We Alaskans

A vibrant flame snuffed too soon

We still couldn't believe someone so full of life was dead. We heard of the accident on Sunday and gathered Monday night in a snowstorm for a hugging, crying and laughing session at Jeff's home. We spent the next few days with our bodies at our jobs but minds darting to pictures of Brian that friends loaded into an online folder.

A Thanksgiving gathering of our Alaska Family featured more than 30 people in my home but no cars in the driveway — most had skied there. The crowd was a mix of grieving huggers and oblivious children who kept the mood light. Getting together on that short day was important, as was seeing Brian's hometown a few days later.

Too many friends

Marshall is a middle Wisconsin town of 3,862. Minivans rolled by Veteran's Memorial Park with Christmas trees bundled on top. A whitetail buck hung from a maple on Main Street.

Brian might have had a deer hanging from his dad's elm down the road. Instead, St. Mary of the Nativity was packed with people who remembered him. The church has east and west entrances. Both of those doors were held open by people waiting their turn to greet the family. The lines extended back onto the sidewalks and spilled into the parking lot.

Many of those people wouldn't get to hug Brian's parents or his wife, Cassie. The numbers were just too great for the two hours allotted, the church too small to hold Brian's friends. Just as the town could not contain the enthusiastic 27-year-old who dreamed of Alaska.

He was 39 when he died handing a .308 deer rifle to his sister Danielle Butorac in her deer stand. The gun went off when she grabbed it.

There in the church hall were hundreds of people we Alaskans did not know. We didn't talk about it, but I think none of us were surprised the hall couldn't hold Brian's friends.

A dozen years in Alaska

The man was a flamethrower of fun. Hunting goats in the high country, skiing between Alaska villages, laying out for a softball in the outfield grass, doing backflips at a Zoolander party, wearing ski tights that looked like skinny jeans, eating lunch. He made you laugh. How many people bring a smile to your face the instant you see them?

"Brian was a bright light," said my wife, Kristen. "Losing him really stings."

Brian was not a sourdough. He lived in Alaska just 12 years. But the hundreds of photos pinned to chicken wire strung between wooden frames in the Marshall church suggested a lifetime.

• Sleeping with Luke under a rock after the tent blew away.

• Bloody forehead after a crash through river ice in the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Ski Classic.

• Smiling Fu Manchu as he handed a Gu to a runner in the Equinox Marathon.

• Lifting his Northern Shrikes jersey to show the skid mark from diving on first base.

• Twirling his joyful new bride on the dance floor in McCarthy, just one summer ago.

• A little boy on his first ski amid the stumps on the farm.

• Wearing blaze orange, with his rifle in one hand and first coyote in the other.

• Flexing in his wrestling singlet as a 150-pound Marshall Cardinal.

Always that hundred-watt smile.

For some of his Alaska Family, Brian is our first slap of mortality. A vibrant flame snuffed, a phone call that will never leave our memory. Friends scrambling to be with Cassie, to read their personal strings of emails and texts from Brian Jackson that would never appear again. To waffle about spreading the word, and then dialing the number of a close friend. I have some terrible news.

The grief, so powerful. Lying awake at night. In bed, giggling at him saying "I'm leaking oil" to Kristen when she passed him — wearing his leggings —in the Oosik Classic ski race. Feeling salt water slide onto the pillow.

Tears and laughter

At St. Mary of the Nativity, the eulogies brought more tears, more laughter.

Brian's older brother Nathan reminded us that not everyone lives to 95 — it was Brian's time to go and he went out near the top of his arc. Brian's father, from whom he inherited his bald pate and love of things outside, urged everyone to post a to-do adventure list on the fridge, to dream in front of everyone. A friend from Brian's days in the National Guard remembered Brian signaling helicopter pilots to take off with motions that evolved from pointing with both hands to simulating the release of an arrow to performing two back flips and popping up to signal a first down.

There are people who need Alaska. For all its rural farmland, fall hardwoods and exceptional density of whitetail deer, Wisconsin was too confining for the kid who packed a trailer with all he had and then hosted a drunken bash in Marshall. The next day, he urged his Labrador, Josie, into the shotgun seat and pointed north. He shed a few of his own tears that day.

Once he landed in Fairbanks, he got a job and started in on his list. Without knowing what to expect, he entered a 100-mile winter race with a farm boy friend from Marshall who was swept up in Brian's energy. They finished the Susitna 100 in a two-day push, having carried their snowshoes in sleds the whole way. Brian's feet hurt so much in the last 5 miles he tried lying on his sled and paddling across frozen lake ice with his hands. His friend Ryan limped to the finish with a stress fracture.

