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Death in Alaska

 

selawik

Near Selawik Hot Spring in the Purcell Mountains/USFWS photo

UPDATE: Travis’s body was recovered by a team of volunteers from Huslia Search and Rescue late Friday. They also reported that the blanket on which Travis had appeared to be resting was actually his jacket. He had taken both his jacket and gloves off in the bitter cold. “Paradoxical disrobing” is a recognized phenomenon associated with severe hypothermia. Travis’s body was sent to Fairbanks where his parents live.

 

The frozen body of 27-year-old Travis Loughridge rests today on a blanket along the Shungnak-Huslia trail in a remote corner of Alaska as beautiful as it is deadly. His body has been there three days awaiting an Alaska State Trooper investigation stalled by extreme cold.

 

When Loughridge was found on January 17, it was 50- to 60-degrees below zero in Huslia to the south. The would-be rescuers who discovered his body said the snow told a story of Loughridge battling repeatedly to free his snowmachine after it become stuck in brush bowed down and drifted full of snow along an ancient and primitive trail.

The struggle to free the machine likely left Loughridge sweaty, a dangerous condition in extreme cold. Eventually, he tried to start a fire of willows. The wood does not burn easily. He was unsuccessful. He rolled out a blanket and laid down never to wake again.

He was not far from the two public use cabins that rise nearby at Selawik Hot Springs, a deserted outpost about halfway along the 110-mile trail between Shungak, a village of about 260 people on the Kobuk River in Northwest Alaska, and Huslia, an Interior village of some 315 famous in the 49th state as the birth place of George Attla, a legendary dog musher.

“What he should have done, he should have turned around,” said William “Papa” Penn of Huslia. A man in his 40s who has spent his life in rural Alaska, Penn knows the danger.

Loughridge was much younger. He had a schedule to meet. And he was at the controls of a Ski-doo Summit X, a seductively powerful machine. The modern snowmachine is a wonderful piece of technology. When a man squeezes the throttle on the 164 horsepower of a Summit X, it’s easy to think nothing can stop it.

The machine almost demands you push on.

A long, cold, lonely and dangerous trip

Loughridge left Shungnak on January 14 on a nearly 700-mile snowmachine trip across the Interior to Fairbanks, a place the young Alaska Native man now called home, according to troopers. Loughridge told friends to expect him there by January 16.

Deadly cold was already settling over the northern half of the state. By the next day, temperatures were dipping to 27 degrees below zero in Huslia. The mercury would keep falling. Temperatures would reach minus 50 by January 17.

When Loughridge failed to arrive in Fairbanks as expected, troopers dialed up Shungnak search and rescue volunteers and asked them to go out into bitter, life-threatening cold to look for Loughridge. They went as far as the hot springs 50 miles to the south, but found nothing.

The next day, the call went out to Huslia Search and Rescue to reconnoiter the 60 miles of trail north to the hot spring. Francis Nollner and Penn volunteered for the inherently risky mission.

The temperate in Huslia at the time was 58-degrees-below zero.

More than 100 years ago, Episcopalian Archdeacon Hudson Stuck, a major figure in Alaska history and the author of “Ten Thousand Miles With a Dogsled,” one of best books ever written about the realities of the north, observed that “the old-timers in Alaska have a saying that travelling at 50-degrees below zero is all right as long as it’s all right. If there be a good trail, if there be convenient stopping-places, if nothing go wrong….”

Stuck knew well the dangers of what happened if something went wrong. In the book, he wrote of a young Indian man who “had come some 75 miles on snowshoes in one run, without stopping at all  save to eat two or three times, at a continuous temperature of 50 degrees below zero or lower, to bring word that he had found a white man frozen to death on the trail; and on the Koyukuk that feat will always be counted to Albert the Pilot for righteousness.”

Little has changed since those words were written. The cold still kills, and there are still men living in wild Alaska who know the dangers of the trail and respect the code to help those in trouble.

