A Utah man who became the subject of a dramatic story about his rescue from what was portrayed as near death in the wilds of Alaska earlier this month is now saying he really didn’t need to be saved.
The comment from 30-year-old Tyson Steele – who also goes by the name of Tiberius Steele online and whose legal name, according to property records, is Robert Tyson Steele Jr. – came on Wednesday as residents of the Skwentna area about 75 miles northwest of Alaska’s largest city began to raise questions about information left out of a story about a fire that burned down his makeshift wilderness home.
“Media wants to reduce my 23 days to a 90-second segment,” Steele said via a Facebook message. “So yes, you aren’t getting the whole story in the media, the biggest of which is that I was well-equipped to live years in the Bush.”
Why then the rescue?
As reported by Alaska state officials on Jan. 10, it became necessary after Steele’s woodstove caught on fire his plastic-covered abode, burning it to the ground, killing his dog and triggering a “series of life-or-death decisions he would be forced to make until the Alaska State Troopers’ Helo 3 arrived to rescue him….”
“Miles and miles of forests, hills, rivers, and lakes separated him from the road system,” said a magazine-ready story provided the media by a former editor for the Anchorage Daily News and one-time Alaska Magazine writer now working as a trooper spokesman. “He had no snowmachine. And his nearest neighbor was 20 miles away, in the tiny community of Skwentna. Steele’s only way in or out of the wilderness was by air charter.”
The latter statement was true. The others weren’t. Steele had two snowmachines, and his nearest neighbors were at Donkey Lake Creek, only about six miles away.
A photo of Steele astride one of those machines – what appears to be a Yamaha Bravo – was readily available on Steele’s “homesteadalaska” Instagram page – but the New York Times, CBS News, Men’s Journal, the BBC, and media around the world ignored that and stuck to the script provided by troopers.
Forty-ninth state media largely did the same, although Alaska Public Media did take the extra step of calling Steele to ask him some questions more than a week after the trooper story appeared.
It uncovered some new information. In the APM interview, Steele revealed that “he was able to salvage some of the canned goods that were part of his two-year supply of food. With some quick rationing math, he figured he could eat for thirty-five days.”
He had been living a reconstructed, wood-heated shelter for somewhat more than 20 days when troopers arrived.
“The story of Steele’s surviving in the harsh climate of an Alaska winter alone in the wilderness has spread throughout the country,” APM’s Philip Manning wrote. “He says it has resulted in comparisons to Christopher McCandless, whose story was made famous by the book and film ‘Into the Wild.’ Steele says he doesn’t like that comparison because, unlike McCandless, he was supplied and prepared and, as a result, survived.”
Steele survived because once he escaped the fire he was in no real danger. He had food, and he was able to throw a roof over one of the several other framework structures near the one that burned, get his woodstove going again, and heat the place up by burning more of his large supply of firewood.
But these were not the things that started Skwentna-area residents asking questions. What made them curious was what troopers left out of their story.
Entirely left out – and trimmed from the state’s Instagram video of a trooper helicopter circling an SOS Steele had stomped out in the snow around the cabin he’d burnt down – was that Steele’s home was only about 1,500 feet from a wilderness runway next to which stood another cabin into which Steele could have moved in the event of a true emergency.
A satellite view of the area shows Steele’s compound just to the right of a GPS location marker Steele identified as “Lake trail.” The airstrip is visible above it and farther to the right. The other cabin is clearly visible along the airstrip.
In a series of Facebook messages that ended with Steele taking his Facebook page either private or offline, the so-called homesteader offered a variety of reasons as to why he didn’t retreat to the other cabin after he burned his down.
First, he said, it was in disrepair and would have needed some work, and “two, my winter supply of firewood was right there (near the burned down cabin), and with an injured leg, it would have been hard to haul all that wood with very few calories left to sustain heavy labor. Three, my wood burning stove was still standing, so it was best to build a shelter around that with all of my tools still in the area. Four, I also wanted to be conscious of other people’s stuff, though it could have been a decent option in hindsight with a few repairs. In the end, I didn’t want to deal with any legal issues regarding trespassing.”
The injured leg was not mentioned in the trooper story, and Steele, who walks around the shelter waving his arms at the at a trooper helicopter in the trooper video, does not appear to limp.
Torn knee ligaments
“It was only a modest injury,” Steele messaged. “I tore my MCL awhile back, and I restressed the knee while struggling to put out the fire. My left leg is a couple inches less in diameter because of muscle atrophy. Adrenaline helped me ignore it most of the time, but it got really painful at night. A few times, my circulation was so bad I couldn’t heat my leg for a whole day. I was a little worried about gangrene and frostbite if I stressed it too much. I was taking prescription topical cream before the fire, but the medicine burned up.”
Medial collateral ligament (MCL) injuries can be very painful, but they are not known to cause gangrene. Frostbite is an injury that invariably happens first to the extremities – noses, toes and fingers.
Steele suffered no reported cold injuries during his ordeal. Temperatures in the area during his stay did at times drop to 30 degrees below zero, but outside temperatures become irrelevant if you have shelter, a wood stove and plenty of wood.
Alaskans of old used to survive in wood-heated wall tents in such weather though an Alaska-designed tent called appropriately enough the “Arctic Oven” is now preferred.
“I spent 14 days in Nunavut, Canada, inside an Arctic Oven,” adventurer Casey Keffer says in a promotion for the company. “All I can say is minus-50 degrees, on top of eight feet of ice with 35 mph straight-line winds and zero visibility…no sweat for Arctic Oven tents! It makes heavy and hard-to-handle wall tents a thing of the past.”
