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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?

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.

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