Penn and Nollner did not hesitate when asked to search.

“I know the trail, so I had to go,” Penn said. “I didn’t want other lives to be in danger. I ain’t the chief. I ain’t the president of the search and rescue.”

He is but one of a rare breed who still remain in remote Alaska, people confident in their Bush skills and willing to take the risk and accept the responsibility to help others because it is the right thing to do.

What happened?

As originally reported, Loughridge died after his snowmachine “crashed through ice.” Deaths of that nature happen all too often in rural Alaska, but Penn said there was no ice involved in this accident or open water or overflow – ice topped by flowing water sometimes feet deep.

“He didn’t go through overflow,” Penn said.  “He didn’t go into water.”

Instead, Penn traced the danger that killed Loughridge back to a December ice storm that weighed down the local vegetation. The brush and the tops of the trees went to the ground, and when it snowed, the snow drifted in around the tangle of vegetation to all but obliterate the trail between the hot spring and Huslia.

“It was just a jungle in there,” Penn said.

Loughridge somehow managed to find the trail through this mess, but it appeared he got stuck at least three times trying to cross the overland portages between creeks in the area. At the last of the stops, Penn said, “he looks like he was stuck there for a long time.

“I’m thinking he got so cold, he got so tired….

“He tried to start a fire. He had willows,” and an extra 15 gallons of gas on a sled behind his snowmachine. Why he didn’t pour the gas on the willows to get them going will never be known.

It’s possible his lighter didn’t work in the cold, Penn said. It’s possible his hands had grown so numb from the cold, he couldn’t work the lighter. It’s possible he was then so hypothermic he couldn’t think straight and decided to lay down for a rest.

Any of those things – simple as they are – can lead to a man’s death on the trail at 50-degrees-below zero.

On Friday, in a telephone interview, Penn was clearly troubled about leaving Loughridge’s frozen body along the trail, but that is what he was told to do. Troopers wanted it left there until they could complete an investigation.

“I really wanted to cover him,” Penn said, but he was told not to disturb the scene.

As the days have dragged on since the death, people in Huslia, Shungnak and elsewhere have begun to ask why. It is unclear when troopers might be able to retrieve the body.

The temperature had warmed to 25 degrees below zero in Huslia by Friday, but in the Purcell Mountains to the north it was colder and in Shungnak on the north side of the mountains the temperature still stood at 40 degrees below zero on Friday afternoon.

 

 


 

 

 

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18 replies »

  1. As sad as this story is I am always left when I read of these avoidable losses with a single over riding question. Why go anywhere deep in the interior alone in the cold or otherwise? For twenty five years up here I have adhered to this principle whether snow machining, sea kayaking, hiking or just fishing and in more than one occasion I have found myself in trouble needing help which was right there with my traveling partner (s).

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    • Bill: it can sometimes be hard to find a partner, and sometimes they’re more trouble than they’re worth. i have to confess to having spent a fair amount of time traveling the Iditarod Trail alone. i’ve always kind of enjoyed the time out there by myself. but a good partner… well, a good partner can save your life.

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  2. Thanks for your informative account, Craig. People who knew Travis have been wondering what happened, and your story was very helpful. Village search and rescue teams are awesome; they take tremendous risks for friends and strangers alike. I’d much rather have them searching for me than the troopers, any day. Not to disparage troopers, I think most troopers would agree nobody knows the country like an old trapper. And nobody sees sign like an old hunter. It’s good to write about these things because, as you say, people feel invincible on the monster mountain machines. We aren’t.

