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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?

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.

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