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  • Ken Ilgunas

A week on the Charley

[I sorely miss Alaska, so I thought I’d write about an old ranger patrol. This one took place in August of 2009.]

In December 1943, a B-24 Bomber with a four-man crew took off on a test flight from a military base in central Alaska. The plane—upon experiencing a mechanical failure—began a 300 mph nose-dive. Of the four crewmen on board, two would parachute out before the plane crashed. Of those two, only one would survive.

This patrol started out like any other: I was airsick, sweat-soaked, and scared for my life. I was sitting in the passenger seat of four-seated Cessna 180, flying low through the Yukon-Tanana Mountains in thick—almost black—forest fire smoke. It was so thick and gray that I couldn’t see anything outside. Not the ground, not the mountains, nothing. Just gray. I thought about speaking up to the pilot and suggesting we turn back, but he seemed almost serene, confident that the many instruments in front of him would safely navigate us to our landing site.

Normally, I patrolled the Gates of the Arctic National Park in the Brooks Range, but through a sort of “ranger exchange” program, I had the good fortune of spending a week on patrol in the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve. It was my second season as a ranger, and I was accompanied by Steve, a full time ranger who had almost 10 years of experience. Together, we’d float down the headwaters of the Charley River. This would be my last patrol as a ranger.

I spent the previous night in the town of Eagle, Alaska—where the ranger station is located. I rambled through the town, noting vintage “Palin for Governor” campaign signs, and staring in disbelief at the ruins caused by a flood that—four months before—left a fifth of the town homeless. On my walk to the airstrip, a bull moose with a droopy double chin eyed me obstinately as he masticated a mouth full of willow leaves.

When our pilot dropped us off in the preserve, we unloaded our gear, and I collected my bearings. Like a pair of squealing theater curtains, the smoke rapidly dissipated, revealing a scene that was characteristically Alaskan: green mounds of sedge grass dappled with yellow, blue, and purple flowers, all swaying gently in a light breeze. The hills were round and bulbous, sculpted into smooth rolling green blobs.

We scanned the area for human trash and then carried all our gear to the Charley—which we’d float on for the next five days. We observed that the river’s channel was awfully narrow (sometimes no wider than 15 feet), and no more than ankle-deep in other places. We were prepared, though. We had with us “packrafts”—an invention that ranks up there, in my mind, with the wheel, printing press, and rice krispie square.

The packraft is an inflatable tube—weighing only seven pounds (with the oar)—that can be inflated or deflated on backpacking trips, allowing hikers to cross lakes and rivers that they wouldn’t be able to cross otherwise.

At first, it was slow going. The packrafts would careen over if the weight of our gear wasn’t evenly distributed. But we got the hang of it quick enough. Early on, we slipped through a pool of boiling rapids, and ice water splashed all over bodies and packs. But our gear, luckily, was kept safe in dry bags, and the multi-colored airtight water suits we wore kept our underclothes perfectly dry.

We weren’t the first rangers to patrol the Charley this season. A couple months back, a ranger and a volunteer, zipping through rapids, capsized their canoe, causing one of them to be marooned on a mid-river rock for hours.

I heard multiple variations of the story, but they all ended the same way: The ranger called in for a helicopter rescue pickup. This—you must understand—is a ranger’s worst nightmare, as there’s no greater blow to a ranger’s pride than having to call in for help because of clumsy outdoorsmanship.

But there would be no disasters on this trip—I promised myself—which was a promise I made before all my patrols. While I do enjoy boyish thrills like solo mountain climbs and howling wolfishly from sheer cliffs, I was all business in my uniform, never taking unnecessary risks on the job. Plus, with Steve—a model ranger—as a partner, I knew we’d be fine.

Always sharply dressed and smoothly shaved, Steve made me feel slovenly. I loathed shaving in the field, and refused to adhere to the park’s no-beard policy. I also wore my own pair of stained hiking pants because the ranger uniform they gave me was so stiff I thought it was a safety hazard when I had to leap from boulder to boulder.

We set up camp on a gravel bar, where we could hear the river gurgle at all hours of the night. We walked up a bluff and looked down at the Charley—it slithered all the way to the horizon like a snake wrapped around the circumference of the earth. Before inspecting a game trail littered with wolf scat, we headed down for the night.

