Lost Soul Or Yukon Slasher?

When you're deep in the wilds, a bedraggled stranger wandering into camp triggers a moral dilemma: Offer him dinner or run for the hills?
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When you're deep in the wilds, a bedraggled stranger wandering into camp triggers a moral dilemma: Offer him dinner or run for the hills?

I eased my raft along the eastern shoreline of the Yukon River, anticipating its confluence with the Nation River within a quarter of a mile. This is the way the trip was supposed to go—my 14-year-old son, Casey, my brother, Dave, and me bobbing along quietly with only the water and wildlife to distract us.

My new raft performed flawlessly on its maiden voyage through the eastern reaches of the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, despite a rapidly swelling Yukon carrying in its current uprooted trees, driftwood, 55-gallon drums washed from riverside fish camps, and assorted other debris. The river was being fed by heavy rains to

the northeast, which had melted much of the remaining snowpack and washed out the road to Eagle, Alaska, 3 days after our departure from

Dawson City, Yukon Territory. For days, we floated along at the same speed as the drifting flotsam.

Navigating the river wasn't nearly as hard as finding a camping spot. We'd spent the past 2 nights in less-than-ideal shoreline sites, among tangles of willows and swarms of mosquitoes. The recent rains had drowned the usual gravel-bar camping spots beneath water and silt.

A small clearing on the north shore caught my eye, and we pulled into a slough outlet in front of the framework of an abandoned hunting camp. It was an ideal campsite, with plenty of room for our tent, a fixed kitchen area, and all of it a good 15 feet above waterline—a veritable Shangri-la in the middle of nowhere. As we set about unpacking our gear, we entered "severe relaxation mode" and discussed the merits of spending 2 nights at this site before continuing toward our endpoint in Circle, Alaska.

In short order, dinner was served, and as I raised the first forkful to my lips, a cry erupted from within the brush. It wasn't alarming

in nature, but rather an expression of relief or deliverance. And it was human.

There are places you expect to encounter people, such as along a popular river: people in boats, in airplanes, at fish camps, as you approach towns or homestead sites. But I never expected to see someone wander out of the brush 100 miles from the nearest town and amid hundreds of thousands of acres of untracked land.

But human he was, and wearing bear bells that jangled louder as he neared our camp. Eventually, the sweaty, fatigued man stumbled through the thick alders and dropped his heavy pack to the ground with a thud.

"Thank God you're here! he heaved, not seeming to notice the black cloud of mosquitoes that swarmed around his frail body. He was more like an apparition than a human being. His eyes were sunken into his skull, his skin stretched too tightly over an angular face, and his clothes hung off his body, all suggesting a once-fuller frame. His rainpants were shredded, and the pinkish purple fleece gloves he was wearing seemed too warm for the muggy summer day.

Joe was his name, he said, and he appeared to have just hiked out of his own version of Hell. We offered him stew and, between slow and methodical bites, he told us his story.

Joe, who was from Nova Scotia, had hooked up with two buddies, Paul from Florida and Greg from California. They'd planned an 80-day trek through the wilderness, circumnavigating the entire Nation Creek drainage by following the ridgelines to the north and east. The trio had rafted from Eagle to this spot, our campsite on the Yukon, Joe claimed, where they'd planned to start and finish their journey.

"Someone must have come and taken our raft, because it isn't here anymore, the wayfarer claimed, then spoke of improvements made to the hunting camp since the trio was there 2 weeks earlier. The weathered wood and rusted nail heads suggested, however, at least one winter's passage for this camp, and a man who was lost and confused. I inquired about his friends' whereabouts and the story got fuzzier.

According to Joe, they'd had so much to haul that the first few days were spent ferrying food and supplies from one campsite to the next. The back-and-forth had begun to take a toll on him, and he started to "drop more weight than I thought I should. So I found a beautiful little willow meadow," he said, and he set up camp and hung back while his buddies ferried supplies.

A wild look crept into Joe's eyes as he related how he awoke the next morning amid the heavy smoke of a forest fire. In the initial telling, Joe said he couldn't find his companions in the thick smoke, so he decided to backtrack. (As he filled in details later, Joe changed his story, indicating that he had met up with his buddies, only to lose them the following morning.)

