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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?

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.

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