Lieutenant Leon Crane and Master Sergeant Richard Pompeo jumped out of the plane that December afternoon. In Crane’s own words: “I was in a hell of a fix. On the minus side, (1), I didn’t know where I was…. (2) The men at Ladd Field didn’t know where I was… (3) Our B-24 carried a heavy load of gasoline. I’d seen such B-24’s, heavy with gas, go up in flame. I knew the chance of any emergency equipment, such as food, guns, sleeping bags, being left in the plane was pretty slight. (4) I had no food. There might be animal life around, but I had no weapons. (5) I had no gloves and I had no sleeping bag… Temperatures have dropped to 40 and sometimes 50 below at night”

Crane would spend nine days next to a fire he built, wrapped in his parachute. He dreamt of steaks and milkshakes and lamb chops. Coming upon a few squirrels in a tree, he made a spear, slingshot, and a bow and arrows, but nothing worked. If he didn’t do something quick, Crane would starve to death.

I woke up feeling nauseous and with a throbbing headache, making me instantly regret the large meal I cooked for myself the night before: a fantastic concoction of cheddar cheese, summer sausage, corkscrew pasta, spaghetti seasoning, and a generous dollop of peanut butter. I remember feeling like I was overeating at the time, but that didn’t stop me.

I did my best to pretend I was alright, but I could no longer keep up with Steve. We stopped at every gravel bank to search for garbage or old fire pits that we liked to disassemble in hopes of maintaining the country’s pristine character. I was slow to get out of my raft, and I dragged my feet on the gravel.

Because there are no roads, trails, or facilities within the Yukon-Charley, it was unlikely that we’d come across any people, let alone signs of their visit. Apart from an old French-made fold-up chair that I regretted finding (because I now had to carry it with me the rest of the way) we might as well have been explorers on another planet.

The river was still incredibly shallow. And many times an hour we had to get out and drag our packrafts along the river bottom. Steve hit some shallow water, so I paddled ahead in the main channel. As I wound around a river bend, I spotted, in front of me, a black wolf prancing across the shallow water like a shadow without a source, its dark oily body blending into the backdrop of a dark stand of spruce trees. Clamped in its mouth was a thick, but short, bone with white and red streaks. It was walking toward me unknowingly: it didn’t see me because it didn’t expect me. I was something so foreign to it that I—despite my multi-colored water suit—might have looked like a shadow, too. As it ambled toward me, the Charley’s current was pushing me toward it. I looked for the bear spray I’d strapped to the outside of my dry bag, but when I realized I didn’t have time to reach it, I began waving my oar above my head, and casually, though loudly, yelled out, “Hey wolf!” He took a few more curious steps closer to me, but in an instant, he turned around and trotted into the woods where I wouldn’t see him again.

I looked back at Steve who gave me thumbs up. We paddled for a few more hours and set up camp on another gravel bar.

Crane, starving, took off in search of something, anything. It was a death march and he knew it: there was no way he’d come upon help in the middle of Alaska in winter. But much to his disbelief, he stumbled upon an abandoned cabin. Inside, he found bags of dried milk, cocoa powder, and raisins. He stayed there for the night, crammed some raisins into his mouth in the morning, and took off again down the frozen river. The weather became unexpectedly cold that day—around -50 degrees he estimated—and when he began losing feeling in his hands and feet, he decided to turn back to the cabin. When he got there, he slept for two straight days. He’d spend the next couple weeks eating voraciously (after finding more food in the cabin), sleeping 18 hours a day, and letting his frostbitten hands and feet heal. To complement his diet of rice, beans, and pancakes, he began hunting squirrels and ptarmigans with a .22 he found.

I was feeling much better the next morning: my strength was revived and my appetite had returned. The paddling was easy. Too easy. We didn’t have far to go, and the river became so swift that we didn’t have to paddle except to keep our packrafts aimed in the right direction. I felt my arm muscles begin to tingle—a signal that indicates to me that I haven’t been using them enough.

I wondered what I was doing out here—a thought that graced my mind on many of my patrols. We’d yet to see one group of people, and the garbage we picked up was negligible. I was overeating and under-exerting myself.

I admired the scenery, had brushes with wild animals, and was on an excursion that would have cost any other traveler thousands of dollars to put together. The Park Service had helped me get rid of my student debt, and now it was paying me enough money to fund the rest of my graduate education. I had every reason to be thankful for my wonderful job—and I was thankful—but I couldn’t help but feel a little pointless.

I love the Park Service. I think the national parks are—as the Park Service proudly calls itself—“America’s best idea.” And of course it’s necessary to have rangers in order to keep the bad guys out of parks. But I, personally, never came across any of the bad guys. I never nailed someone for illegally harvesting a moose, or throwing trash in a river. Sure, I served as a “presence” who would inhibit the bad guys from coming in, but that was a concept too abstract to satisfy me. Really, I felt like I was getting paid to have fun.