He learned from that sufferfest. He trained and honed his technique. He finished as one of the top skiers in a cold, abrasive White Mountains 100 a few years later. He ran into the top 10 in the Equinox Marathon, a grinder that goes up and over all 2,600 feet of Ester Dome.

He did not keep Alaska to himself. His Alaska Family met much of his Wisconsin Family because he lured friends north to do things. Just a month before he died, Brian and his dad, Gary Jackson, floated the Kobuk River with Cassie. They feasted on sheefish tacos, kicked away bear scat to pitch their tents. Cassie sat on watch with her rifle as the men field-dressed Gary's grizzly.

My last contact was an email from Brian. He said he'd come to our house after he got home from deer hunting and Thanksgiving in Wisconsin. We could catch up. Then I could give him his racing classic skis, which had been at my house since our trek last spring from Shishmaref to Nome.

Fantastic trailbreaker

On that trip last April, Brian showed why people invited him. He was broad, muscular and weatherproof. A fantastic trailbreaker, I called him DJ Dozier for his similarity to a D-9 Cat. (His name for me was Skipper, because I was coach of his softball team.) Even more valuable than his ability to pack snow: his smile was never far away. And he always manned the video camera no matter how much the wind hurt.

His folksy narration on a video he and Cassie made of that Seward Peninsula trip is a gift to his friends. Not only did he have the tenacity to record the action when the rest of us were too chilled to stop, he found us an unlocked trailer in a true Seward Peninsula blowhole. He skied over to investigate, popped open the door and made the rest of us as happy as we'll ever be. We slept inside that night protected from a frigid wind that threatened to rip the door off every time we had to exit the trailer.

I have an enduring image of Brian during that trip. He is postholing through snow carrying his pack, skis, pole. On his right shoulder is another backpack, belonging to another skier who lost his camera in a crash and herringboned back to look for it. Brian did not want John to lose track of his gear in the brush. As Brian lugged a double load to where others were waiting ahead, I could not equal his speed even though I was stepping in his holes.

Chance meeting at store

Brian was built for big winds, sudden drops in temperature and country with no trails. He found someone to share it with one Sunday at Fred Meyer.

There in bulk foods was a pretty young woman wearing a Green Bay Packers jersey. He felt compelled to chat her up. Turns out she was from Neenah, close to Lambeau Field. He liked the crinkle of her nose as she smiled, how he was a little taller.

Their conversation ended, but B-Jax, as his softball teammates called him, was jacked. He made a loop past the meat counter and heard his heartbeat in his ears as he circled back.

Looking up, Cassie saw that smile and knew he wasn't returning to ask about almonds. She wasn't interested in a relationship. But he left the store with her cell number.

Before the wedding, they hosted their families in the house Brian had built off Murphy Dome Road. It was tight, but they all survived until people finally began caravanning to McCarthy.

When the descendants of the land bridge renegades find themselves in Alaska, it is comforting to share the dark season with someone who misses the sweetness of burning maple and remembers autumns that last three months. Brian and Cassie had that and more in each other. She had come to Fairbanks without seeing it after signing a teaching contract. Her mom flew north with her, saw a city underwhelming in its flatness, cold and dark.

Is this what you want?


So many stories

After the service in Marshall, three of us went with Cassie back to her childhood home in Neenah. Her parents and two sisters were there. We stayed up late into the morning telling Brian stories as she lay on her bed. Jeff somehow always had the right thing to say in a time so painful and unsure.

I could not think of much to say. I thought of seeing a friend from Emmonak in Fred Meyer after my favorite dog died.

"You don't need to say anything," he said, shaking his head. "In my culture, we know there are no words for these times." He hugged me.

In Wisconsin, I hugged many times, and spoke shaky assurances to her parents that we, her Alaska Family, would take care of Cassie.

Our lives will be less fun without our burly yes man. We don't know how it's going to go, especially for Cassie. Can't even imagine her return to Alaska, to the house Brian built and shared with her.

How to go forward without one of our brightest lights? We all will, somehow. Many of us will leap and trust that a net will appear, emboldened for the first time with the realization that the final whistle blows for everyone, ready or not.

With a great interest in death, my dad referred many times to the Last Great Adventure. That gave me a good deal of comfort when he embarked on his journey 15 years ago. For me, it helps now to imagine Brian busting through waist-deep snow as he did on our ski trip to Melozi Hot Springs a few springs ago. In my mind's eye, I can see him plowing ahead, taking more than his share of the pulls, leading with enthusiasm toward a landscape no one knows.

Ned Rozell is a Fairbanks freelancer who writes a weekly Alaska science column for the Geophysical Institute.

Ned Rozell

Ned Rozell is a science writer with the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.