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    • Jim: ditto village search and rescue teams. nothing beats experience in-country. i wish SAR in the urban part of the state had the kind of people involved who are doing it in rural Alaska. and we aren’t invincible, but man that machinery these days can make you think so. i remember going out at minus-50 in Nikolai a few years back and turning the key on a Ski-doo that had been sitting out at that temp and colder all night. it fired right up. amazing. that sort of thing can make you think machinery can trump the laws of nature, and sometimes it can. but you’ve got to be careful. i’ve almost been Travis. i now have sort of an informal rule on the trail. if i’m going to have to start digging or chopping to get through or get out, the first thing i do is strip off my jacket and put it some place where it will stay dry and not blow away. then i pay constant attention to moisture management. my heat output jacks up pretty quick when i start exercising, and that means i start sweating pretty quickly and pretty liberally. that doesn’t sound like such a big deal but at 50 below it’s dangerous. i remember running a 10 miler in Glennallen at 55 below back in my serious running days. (i was up there to cover the Copper Basin 300, and in those days i stuck to a very strict training schedule.) i ran with a windshell, a polpypro shirt, and a pile vest plus hat and gloves. by the time i got done, the polyprop was wet from sweat and the windshell was a coat of ice from the moisture that went through the poly, hit the shell and instantly froze. thankfully, the run ended – as planned – back at the warm building where it began. if it had ended anywhere else, if at the end of that run i’d had to take care of myself in the wild, i wouldn’t be writing anything now.

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  3. Thanks for the article, Craig. As his dad and living up in that country for 25 years I’m aware of what the guys went through getting him out. He travelled more country in the north in the last 7-8 years than most folks in a lifetime. My deepest thanks to Francis and Papa on the original search and to Francis, Sean, Donavan and Derek for getting him out. I’m indebted to you men. Stop by when in Fairbanks.

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    • Greg,
      I’m not sure if you remember me or not, but I taught Alan and Trav almost 20 years ago in Shungnak. Trav and Alan were usually in trouble for one reason or another, but I enjoyed teaching them both. My heart and strength goes to you and your family.

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  4. IMHO it is WRONG to leave the body out there because the AST says so. They should have some respect for family and friends who know what happened and want the nightmare over. It’s not like it’s not known what happened, the story is very clear.

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  5. Thank you for getting the story straighten out. We were very sad about this, because it is close to our home and we knew he was out there. We have to think of the cold weather and make sure our people are safe to send someone out there,,,thank William Penn and Francis Nollner for braving the cold. Please go out with someone and tell them where you are going.

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  6. Thank you for a well-written article. We are indeed grateful for the search teams from Shungnak and Huslia. This could not have been an easy task. Will keep them in my prayers as well as his family.

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  7. I’m glad they recovered the body it would have been bad if they didn’t because if storm moved in it would have been impossible to recover or travel thank you for getting the information straight

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  8. I’m glad this was written and I pray for people traveling to learn from this tragedy. God bless the men who are tasked with this work. Prayers for comfort and support to the young mans family.

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  9. Great reporting and writing, Craig. A really impressive piece considering how quickly you put it together. Lazy reporting in ADN. Did they just make up the “crashed through ice” part? When it’s 50 below, accuracy matters. Thanks for telling this young man’s story accurately. He was living life fully. Peace to his family and friends.

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    • no, they didn’t make it up, Peter. in defense of the ADN and other news outlets that did the same, they just wrote down what government officials told them. when discussing “fake news” some days back, someone on my Facebook page referred to the media as the “fourth arm of government.” unfortunately, that’s become too true. largely what many do these days is parrot what government officials tell them. they are not reporters in the old sense; they are stenographers. i invariably find myself wanting to know exactly what happened in these situations because i’ve spent a lot of time on the trails of Alaska, and i could have been Travis several times. there are not many reporters left here in the state who know anything other than the urban environment, and as the profession has declined in recent years, many (maybe most) of the people blessed (or cursed) with intellectual curiousity have left for other things. a lot of what “reporters” do today is no more than rewriting press releases, which isn’t much different than punching out widgets.

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      • yep, we can read the trooper dispatch on our own and doing so over the years i noticed its often inaccurate

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      • “they didn’t make it up …they just wrote down what government officials told them”

        hmmm…(things that make you go) 2017 remix

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