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August 2001

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?

“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.

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