ground."
The C-130, however, had flown ahead, and, through a hole in the clouds, managed to spot a fire from Tuttle's campsite 30 miles north of the village. The airplane's crew then dropped a series of flares to guide the helicopter, which found a path between two layers of clouds, Lester said.
Though the crews had to pick their way through mountains to get to Tuttle, the campsite itself was in smoother terrain, and Lester said the landing was straightforward after the helicopter flattened the surrounding alders and shrubs with its rotor wash.
Bowerfind and a second medic then left the helicopter and started picking their way through 100 meters of dense foliage to get to Tuttle and the rest of his party -- leaving their shotgun behind after some thought, Bowerfind said.
"We didn't know if there was still bear activity in the area," he said. "It was a little eerie to say the least."
At the campsite, Bowerfind said he found Tuttle with a laceration on one side of his face and a pressure bandage on his left arm. The tourniquet had been removed, he said.
Bowerfind said Tuttle told him that the bear that attacked him was familiar and even had been nicknamed by the hunters.
"This was a known bear -- he said he sees it every camping trip," Bowerfind said.
Tuttle told Bowerfind he was walking to the caribou carcass when the bear attacked him.
"The only thing he remembers is hearing a grunt and a grumble from the brush, and as he turned he said she was right on top of him," Bowerfind said. The bear batted at Tuttle, then apparently started walking away before it "turned and charged again," he said. The second attack was when the bear inflicted most of the injuries, Bowerfind said.
Nonetheless, Bowerfind said he was surprised at how well Tuttle seemed to be faring.
"He was a great patient, all things considered. Just in a lot of pain," he said.
The helicopter had touched down about 2:40 a.m., and after loading Tuttle, Bowerfind said that it was back in the air 20 minutes later.
The rest of the hunting group declined assistance, he added. They had killed the bear that attacked Tuttle, Bowerfind said, after it approached their campsite some time after the mauling.
The trip back to Eielson was even dicier than the initial flight with cloud cover and smoke from forest fires obscuring visibility, crew members said.
The helicopter tried to land at the Fairbanks hospital but Lester, the pilot, said the weather was not good.
"There was absolutely no way to get in," he said. "It was just nasty."
At Eielson the visibility was much better so the helicopter landed there, where Tuttle was picked up by an ambulance around 6 a.m.
The National Guard team returned to Anchorage two and a half hours later, said Zerkel, the coordinator.
The mission was on the challenging end of the rescue team's spectrum but it wasn't unreasonably risky, he said, citing its motto.
"These things we do, that others may live," he said. "That's kind of the way it works."
Reach Nathaniel Herz at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4311.
By NATHANIEL HERZ