Joe recounted what he called the "near-death experience" of wading the upper Nation so he could make his way through the forest and back to the Yukon River. His plan was to hitch a ride with the first boat he saw, get to his car in Eagle, and "head south. After the Nation crossing, his legs cramped so badly that he pitched his tent in the middle of a tussock patch, where he spent an uncomfortable night.

"I didn't know if I was going to be able to get out of the tent again, he said, referring to his pain, dehydration, and emaciation. Eventually he got up, and though he experienced dizzy spells, hallucinations, and moments when his heart flutteredhe said he thought his body was about to shut downJoe wandered toward the Yukon River and stumbled into our camp.

"I just want to get out of here! he exclaimed at the end of his story.

He thanked us profusely for the food and water. "After what I've been through, you guys are like gods to me!

"If a scraggly group like us seem like gods, I said, attempting to keep the uneasy mood light, "you must have been through a really terrible time. Joe laughed as he wobbled to his pack and began to set up his tent. He asked us to wake him if we saw any boats, since he didn't want to miss a chance for an upriver ride.

I had a strange feeling in the pit of my stomach while Joe told his story, and now, I was growing increasingly uncomfortable. Having worked for 12 years for the Fairbanks, Alaska, police department, I've dealt with the less-than-ideal elements of society. My brother, Dave, a police officer for 10 years before beginning a university teaching career, and I had exchanged knowing glances as Joe spoke. We both had learned to trust our gut, and we both knew something about this guy didn't add up.

After Joe was tucked in and out of earshot, Dave and I talked quietly about possible explanations, focusing on Joe's lack of concern for his buddies' welfare and his anxiousness to go upriver and "get out of here.

"Have I been a cop too long and become too cynical? I asked my brother, afraid Dave would answer that I'd slipped into the career-cop trap I've always guarded against. There are a lot of good, decent people in the world, but by virtue of my profession, I don't get the privilege of dealing with them often.

"That story would make anyone uneasy and suspicious, Dave assured me, "even a noncop.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. I was on vacation, far from civilization and badly in need of relaxation. Instead, Joe had me slipping into "cop-mode, which in itself made me angry. I couldn't afford to take a vacation from common sense, however, and decided reasonable caution was warranted because of the stranger sleeping 20 feet from us.

If defending ourselves required quick physical movement, I wouldn't have had much assistance. While my brother was a stellar athlete through college and during his tenure as a municipal police officer, a stroke had left his left side partially paralyzed. And what about our boat? Joe's penchant for an upriver ride was somewhat comforting, but what if he changed his mind and headed downriver with our craft during the night, leaving us stranded? Or, since he seemed so glad to have company, what if he punctured the raft so we'd all be stranded together?

I stored the oars in my tent, and Dave and I agreed to sleep in shifts so we could keep an eye on Joe.

With Dave and Casey safe in the tent, I sat sipping tea and wondering how many people had found themselves in similar situations. I recalled accounts of Klondike gold miners carefully guarding their claims, immediately suspicious of anyone who stumbled into camp. I remembered cautionary tales of carpetbaggers and "highwaymen in the post-Civil War era, often rewarding the hospitality of strangers with theft, robbery, and even murder. I thought of the many cases I'd worked on myself that stemmed from a naive person putting trust in a stranger.

But what if he'd simply had a falling-out with his buddies on the trail, or wasn't as gung ho for the rigors of the expedition? Maybe they'd told him to go back to the river and wait it out or hitch a ride.

Then again, maybe something else had happened. I couldn't shake my uneasy feeling. I felt the need to keep Joe at arm's length, but I also could sympathize with my fellowman in need. The two emotions tugged at me as I watched the midnight sun dip below the horizon.

The next day dawned breezy and cool, a welcome respite from the intermittent showers of the previous day. Breakfast was scrambled eggs, cheese, and corned-beef hash in tortillasfor four.

As Joe recovered, he became more relaxed and related events with greater clarity and logic. He slowly shed his Charles Manson-like persona and began to appear more a greenhorn dangerously outside of his element. Periodically my "cop voice boomed in my head, though, reminding me of one of the 10 deadly errors for a policeman: Relaxing too soon.

At one point, he casually mentioned that he had fired two shots from a 12-gauge pistol-grip shotgun he was carrying. Although he claimed the shots were meant to signal his buddies, every outdoorsman knows three gunshots is the universal distress call. His comment increased my trepidation.

