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We Alaskans

Amid deep grief, remembering Jack Cooper’s joyous life

  • Author: Yereth Rosen
    | Arctic
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published July 21, 2017

Jack Cooper. (Courtesy Katrina and Rose Garner)

The last time Katrina Garner saw her son alive, he had just finished the junior version of the grueling footrace up Bird Ridge, a steep mountain south of Anchorage. He was halfway up the 3,450-foot peak and happy.

Katrina told him she was proud of him, called him a "mountain goat," put her arm around him and said she would see him later after she finished her own race. She continued up the steep mountain slope to the adults' finish line at the top of the peak. Jack headed down the mountain.

Jack Cooper, as the whole news-reading world knows, was the 16-year-old boy who was killed by a bear on Bird Ridge at the annual Robert Spurr Memorial Hill Climb race last month, a freak, horrific and baffling tragedy.

He was an exuberant and affectionate boy who loved being outdoors, running races with his family, fishing with his mother, shooting hoops with his brothers and who, though challenged by disabilities and special needs, was growing more independent and confident.

He was also one of my son's best friends and part of what is, essentially, my son's second family.

The Three Js

Jack, Jesse and Jason — brothers known as the "Three Js" — moved with their mother to our street the winter of 2011-12. Once weather warmed that spring, the Three Js' home became the hub of activity on a street full of kids. They flocked there by foot, bike, scooter and skateboard, sometimes in a hurry and calling over their shoulders to parents with what has become a familiar refrain: "I'm going to the Js'!"

The Js' family expanded with Katrina's marriage to Rose Theisen, now Garner, some new brothers, Matthew and Brandon, and a new set of relatives. As far as my 13-year-old son Marty is concerned, he is also a J brother. There has always been a seat at the Js' dinner table, where he often scarfed down the leftovers on Jack's plate, a space in the backyard hot tub, a place in a pickup basketball game or a spot in the school carpool. Marty sometimes doesn't even bother with the door; I have watched him pop through an open window to join the Js. Their home, three doors up the street from ours, has been an especially important refuge to Marty recently; he and his big sister lost their dad to cancer in December.

The day Jack died, Marty was at the Js' house, waiting for them to return from Bird Ridge. He had his street-hockey gear and was ready to shoot pucks with Jack into the net set up at our house. He knew nothing about what happened on Bird Ridge until Rose walked him home, breaking the news to him as gently as possible. He shut himself in his room for the rest of the day and cried.

Katrina Garner holds baby Jack, whose outfit matches the rainbow, in July of 2001. (Courtesy Katrina Garner)

Jack came into the world in a fragile state. He was born Jan. 12, 2001, prematurely and with disabilities, to biological parents who are themselves disabled. Named Patrick Stephen, which remained his legal name, he spent his first two months in the neonatal intensive care unit at Anchorage's Providence Alaska Medical Center.

Katrina and her then-husband Dave adopted Jack after his biological parents came to the difficult conclusion that they could not adequately care for this special-needs child. The adoption was open, and Jack spent a lot of time with an extended family that included his birth parents and biological and step-grandparents, aunts and uncles and other relatives.

Jack had autism, plus attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, plus a seizure disorder. His multiple medical challenges made for a lot of family work, but his uninhibited and energetic personality brought a lot of joy. Without Jack in the house, Katrina told me when we met up 13 days after his death, "It's really quiet."

Though autism is often associated with detachment, Jack was the opposite of aloof. He was affectionate and warm, always delighted to see Katrina arrive home from work or his brothers arrive from school, always eager to join Katrina and Rose on outdoor adventures, always excited to see Marty. There was a family name for his bursts of affectionate energy: "Jack attack."

Jack Cooper holds a dipnet-caught salmon. (Courtesy Katrina and Rose Garner)

Jack loved fishing. There is a story Katrina tells about Jack going with her on a friend's boat to dipnet salmon. The salmon were running especially thick that day, the bucket of fish was full and Jack, exhilarated, proclaimed: "This is the best day of my life!"

He loved sharks. His favorite hockey team was the San Jose Sharks, and as he told people at school, he had sympathy for often-reviled predatory fish, which he said were misunderstood. He had three Sharks jerseys; Marty now has one of them, which he wore to Jack's funeral.

