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Remembering Harmon "Bud" Helmericks

Craig Medred

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Nobody in the Alaska of today much seemed to notice when Harmon Helmericks, a man firmly rooted in the Alaska of yesterday, passed away in Wickenburg, Ariz., at the end of January. Bush pilot, adventurer, guide, businessman, author and more, "Bud" -- as almost everyone knew him -- was for decades an institution on the North Slope. He lived, fished, worked and raised a family at the mouth of the Colville River west of the oil-pumping moon station known as Prudhoe Bay.

The Anchorage newspaper did run an obituary noting his death at age 93. The Associated Press picked it up and did a five-paragraph story that circulated in newspapers here and elsewhere. Dermot Cole, the talented and prolific columnist at the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, said this week he's been meaning to write something, but just hadn't gotten around to it.

Maybe that's the way Helmericks would have wanted it. Though he wrote a lot over the years and was often written about, he wasn't what you'd call a publicity hound. He was from that old school of Alaska adventurers who did things mainly for the experience, not for the attention or the possible income.

Doug O'Harra, who used to write for a Sunday magazine the Anchorage newspaper used to publish, remembers being a little shocked at discovering in 1992 that Helmericks had flown a single-engine Bush plane more than 2,000 miles on a tricky flight from Alaska to the North Pole and back nearly four decades earlier. Helmericks didn't make a big deal of it at the time or after. O'Harra stumbled on the story largely by accident.

One of those fine storytellers who worked at a newspaper when the Alaska media-barons considered storytelling something of value, O'Harra can relate the particulars as good or better than I. Here's what he wrote in a now extinct publication called "We Alaskans" way back when:

Before preparations for summer and spring subsistence activities, Bud took a notion to do a little exploring. He decided to fly to the North Pole.

By then, Helmericks had been in the Arctic more than a decade. A member of the international Explorers Club since 1947, Bud and his first wife, Constance, had traveled the Brooks Range extensively and published a series of books read all over the United States: "We Live In the Arctic," "Our Summer With The Eskimos," "Our Alaskan Winter" and "Flight of the Arctic Tern."

But the marriage had ended, and Helmericks had not yet brought his new family, Martha Helmericks and her 8-year-old son, Jim to join him in the Arctic.

"I had the time and I had the fuel, so I just decided to fly out and fly back," Helmericks says now, describing his decision to try to fly to the top of the world. He shrugs off any notion that his trip was heroic or dangerous.

"I just wanted to see what was out there," he says. "All you needed was enough fuel, a way to refuel, and a way to navigate."

So Helmericks loaded 200 gallons of gas into the Arctic Tern (Alaska's first Cessna 170) more than enough, he figured, for the 2,200-mile round trip. To refuel, he would land on frozen leads, newly formed expanses of ice as flat as paved runways.

Navigating would be more difficult. By flying north of the magnetic pole, a compass would be practically useless, and 24-hour daylight made navigation by stars impossible. So Helmericks decided he'd use the sun. He drew up a diagram correlating the sun's position as it circled the horizon with time of day, a foolproof compass as long as he had the correct time. To ensure there would be no mistakes, he took along three timepieces: the airplane's clock, a gold watch and a cheap wristwatch.

Eleven hours of flying due north at 100 mph, and Bud Helmericks figured he'd be there. Before he took off, Nanny Woods ran out and gave him a loaf of fresh bread. Then he was gone.

The trip went exactly as planned. The air had that cold and crystalline clarity that often occurs in the spring over the pole. When Helmericks needed to refuel, he'd find a lead, then land, cover the plane, eat, drink tea and rest. From the air, Helmericks says, he saw "just miles and miles and miles and miles of ice." When he reached the location he figured must be the North Pole, he didn't even land. "I just circled and started back home," he says. "I didn't want to start using up my fuel."

When Helmericks returned to the Woods camp, two days after he started, he simply covered up the plane, tied it down, and went inside to get something to eat. No press conferences, no publicity, no fanfare.

Outside of his family and close friends, almost no one ever knew what he'd done.

"Wouldn't you want to see what was in your back yard?" Helmericks says now. "It was a lot less dangerous than flying from Anchorage to Prudhoe Bay, what with the coastal weather and mountain ranges to cross."

