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A deep winter Alaska search and rescue on banks of Yukon River

Craig Medred
iStockphoto

The temperature along the Yukon River approached 35 degrees below zero and the wind was howling when 68-year-old Ignatius Waskey headed out from Mountain Village to search for firewood last week. There are no trees in the community of about 800 on the eastern edge of the broad, windswept Yukon Delta along Alaska's western coast, where residents still burn wood to heat their homes.

They hunt for what drifts down the mighty river and haul it home to the stuff the woodstove.

Other options for survival are not good. The natural gas that conveniently heats the homes of the vast majority of Alaskans huddled around Cook Inlet in Anchorage and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, and along the Kenai Peninsula, is unavailable. Same for propane. Home heating fuel, at the moment, is going for $7.31 a gallon, "not counting tax," said Mountain Village resident Jeff Andrews.

Andrews has a small, state-of-the-art, high-efficiency, oil heater in his small home. It still burns through 15 gallons a week. It is like burning money -- $110 per week, $440 per month. "It's taking more than half of my check," Andrews said. That $440 per month amounts to a monthly car payment for many Americans, but things are different in Bush Alaska.

In Mountain Village, as in most of rural Alaska, there is little in the way of an economy. Some commercial fishing in the summer and trapping in the winter. A handful of jobs in the public sector: teachers, health aide, city administrator, public-safety officer.

A cold, dark place

Larry George traps. It is cold, hard work and not something destined to make a man rich. "It's a gamble," he said. With skill and a little luck, he can make more off his trapline than he spends on snowmachine fuel. If not, he'll find himself in a losing proposition. Fur prices are not good, but they are better than they were a few years ago. Lynx pelts go for $80 to $200, George said. Mink is worth about $150, marten $100, fox $40 or $50.

A half dozen mink might pay to heat the house with oil for a month after paying for the gas for the snowmachine to run the trapline. Snowmachine gas is running about the same price as home heating fuel, and most of the machines only get 10-15 miles per gallon. A fox skin will barely pay for once around a 50-mile trapline. But a man needs to make money somehow. It's hard to live without home heat when the temperature outside never seems to rise above minus 20.

After days at minus 35, minus 40 or colder, Andrews said, "20 below feels warm." But it's not. This is the real Alaska -- a cold, dark place in winter where for centuries aboriginal peoples have been doing what they needed to do to survive. For the 68-year-old Iggy, as friends call Waskey, this meant heading out on a snowmachine to get wood. The trade offs are good for an old man on a fixed income. Snowmachine gas will pay for significantly more heat from wood than a man would get out of the same amount of money spent on fuel oil.

"Probably three quarters of town are using wood stoves now," Andrews noted. He has yet to buy one himself, but he's looking into it. Finding, harvesting and hauling Yukon driftwood is a lot of work, but it can save a significant amount of money. And it really only becomes life-threateningly dangerous if your snowmachine breaks down somewhere out on the trail, which is exactly what happened to Waskey.

"He was due back at 5 (p.m.)," Andrews said. "His daughter called us at 8. It was cold."

Residents of Mountain Village notified the Alaska State Troopers, which maintains a post in the village of St. Mary's, about 20 miles to the east. Troopers are in charge of search and rescue operations in the 49th state. They were told Waskey had been gone all day and should have been home hours earlier. In the dark of night, though, there was little the lone trooper in St. Mary's could do.

"Ignatius was reported to be three hours overdue and with the temperature outside at minus 35 degrees F, the St. Mary's Troopers launched a hasty team from Mountain Village to attempt to locate (Waskey)" is how a trooper press release described things. This is the bureaucratic way of saying the trooper told Andrews, George and Ted Landlord Jr. that if they'd go look for Waskey, the state would pay for their gas.

Survival is second nature

The three men pulled on their Arctic gear, fired up their snowmachines and headed downriver. They found Waskey's trail before they found Waskey.

"I could see his tracks," Andrews said. "He was starting to wander off the trail and staggering. (But) he kept walking."

In bitter cold, there aren't many choices. A man can walk to stay warm until he reaches shelter, stop and build a fire if wood can be found, or sit down and wait to die. Waskey has been in the country all his life. Survival is second nature.

"He walked 6 miles," Andrews said. "He was 10 miles below town."

He was alive, too, and mighty pleased to see the lights of snowmachines coming through the darkness. "He's an old guy, and he's not in all that good health," George said. "He was very happy to see us. He was getting dizzy, and he said he was having to rest every 15 or 20 minutes."

"When we first went to him, he looked like was ready to throw up," Andrews added. The walking had not been easy. Waskey had been forced off the main trail in his search for wood. He was then required to hike back toward the village on a trail little trafficked by snowmachines. The snow had not set up. It was like walking in soft sand. The main trail from Mountain Village downriver to the village of Emmonak is firm, but not the trail Waskey used to search for wood.

"Because of all this snow," George said, "you really have to look for wood. There's enough (snow) to cover all the wood along the Yukon." The snow depth varies, in large part due to the incessant winds that sweep the treeless landscape. There are places blown bare on the river, and places where the snow piles up more than waist deep. Andrews well remembers the wind the night they went to get Waskey.

"It was all right going down (river)," he said, "but the windchill was bad coming back. We had 50 below windchill last night," George said a couple days after the rescue. It was probably at least that cold when they went to get Waskey. But the day ended well.

"At approximately (10:30 p.m.), family members reported to Troopers that the team located Ignatius. ... (He) was uninjured, cold and tired, but in otherwise good spirits. He reportedly had problems with his snowmachine."

Palmer men rescued by copter

"It just stopped on him, and he couldn't get started," George said. Why the old style, single-piston, two-cycle Skidoo Tundra stopped is unclear, Andrews added, but it appeared Waskey couldn't get it started because the pawls in the recoil of the pull starter had worn out and wouldn't engage.

"He had a load of wood and was coming home" when the problems started, Andrews added. Landlord and others later went back and retrieved Waskey's sled and firewood the next day.

The rescue of Waskey was the second troopers reported in as many days. A day earlier, 24-year-old Lawrence William Weiss Jr. from Palmer and 29-year-old Thomas Rosco Rush from Cascade Locks, Ore., had gone for a joyride in the Palmer area. The temperature was near zero. About three hours after heading out on a trail off Murphy Road, Weiss and Rush, according to a trooper report, called to say they "had gotten stuck in deep snow and were unable to hike out." Both an Alaska State Trooper and an Alaska Wildlife Trooper rode to the rescue. But "due to the depth of the snow," according to a trooper dispatch, "were unable to provide transportation to the road. 

"Helo-1 was requested and responded. At approximately (7 p.m.) Helo-1 located, picked up and transported the individuals to the road. Both Weiss and Rush were treated by medics. Besides being cold, both were in good health and reported no injuries."

They'd been out in the cold for less than six hours before a helicopter arrived to make their rescue easy. There is no telling what the people in Mountain Village would think.

Contact Craig Medred at cmedred(at)alaskadispatch.com