Joe's version of the rest of the events remained fairly consistent (police always look for changes in a story), and he appeared content to wait on shore for an upriver boat. Carrying Joe downstream certainly didn't top my vacation agenda, but I felt obligated to ask. Joe said he preferred to wait for an upriver boat. I was relieved, because I was looking forward to continuing downriver with my family the next morning.

A sliding tent zipper woke me, and I watched as Joe exited his tent and followed the path toward our boat. "Good morning, I yelled cheerfully as I leaped out of the tent.

Joe jumped and quietly commented, "Boy, you've got a nice boat. He stepped into the woods to relieve himself. I roused Dave and Casey. Time to break camp.

We promised Joe we'd send aid his way as soon as possible and made sure he had plenty of food and water. As we shoved off, Joe handed me a letter and asked me to mail it to his wife so she'd know he was okay.

The Yukon hummed along underneath our raft. I was back on vacation.

Fifty miles downriver, we drew up at the impressively restored Slaven's Roadhouse, a turn-of-the-century gold-mining camp. National Park Service personnel were expected to pass through the next day, so we made camp.

As we ate our breakfast the next morning in a screened-in gazebo, much to the consternation of local mosquitoes, a Park Service patrol boat pulled onto shore and deposited a ranger and two seasonal volunteers. We told them about Joe and his two buddies, and pinpointed his location on the ranger's river map. Shortly thereafter, a helicopter ferrying more seasonal personnel checked on Joe from the air.

"Yeah, I see him," the pilot said over the ranger's portable radio.

"He has a 'HELP' sign laid out. Better send the jet boat from Eagle." I breathed a sigh of relief, knowing Joe would get the help he needed, and that the responsibility had been shifted to someone else.

Still I wondered about his friends. The ranger said a forest fire had been burning in the area prior to the recent heavy rains.

After another restful night at Slaven's Roadhouse, we continued down the Yukon toward Circle. Once again, I relaxed and enjoyed the intermittent sunshine and the peregrine falcons wheeling above the steep riverside bluffs.

Joe continued to dominate our thoughts. "Well, he should be back in Eagle by now," one of us would say. Or, "I wonder what Joe's going to do now?" His fate and that of his friends was discussed with both seriousness and humor.

We eventually made our way into Circle and back to civilization in Fairbanks. At home, visiting relatives pressed for details of our trip. Images of the swarms of mosquitoes, watching a cow moose step gingerly along the river with a days-old calf, and rafting quietly with my family were quickly eclipsed by the "tale of Joe."

In the following days, as I spoke of our misadventure and my emotional conflict over having been suspicious of a traveler in need of help, other people related their own similar experiences, or those they'd heard. The stories ranged from the humorous (an old sourdough appeared in "the middle of nowhere," made a colorful comment, then vanished back into the woods) to the sinister (a menacing figure appeared at a remote riverside camp and "suggested" that a couple part with a few of their beers). It appears that we can never assume we're alone, or that we're in the middle of nowhere.

Back home in Fairbanks, I kept in touch with a ranger in Eagle, hoping to get word on Paul and Greg, Joe's companions. Six weeks after our trip, the two showed up at the mouth of the Nation River, never having completed their circuitous journey. I still wonder about Joe. He had told us that he'd probably make his way back to his mother's home in Indiana to rest and recuperate. He didn't want to join his wife at a religious commune because they'd "put (him) to work. I get a kick out of imagining him reading this article, thinking, "Geezthere I was, helpless, thankful to be alive, and these guys are so uptight they think I'm the Yukon Slasher.

We all wish we lived in a perfect world. In my version of utopia, all outdoorspeople are kindred spirits who don't crowd each other, but lend a helping hand when needed. A lone figure approaching camp is welcomed with hospitality, without triggering thoughts of dangerous repercussions or ulterior motives. Strangers are seen as new friends, and trust is revoked only after just cause is displayed.

Unfortunately, as I see too often as a policeman, our world is far from perfect. And while I, like most outdoors travelers, head to the woods to get away from the manmade world and back to the "real one, I suppose that I no longer have the luxury of making the trip without carrying some extra urban baggage.

Dan Hoffman is a Fairbanks, Alaska, policeman.