Perhaps. But the unassuming and private manner with which Helmericks accomplished a trip that could have grabbed worldwide headlines would characterize the next three decades of his life as he and Martha established a unique living on the Arctic frontier.

That they did, indeed. Crazy as it might seem, they built a successful commercial fishing business at the mouth of the Colville netting whitefish through the ice and raised three sons who turned out well despite everything we hear now about the impossibilities of Bush education.

One of those sons, Jim, still lives at the Colville and runs the old family businesses -- Golden Plover Guiding Company and the fishing operation. Another son, Jeff, ran Colville Inc., the multi-million dollar fuel and oil-field services company his father started on the North Slope, until he sold it to brother, Mark, the Harvard grad and one time Rhodes scholar. Jeff now pursues a family passion -- flying -- in the Susitna Valley north of Anchorage.

All the Helmerickses seem to share their father's belief that there's nothing a man can't do, only things he hasn't done. Alaska has a history of attracting people like this, or did. The late Chuck Keim, a professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, used to expound on how this was no more than an extension of the westward movement that has for hundreds of years peopled North America with adventurers of all sorts -- good and bad, honest and crooked, intelligent and crazed.

A flatlander born to farming parents in Illinois in 1917, Helmericks would certainly fit the bill. He migrated west with his family to Arizona at an early age, eventually went to the University of Arizona to study engineering, and then headed about as far north into nothing as a man could go. He built a home almost from nothing there and lived a life in the Arctic still undergoing the transition from the ancient world to the modern.

In a 2003 interview with Karen Brewster of the National Park Service, Helmericks talked about how his friend George Woods, Nanny's husband, had survived one of Alaska's early influenza epidemics. Woods' father died in at Kotzebue. His mother fled the community with George and his little brother, hoping to reach an uncle's encampment in the Brooks Range mountains to the east. The little brother didn't make it. Woods' mother took him away from camp one night and came back alone. This is the way things sometimes were in Alaska only a hundred years ago.

"The mother realized there wasn't enough," Helmericks said. "George was lucky. He was the one they decided to try to survive.''

Helmericks could understand. He'd spent his childhood growing up during the Great Depression. "There just wasn't any money,'' he said. The family had no choice but to be self-sufficient. They grew their own corn and wheat, and ground it themselves into meal and flour. They raised or hunted their own meat.

It was good preparation for Alaska.

"You hear a lot of times, people talk of living off the land,'' he told Brewster in that interview. "Well, that doesn't work. You have to have a different system. You've got to first know the country. You can't just step out and live off the land. You've got to do a lot more work and understand things a lot better than you're ever going to do if you just took a job down here at the grocery.''

"You hear them talk about subsistence,'' he added. "That's a political ploy.''

Helmericks knew well the subsistence lifestyle. It turned him, oddly enough, into a businessman. He had to do it to survive on the edge of the continent.

"When the wife and I first went to the Arctic, there wasn't anybody on the whole North Coast,'' he said. "You see the North Coast isn't an Eskimo coast and never has been. They can't make a living. That's why you don't find many people out of town in Alaska (in general). They can't make a living.

"How are we going to get people to live in Alaska?'' he wondered. "I don't know, (and) you can't call Anchorage Alaska.''

Helmericks clearly wanted Alaska -- that place beyond the cities that is in many ways now more deserted than at the turn of the century -- to be occupied by people like him. But then that would require people like him, and they are becoming rarer and rarer in a world where the white noise of know-nothings blathering on the internet takes precedent over the quieter reflections of those living far from the urban bustle.

Helmericks loved the land, but understood fully that just loving the land wasn't enough. Nothing is that simple. The drill-baby-drill mantra of former Gov. Sarah Palin sounds great until the oil rig arrives at the shores of Lake Lucille to sink a well in the backyard of NIMBY Sarah Palin. Helmericks helped in the development of the Prudhoe Bay oil fields, and he courted birders to come to the Colville delta to watch one of the largest gatherings of bird life on the North Slope.

Nobody understood better that even the simple life isn't simple.

Contact Craig Medred at craig_alaskadispatch.com