He loved running, especially on trails and in the mountains, a passion our family shares with his. In a way, his life was marked by his running progress. He started as a baby riding in a stroller or a backpack. Later he ran by his mother's side and, ultimately, on his own. He ran for years in the munchkin division — the short children's courses — in the Bonny Sosa Tuesday Night Races, the popular series put on by the Anchorage Parks and Recreation Department and staged on various trails around the city each fall.  For a long time, Katrina opted for the shorter munchkin races to be with Jack; only in the past year did she feel comfortable with him running on his own while other family members did the longer Tuesday Night courses.

Expanding his running horizons

Since then, Jack notched some significant running achievements. In March, he did the Crazy Lazy, a race up Lazy Mountain, a 3,750-foot peak in Palmer. As with Bird Ridge, the Crazy Lazy had a kids category that finished halfway up the mountain while the adults continued on to the top, and that race went off without a hitch for the family. Two weeks before Bird Ridge, he ran the 5-mile version of the Arctic Valley Run, another grueling race with a longer option, and was surprised and delighted to win a trophy afterward. Marty ran it, too — not because he was particularly interested in the event but because he wanted to be with Jack. The family's post-race photo shows Jack and Marty arm in arm.

Jack Cooper, center left, stands arm in arm with the author’s son, Marty, and family at the Arctic Valley Run on June 3, 2017. (Courtesy Katrina and Rose Garner)

He was excited to take on the Bird Ridge race, a Father's Day tradition and part of the Alaska mountain-running circuit. He was ready for that challenge, Katrina said.

"We'd grown to this stage where he had the maturity, he had the ability to do this. That's part of the good side of it. People's kids, even kids with disabilities, should be able to do these things," she said.

She was careful with her preparations, giving detailed instructions to Jack and the other boys about where and how to meet up after the event and how to avoid confusing the two Bird Ridge parking lots and to stay away from the highway.

"That is what I was worried about, not thinking that he would lose the trail. Obviously now in hindsight, I'm killing myself," she told me.

The basic facts of Jack's death are well known, thanks to news accounts that ricocheted around the world.

Jack finished the junior race, which, like the adult race, is an uphill-only event. He was hiking downhill, back to the starting line and the family meetup spot, when he took a wrong turn and got separated from the others. Walking alone, he was apparently stalked by a predatory black bear, and was scared. He had his cellphone and made a series of frantic and unanswered calls and texts. He was found by searchers about two hours later, lifeless, in the brush well off the trail, with the aggressive bear on top of him.

In bear country, we are told, there is safety in numbers. Bears tend to avoid large groups of people. But on Bird Ridge, there is no day of the year when the trail is more packed with people than Father's Day, when the Robert Spurr Memorial Hill Climb is held.

Recriminations aplenty

Among the hundreds of people on the mountain that day — and some who were not — there are recriminations.

Brad Precosky, the race director and one of many mountain runners who attended Jack's funeral, lamented a change in procedure. In past years, Brad told me when we encountered each other at the base of Mount Marathon a week after Jack's death, he stationed himself at the finish line of the junior race and herded the kids down together, instructing them to stay on the trail. This year, he was stationed at the bottom of the course to coordinate competitors and volunteers from there.

Kris Cassity, an Anchorage School District special-education assistant who worked with Jack at Wendler Middle School and East High School, wondered why he wasn't on Bird Ridge to protect Jack. Cassity, speaking at Jack's funeral, said he was a valley away that afternoon, and carrying a gun that could have dispatched the bear.

Marty, in a rare moment when he was able to talk about it, told me that if he had been on the trail with him, Jack would still be alive.

I am angry at myself for punishing Marty for some infraction, in the days before Jack's death, by making him do chores instead of letting him go to the Js' house to hang out with Jack, what he dearly wanted to do. There would be plenty of other days to be with Jack, I told him then.

Jack's family is agonizing over the missed phone messages.

No one but Jack had a working phone available during the race or immediately after it, Katrina said. She had her phone but had turned it to airplane mode to save the battery, a fact she remembered bitterly.

"Why didn't I just leave it on? What was I thinking? It was going to drain a whole battery in one stupid race?" Jesse had a phone, but it was in the backpack that he dropped at the side of the race trail. Jason had a phone, but its battery was down to 4 percent power at the start of the race. Rose, like most competitors in the Bird Ridge race and other mountain races, was not carrying her phone, a logical decision at an event with hundreds of runners, volunteers and spectators crammed together.

"Basically nobody was really thinking about 'we need to have our phones, we need to be paying attention to this,' " Katrina said. "The only one who had a phone and was all charged up was Jack."

