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BETHEL – On the North Fork Kuskokwim River, a remote stretch far from McGrath where almost no one goes, Vladimir Yakushin on Wednesday waved frantically from his small raft at a plane flying past.
He was in trouble, trouble that suddenly seemed too big to get out of on his own. Overhead was an Alaska Department of Fish and Game pilot, and he couldn't negotiate a landing on the narrow, zigzagging river channel. The pilot left to summon help.
Just two weeks before, Yakushin, 29, was bursting with hope.
"Im going to Alaska, baby!!!" he posted on Facebook June 13 with a selfie. He was grinning. His hair was neatly pulled back. Bags were stacked beside him.
He is Russian, from St. Petersburg, and in May graduated from St. John's University in New York City, where he studied film and television. He describes himself as an adventurer and says he has visited 18 U.S. states.
This time, Yakushin was headed to remote Chleca Lakes in Interior Alaska. He bought a 5.5-acre parcel last year for $9,400 in a state land sale, according to the Department of Natural Resources. The spot is 90 air miles northeast of McGrath and 30 miles southwest of Lake Minchumina, population 13. A photo in a state brochure shows the summer view of wooded land, a blue lake and mountains in the distance.
He wanted to build his own cabin and live there at least this summer. He bought his first rifle, brought his grandfather's hunting knife and figured he would fish, hunt and maybe, if he stayed through the winter, trap too.
"I give up everything in New York. That's how much I was prepared for this trip, how much I wanted to live off the land, how much I wanted to build a cabin," Yakushin said Friday, describing a year of research and prep work.
Residents in nearby Lake Minchumina encouraged him to move there as a trial so that other people could help.
He wasn't interested in that, Trooper Brett Gibbens said. Yakushin told the trooper he had just graduated and wanted to test himself.
"He wanted to go be a man and do it on his own."
On June 23, a chartered Regal Air taxi dropped him with a mound of gear at his Chleca Lakes property. Besides his gun and knife, Yakushin brought a fishing pole and chain saw, sleeping bag and tarps, canned meat and kasha, rice and beans. He had rope, tools and a portable wood stove, winter clothes and rain gear, a satellite phone, battery and solar charger.
And he had a small raft for tooling around the lake.
"It was nothing you would put in a river and go somewhere," Gibbens said.
Through email, he had connected with another adventurer who had started to build a cabin at the same lake. The other man told him he would already be there. They could build their cabins with each other's help.
But the other man wasn't there when Yakushin arrived. He never did show up.
Yakushin was surprised that his property was spongy, wet tundra, not farmland like his grandparents' place near Siberia. The trees were black spruce, too spindly for building a cabin. Right off, it rained. He had no tent. He intended to make a temporary camp with tarps.
"Once I unloaded all my stuff on the beach, I found the place was absolutely unlivable," Yakushin said. "It was a lot of moss. It was barely walkable."
State land brochures warn that Chleca Lakes parcels may contain wetlands.
Even his satellite phone, which he had tested back in New York, didn't work.
"Nothing was as he expected," Gibbens said.
Yakushin had a Globalstar phone and said he was given assurances by the company that it would work in that area. But he couldn't get a signal, even atop a hill. A map on the Globalstar website shows most of Alaska being in its extended coverage area where "customers may experience a weaker signal."
He was alone in the Alaska wild country. He hadn't asked anyone to check on him. He had no backup plan.
He stayed in the other man's part-built cabin. It rained on and on. Wet, fallen trees wouldn't burn. Finally, the weather cleared a bit and he was able to start a small fire so he could boil water for drinking. He didn't have a water purifier.
He had promised to call his mother in St. Petersburg and friends in New York once he landed at his property. She doesn't speak English, he said, and wouldn't know how to call authorities in Alaska to check on him.
"I just decided my mom would lose her mind and I have to go and find people."