Steele’s cobbled together, snow-banked structure was no Arctic Oven, but it does appear to have been warm enough that Steele chose not to move into the nearby cabin, and it allowed him to avoid frostbite.
Who said what?
Marsh answered an email asking why the trooper video left out the airstrip where the trooper helicopter landed and the cabin by saying this:
“The short video you refer to, taken from Helo 3 of Tyson Steele and his SOS sign, was cut for length to allow for posting on social media. To request the full video, submit a public records request online at https://dps.alaska.gov/AST/
When asked why troopers didn’t share with the media their knowledge of the other cabin where Steele could have taken refuge, this was the response:
“Helo 3 responded to a request for a welfare check on Tyson Steele, age 30, at his remote homestead approximately 20 miles outside of Skwentna. The request was made by family members who had not heard from him for several weeks. At approximately 1100, on 1-9-2020, Helo 3 crew located Steele waving his arms near a makeshift shelter. An SOS signal was stamped in the snow outside. Steele was picked up and transported to Anchorage where he explained his cabin had burned down in mid-December. The fire had left him with no means of communication.”
When asked why the agency sent its most costly-to-operate aircraft out to perform a welfare check, Marsh simply did not respond.
Troopers FY2019 budget noted that “these helicopters are extremely complex. Due to the significant workload associated with maintaining other aircraft in the department’s fleet, third party maintenance is required in order to maximize the efficiency of Alaska Wildlife Trooper maintenance personnel. It continues to be challenging to identify a financially viable third party vendor that can perform all facets of maintenance on the department’s A-Star helicopters.”
The state does not break out the operating costs of the A-Star 350-B3s, but lower 48 operating costs are in the range of $750 per hour.
Long-supported by taxes on the oil industry, Alaska is facing a fiscal crisis due to falling oil prices and oil production. State agencies are being forced to justify their expenditures. Expensive operations face especially difficult questions.
Troopers stress the importance of their A-Star helicopters for saving lives, though the aircraft operate mostly in the Anchorage and Fairbanks areas while most search and rescue (SAR) operations happen in rural Alaska where volunteers do most of the work.
Recognizing the value of non-government entities in SAR, Rep. Matt Clayman, D-Anchorage, last year tried to transfer $250,000 from the budget of the troopers to the Civil Air Patrol (CAP) to “maximize the Department’s utilization of the Civil Air Patrol’s capabilities in partnership with the Department’s mission.”
Formed in the 1940s as a World War II to aid the War Department in patrolling the U.S. coast, the CAP was made the U.S. Air Force Auxiliary in 1948. It has a long and storied history in Alaska where it was for decades a key player in search and rescue operations.
“We perform over 95 percent of all aircraft search and rescue missions for the Air Force, and have saved thousands of lives by providing well-trained, qualified air crews,” says the website of the Alaska Wing of the CAP.
“Chartered by Congress, we work closely with federal, state and local governments, providing a wide range of much-needed services, and all of this without fanfare or financial reward.”
But the CAP has been called into service less and less in the Anchorage area over the years as troopers have expanded the reach of operations now threatened by state budget cuts.
The Steele rescue as portrayed by the agency made it look good, maybe even heroic. Whether that was by intent or accident is impossible for anyone outside the agency to know since the decisions were made inside the agency.
Asked his opinion on the possibility this “rescue” was over-inflated for effect, Steele said he didn’t like the question and then added this:
“I just want to live the Bush life away from people and all of this. After horrifically losing my dog and most of my property on an impoverished salary, I’m not ready to be harassed by leading questions, implicating me in orchestrating a story. Maybe I’m reaching here, but I don’t think I am.
“Honestly, I was hoping the whole thing would be a private affair, as my pilot would see the signals after I hadn’t checked in after three of my communication devices burned up, and I’d be on my way out, a non-story at that point. But it was too cold for him to conduct a private rescue.”
There is no evidence implicating Steele in orchestrating a story. He was a man who made a bad decision. When you live in a flammable structure, you have to be extremely careful about what you burn in your woodstove.
Ideally, someone burning wood in this situation would have an in-line spark arrester in the stovepipe just above the woodstove, but at the minimum, there would be one atop the end of the pipe to block a flaming chunk of cardboard from landing on a flammable roof, which is what Steele thinks burned him out.
Steele made mistakes as people do, and his dog paid a horrible price. But after the fire, he pulled things together well to sit and wait until an air-taxi pilot showed up to fly him back to civilization in a very normal Bush Alaska way.
Instead, troopers showed up, flew him back to Anchorage, and proceeded to make a global affair of what had happened. The lingering question is why?
“SURVIVOR,” the state agency proclaimed.
“Steele’s shoulder-length hair, chestnut brown near the roots fading to golden blond near its frayed tips, hung matted and dreadlocks-like over his neck. His auburn beard flowed untrimmed to his chest. The combination made him seem vaguely reminiscent of actor Tom Hanks’ character in the movie ‘Cast Away,'” troopers reported.
“He wore black, plastic-framed, Woody Allen-style glasses – said he’s nearly blind without them – and an old set of greasy, charcoal-smudged coveralls salvaged from a shed after the fire. His clothes smelled of smoke and his hands were calloused, rough, and ash-stained. Nonetheless, he appeared healthy overall and energetic as he nursed a tall cup of McDonald’s coffee. He seemed happy to talk, and certainly to have survived 22 or 23 days in the wilderness.”
The prose cannot be viewed as anything other than a government agency covering the news in which it is involved, and somehow some pertinent information got left out. There’s a word for that.