Katrina and Rose, unaware of Jack's terror, walked down from the adult finish line, chatting about where to take the kids to lunch. They reached the start line and were surprised at what they saw.

"I look and there's Jack's water bottle and his raincoat. There's just this odd feeling. Part of me was like, 'Dammit, I told him to pick that up.' And part of me is: 'That's really odd,' " she said.

Then Jesse, the fastest family member up and down the full mountain — and the first to get Jack's messages — ran to them with Jason.

From then, there was a blur of action. Jesse, Katrina, Rose, Matthew, other runners, race volunteers and law-enforcement and park agents dashed uphill to try to save Jack. Jason went down to summon more help. For a while, Jesse had Jack on the line and on speakerphone; people tried to coach Jack about standing up to the bear. Someone called 911. Searchers used the GPS system on Jack's phone to try to locate him, but service was intermittent. It took two hours to find him, and searchers were too late. There was nothing that family members could do for Jack then.

"It's super traumatic that we weren't with him. And I carry most — I hope all — of that burden," Katrina said. Someday, she said, she hopes to stop blaming herself.

Even after his death, Katrina keeps putting away his laundry, and she changed the sheets on his bed. His seizure-medication schedule was still posted inside the kitchen cabinet.

Preparing for a trip to South Naknek, Rose's hometown, Katrina caught herself when stocking up on groceries. There was no need to buy the usual supply of Rice Krispies treats, she realized, because Jack was the only one who ate them. She wondered if it was worth packing the fishing gear, since Jack was the only one of the brothers who liked to fish with her.

Jack loved bears

Jack loved aircraft of all types, but Katrina was never able to make good on her promise to herself to take him on a helicopter tour. He did fly in helicopters, but not the way she wanted. His first ride was a medevac when he was a baby and suffering his first seizure. His second and last ride was the flight that took his body off Bird Ridge.

In case anyone feels the urge to vilify bears, Katrina has a message: Jack loved bears.

Jack Cooper’s teddy bear, Jack Junior, was placed in Jack’s casket. (Courtesy Katrina and Rose Garner)

From the time he was a baby, Jack had a teddy bear named Jack Junior that accompanied him almost everywhere. Katrina clung to Jack Junior, but Jason convinced her that she should give the bear back to Jack.

"That was really hard, right? Because I wanted to keep Jack Junior," she said. "I thought, I can't go back and make that day go differently. I can't go back and turn my phone on or have Rose turn her phone on or make sure somebody was with him or think about it differently. But what I can do is make a different choice. And what I could do that day was give Jack Junior to Jack."

At the funeral home, where they viewed Jack's body, Katrina handed Jack Junior to Jason, who placed the bear in Jack's casket. Jack was dressed in the Sharks jersey that he wore when Katrina and Rose took him to a game in San Jose. The family put in a pair of sunglasses and the carbon-fiber bat that Jack used to smack the fish he caught.

Keep running, hiking trails

In their grief, members of Jack's family want people to keep hiking, running and enjoying Alaska's trails and mountains.

Rose, a week after Jack's death, did the Little A triathlon in Palmer. That event is staged by another pair of grieving parents and raises money to help others in their situation. Rose was finishing the run portion when I was starting it, and we hugged on the trail. I was glad to see her.

There were remembrances of Jack at the Mount Marathon Race on July 4 in Seward, the most prominent of Alaska's mountain races, where my daughter was among the runners who wrote his name on her leg and where Marty wore Jack's Sharks jersey to watch the competition.

Sheryl Loan of Eagle River has Jack Cooper’s name written on her leg during the 2017 Mount Marathon race in Seward. (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News)

As for Bird Ridge, a mountain that shoots up from sea level to give an eagle's-eye view of spectacular Turnagain Arm and the mountains that line it, people should hike it with confidence, Katrina said.

She does not want the mountain stigmatized, like the McHugh Creek Trail was for some after the 1995 bear mauling there that killed popular Anchorage runners Marcie Trent and Larry Waldron. Katrina was among those who shied away from McHugh, skipping it even though she has hiked the Chilkoot Trail, Resurrection Pass, Devil's Pass, Mount Marathon and countless other trails.

"I don't want people to think that about Bird Ridge," she said.

Friends have been raising money for a memorial, possibly some kind of marker on the Bird Ridge Trail. Next year, Katrina said, she might return to the mountain to volunteer at the kids' race. Her goal: "To make it not be like a scary, hated place."

Yereth Rosen is an Alaska Dispatch News reporter. 

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