'My mom, my mom, my mom'
Maybe a couple of days after arriving, he hefted key supplies and the raft a mile through thick brush to the North Fork Kuskokwim River. In the trek, his fishing pole tumbled out and was lost.
He thought he would float to McGrath, which by winding river is much, much farther than the 90 miles listed on state materials.
Maybe instead, he thought, he would go to the village of Nikolai, on the South Fork of the Kuskokwim River.
"Which, on a map, may look close to where he was," Gibbens said. "But for one, it's a long ways away, and for two, it's on the wrong drainage."
If he had made it to the South Fork, he would have had to paddle miles against the current to Nikolai, the trooper said.
In the narrow North Fork, Yakushin struggled to manage his tiny raft. His paddle handles were unusually short, only about 18 inches. Wind knocked him around. His trolling motor was ineffective, so he abandoned it. Cow moose with calves came toward him and he rowed faster.
Yakushin wore gloves but still his hands became blistered and bloodied. Rubber boots had blistered his feet too. In river shallows, he walked the raft along barefoot.
For days he paddled hard toward McGrath. At night, he had a mosquito net and bug spray but the constant buzz of flying insects kept him awake. His sleeping bag was wet. He kept on.
"Every time when I was on this journey, I knew I had to get to civilization. I knew I cannot die no matter what. Because I have my family, I have my friends, and I'm 29 years old."
He ate his cans of meat and was down to some freeze-dried soup and kasha. He drank a little river water.
In the quiet of the Kuskokwim he reached inside himself. "My mom, my mom, my mom" became his mantra.
Short yellow paddles
The journey seemed never-ending.
"I was trying not to go crazy, not to get overwhelmed," he said. "For this kind of thing, I was not prepared."
Then, around 2 p.m. Wednesday, he saw a low-flying floatplane. He furiously waved his paddles. The plane circled even lower. Yakushin kept waving.
"I was trying to make him understand, I am not trying to say hello. I really need attention. I really need help."
The Fish and Game pilot had just become rated for floats, troopers said. The narrow, winding river was too challenging. He flew to McGrath and left a message for Gibbens, who was in the field.
By then the little raft was leaking air and had to be pumped up every couple of hours. Surely someone was coming for him, Yakushin thought. He eventually pulled over for the night. Then he saw the bear tracks.
Gibbens had been on another mission in the troopers' wheeled plane. Around 6:20 p.m., he returned to McGrath and got the message about the rafter in distress. At home he grabbed his wading boots and slices of pizza from one the kids had ordered, then headed out in the troopers' floatplane.
At 8:16 p.m., he said, "I also spotted someone vigorously waving some short yellow paddles tied up to shore with a very tiny raft."
Where did he come from, Gibbens wondered: "There is nobody anywhere around there."
Yakushin kept waving even when Gibbens was securing the plane.
"Don't leave me! Don't leave me!" he called.
Plans and backup plans
The trooper had saved his life. He broke down crying, but whether from happiness or relief or something else, he doesn't know. He collected himself. The trooper gave him pizza and then some water.
Yakushin was probably two weeks from McGrath by small raft, the trooper said. He was almost out of food. He had no treated water. Had he been left on the river, the trooper said, "there would not have been a good outcome."
"People going to remote areas of the woods definitely need to research and have a plan and a backup plan to avoid getting in these life-threatening situations," Gibbens said.
Yakushin thought he had planned but then things didn't go as he expected.
"The phone didn't work and the rain and the guy is not there," he said. "Nobody is going to come and rescue me. I had to do something. I had to get out of here no matter what and no matter how."
In the trooper plane, he tapped Gibbens and gave him two thumbs up.
"I am safe. Everything is all over."
In McGrath, he declined medical treatment. He decided to return to New York. His fingers are still numb. He will probably get care there.
Yakushin is unsure what is next. He has a green card and intends to apply for U.S. citizenship in October, as soon as he is eligible.
He's been on a journey in becoming a man. He doesn't ever want to go back to that remote place, his place in the Alaska wilderness.