A job, of course, can and ought to be fun, but when you don’t feel like you’re making a useful product, providing a helpful service, or growing in some way, shape, or form, your work begins to feel less like work and more like a vacation that’s lasted too long. I was passionate about the parks, but my job didn’t give a chance to use that passion in a meaningful way.

I think the best kind of work is work that’s dynamic—the sort that continually makes you learn and grow and invent and adapt. It should be an art. Our work should fit us like a well-worn pair of clothes. It should be a natural extension of ourselves, uniquely shaped to be in harmony with the contours of our peculiar human qualities. We feel most useful and more prideful about our work when we are able to perform a task more efficiently and effectively than most anyone else. We feel best about our work when we know that we were made to do this.

I think that—for every individual—there’s a right way to travel, a right way to work, a right way to live. You know you’re doing it the right way when it feels right. Throughout my two seasons as a ranger, it never felt right. I always felt that I should have been working somewhere else. I felt that the best of myself wasn’t being used here; that I could be more useful; that I could play a bigger role elsewhere. Doing what—I wasn’t sure—but I was sure my place wasn’t here.

Crane, after he was fully revived, took off again, this time dragging a sled with over 130 pounds of food and gear. He heard wolves howling at night, was beaten down by a strange and incredibly powerful gust of wind called a williwaw, and, on two occassions, he fell through the ice and had to dry out all his clothes by fires he built. After more than 80 days since the plane crash, he came across a toboggan trail that led to a miner’s cabin who still resided in the country. All this time, he never knew what river he walked along until the miner told him he was on the Charley. The miner mushed him to an airstrip, and when he returned to his military base, he was swamped by his fellow soldiers, all amazed to see him alive.

I wanted to find Pompeo.

We were near the crash site of the B-24 that few people have seen except from the vantage point of a plane. While Crane made it back okay, the other guy who jumped out of the plane—Pompeo—never turned up. I knew it would be nearly impossible to find his body, but I was going to try.

Steve and I had finished our paddle down the river. We reached a gravel airstrip, next to a historic cabin, where our plane, tomorrow, would take us back to town. We strapped on light day-packs around our waist, and began our march through dense forest, over fields of tussocks, and up grassy hills. I had trouble keeping up, but only because I couldn’t stop myself from gorging the millions of blueberries at my feet.

I kept my eyes out for Pompeo. Maybe I’d find his bones in a copse of spruce trees, or in a shallow pond, I thought.

Several hours later, we arrived at the crash site. While the wings were somewhat intact, everything else was crumpled and warped, hardly giving us the impression that this was once a sophisticated and ingeniously engineered piece of technology. Beneath the body of the plane were heaps of metal detritus that made it look as if the plane released its bowels in its dying moments.

I thought of what it would be like to fall from the sky in a steel trap like this, knowing the whole time you’re going to die. Did they even have the chance to think? Did they know they were about to die? Or was conscious thought absent in their adrenaline-addled minds?

We took pictures, and walked up to a large mountain lake we’d heard about. We both stripped down to boxers and took a dip in some of the coldest water I’d ever set foot in. It was my last night as a ranger—fun, as always—but I dozed to sleep without the warmth of knowing I’d lived a day well spent.

That night, Steve heard a voice. In the middle of the night it called out, ghoulishly, “Hello, hello.” Frantically, Steve got out of his sleeping bag and tent, but saw no one outside. There was something about the voice that haunted him; he was so rattled he got on the satellite phone and called his father to make sure he was still alive.

Odds are that was his imagination, or the babblings of the Charley—though for a moment I thought, “Pompeo?”


Historic cabin about which I know nothing.

We found the book Alaskan Mail Order Bride by the bedside in the above cabin. I was getting a little bored with the reading material that I’d brought, so both Steve and I took turns reading it. It was, admittedly, a page-turner that I couldn’t possibly put down. A couple excerpts:

“His courage in standing his ground before the bear, gave her a new appreciation of his manliness.”

“Maggie’s red curls glowed, bright against her white pillow in the soft lamp light as Blaine penetrated her for the third time this evening.”

My ranger partner.

Taking a dip.

Spruce forest. At some point long ago there was a cabin, or a cabin-like structure here. The trees you see are unusually thick for the latitude.

A forget what this animal is called. A marmot, maybe? It barked at us for a while.


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