He was last seen near the village of Anvik in October 2017 floating along on a rickety, makeshift raft with oars made from a couple of small spruce trees. Villagers who went out in skiffs to greet him as he came downriver told him to keep moving.
At the time, he was suspected of looting a half-dozen or more cabins owned by Alaska Natives in Central Alaska and then burning several to the ground. Near some of the burned out structures, he left handwritten racist notes.
One found duct taped to a piece of driftwood proclaimed “Joy Huntington is an evil Shaman who tortures to death anyone who gets in her way – white people will never understand this psychopathic, psychic, phenomenon – You F——, Raciest (sic), Parasitic, Athabascans, need to Fix This.”
No one has ever figured out Harrison’s fixation with the then 34-year-old Huntington, a now former member of the Fairbanks City Council, a one-time assistant professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and a Dartmouth College-educated Koyukon Athabascan.
All the two had in common was a shared residency in largest city in the Alaska Interior, where Huntington ran a consultancy and the 59-year-old Harrison lived on the streets.
Political activist Frank Turney was one of the few people who befriended Harrison in Fairbanks. He said Harrison had spent time in jail, and it didn’t seem to make him a better man.
Turney and Harrison eventually had a falling out, and Turney says now that he’d be happy to never see Harrison again.
“I’m always on my toes after he made threats,” Turney said. “And after a city council meeting (where) I said comments he didn’t like, my window was shot with two holes. Looked like a pellet gun.”
Like some others, Turney thinks Harrison – who has a record that includes an armed confrontation – is potentially dangerous.
Alaska State Troopers, who last year were criticized by some along the Yukon for not more aggressively pursuing Harrison, appear to have no idea of where Harrison went.
He does have “an active warrant out for his arrest in relation to a Fairbanks Police Department case,” agency spokeswoman Megan Peters said in response to an email querying the agency about Harrison’s whereabouts. “No one has been charged in relation to the cabin incidents along the Yukon. If we have contact with Mr. Harrison, he will be arrested for the active warrant. The investigations regarding the cabins are still open. The Alaska State Troopers have not publicly identified any suspect(s).”
Carl Jerue from Anvik on the Yukon about 350 miles northwest of Anchorage said some along the river think “a big storm might have got him.”
Below Anvik, the Yukon is in places more than two miles wide and sizeable storms can blow up. No unidentified bodies have been found in the river since Harrison’s disappearance, but as Jerue notes, the rivers doesn’t always give them up.
Turney, on the other hand, has two different views on what might have happened to Harrison.
“No doubt he changed his looks,” Turney observed, “or maybe offed himself.”
Or maybe someone decided he was a problem that needed to be taken care of.
The Alaska beyond the road system badly lacks for law enforcement, and over the years there have been stories told of trouble makers who disappeared never to be seen again. It is hard to pin those stories down.
They might be true. They might be nothing but rumor.
But Harrison would be the kind of person easy to make disappear. He had a history of making trouble and no one showed – or today shows – much interest in whether he lived or died.
His history in rural Alaska was checkered. The nickname “Slop Pail Jerry” came from an incident in the village of Ruby, about 270 miles upriver from Anvik. About 20 years ago Harrison threw the contents of a slop pail –a bucket of crap or what is sometimes called a honey bucket – in the truck of the mayor.
Harrison’s criminal history in Alaska tracks back more than 30 years. State records show he was accused of criminal mischief in Valdez in 1985. From there a string of run-ins with the law followed him north.
He was charged with domestic violence in 1991 in Anchorage after which he apparently left the city for the rural, regional hub of Bethel on the Y-K Delta some 400 miles to the west. He promptly ended up back in court with more domestic issues.
In 2004, he made the news when troopers were called to the Yupik Eskimo village of Nunam Iqua, a place once known as Sheldon Point, to arrest Harrison, who’d armed himself and broken into the village store. It was never explained what he was doing in the remote, Yukon River village of less than 200 people about 190 miles northwest of Bethel.
An Associated Press report from the time described him as “an armed homeless man…tired of being taunted.”
The Juneau Empire version of the story said Harrison “broke into the Swan Lake store…500 miles northwest of Anchorage just before midnight. …Armed with a sawed-off rifle, Harrison barricaded the door with cases of sugar and canned food and refused to leave.”
Troopers were able to talk him out and take him into custody. It was never clear who taunted him or why, or if he even was taunted, or how he became homeless in a community of only about 150 people and 40 to 50 buildings that rise above the windswept tundra of the Y-K Delta on the edge of the Bering Sea.
Harrison’s history indicates he knew the Delta well. And his months of raiding cabins and living off the land last summer proved him a survivalist, as did his homemade raft which, while rickety, was functional.
The last people to report seeing him said he was armed with, among other weapons, a .30-30-caliber, lever-action repeating rifle. Witnesses suspected it was one of two such rifles had been reported stolen from camps or cabins burned along the river.
A large-caliber rifle would have been useful in helping Harrison live off the land or, as Turney put it, offing himself.
The way it looks now, it appears quite possible no one will ever know what happened to the Madman of the Yukon River.