Ruth Johns Of Copper Center Alaska: Mother, Philosopher, Ahtna Historian

The Joyous Day-to-Day Life Of Ruth Johns & Her Family, As They Traveled The Woods Of Alaska In A Simpler, Harsher Time

  Northcountry Communications. All Rights Reserved.  

Ruth Johns, Copper River Country Journal 1988 Woman Of The Year

Life for the Ahtna Natives of the Copper Valley of Alaska was a difficult one. As the years passed, and westerners arrived, the Ahtna people continued gathering food in the wilderness; but they also started coming to the lodges to trade. Ruth Johns, of Copper Center, looked back at her changing life in 1988. In her story, told from afar, Ruth's world of Copper Valley hardships were softened by the perspective of a child. A child with parents who protected her from worries.As a child growing up in the Depression in wilderness Alaska, life for Ruth Johns was a happy blend of hard work and wonder.
With her brothers and sisters, Ruth hauled the entire year's supply of firewood by dogsled in the winter time. She lugged water from the river. She helped her family in their harsh and unyielding world. And she loved every minute of it.

"We had everything the old fashioned way," she recalled. "When I was a young girl, people used to come down at Christmas time, and bring their furs down to the lodge. They used to sell their fur and get their food for the months ahead. Everybody had their own trail. I remember Tazlina Joe and their family, they used to go out to Tazlina Lake -- that was their area -- trapping."

Ruth's parents -- Estaco and Jessie Ewan -- took their children with them across the Copper River wilderness to distant winter homes. In the winter of 1926-27, the family stayed in the wooded timberline near Mt. Drum. Another year, they stayed with Jim McKinley and his family at Klutina Lake. 
Her parents were the biggest influence in her life. "I had really good parents. What I am now is because of my parents."

Ruth John's parents taught by example. And they were satisfied with their handiwork. "They really didn't TELL me anything until Dad was on his deathbed. I was 18 years old. He looked at us. He said, 'I'm not worried about you, leaving you, because I know you're going to take care of yourselves.' That really stayed with me, my father, thinking, 'Okay, you can do it.' We looked at him in tears, and he said, "'Don't cry. I know you'll do well.' Maybe that's part of the  thinking. Maybe that's what really helped."

Traditional life was a hard life, but a good one.

"Dad and them were busy all day. I didn't see anybody get depressed. There was no time. It was time of survival! People were doing something!

What was Copper River life like in this days that now seem so long ago? "What I enjoyed with my parents was it seems like it was an adventure, each day, when we were out there together."

One especially exciting fall was the season that the Ewans and Jim McKinley's family walked to their winter home at Klutina, accompanied by their pack dogs.
Lowbush (lingonberry) cranberries
The families traveled about 8 miles a day. They were on the way to their second camp when they saw moose tracks. Ruth's mother was making tea from a stream. The fathers told their children to be quiet. And then they disappeared with their guns.

These were thrilling memories for Ruth. "Everything we were doing was something we enjoyed...." A little while later there were two... three shots.

The men came back, and took their families to a lake where there were two dead moose in the water. Somehow, the men put a raft together, and hauled the moose in, while the children tore around, gathering wood for a fire.  "We were happy, running around, getting wood -- deadfalls."

Then, even the children helped beach the moose. "We had a part in it. They threw a rope, and we pulled that moose to the shore!'

The memories of wilderness life as a child were glorious for Ruth Johns. "Everything we did was fun to me. Just nice and peaceful. We spent the next few days, picking berries. We picked and picked, and my mother put it in a 50 lb. sack. Lots of big berries." Then Estaco Ewan and Jim McKinley made a big cache from round green logs, and the families cached their cranberries and dried moose meat for the winter.

But life then -- as now -- was far from perfect. A wolverine tore into the cache and destroyed and meat and berries. "My sister and I felt really bad about 'our' berries." 

The Depression Years were difficult. Yet, it wasn't until World War II that the worst changes came. And those changes were brought about by alcohol. The war sent young men into the army and brought good paying jobs. But it also brought whiskey -- and the final blow to traditional life....

Years ago, a lodge owner named Mrs. Barnes lived nearby. Ruth always remembered her kindness and thoughtfulness. Mrs. Barnes was a true Copper  River person, Ruth Johns remembered,  "She was like a grandma. A mother to the people."

Kind of like -- well -- Ruth Johns herself. 

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Wife Hurtles Down Into Alaskan Canyon To Rescue Her Freezing Husband

How Darlene Stemp's Grandmother Rescued Her Husband In The Middle Of Winter By Pulling Him Out Of Caribou Creek Canyon On The Glenn Highway

  Northcountry Communications. All Rights Reserved. 

Caribou Creek, at roughly Mile 107 of the Glenn Highway, northeast of Anchorage, is not really a "creek." It's a deep and deadly canyon. There's a switchback in the road at Caribou Creek -- where the Talkeetna Mountains and the Chugach Mountains meet in a rumpled mass, like an unmade quilt. Caribou Creek has caused many problems for drivers over the years. This is a family story about Caribou Creek, and the precarious drive to Anchorage, as told by Darlene Stemp, in the summer of 2015. It involves her Grandfather, Pop Miller -- and her loving and courageous grandmother, Augusta Marie Kameroff Miller, who saved his life. This story exemplifies the longstanding tradition of Alaskan storytelling. Even though Darlene was not there, she was told, learned and has remembered tiny details of the tale --and can still recite them, as if she was watching a film of the incident.

"Before 1952 -- Dr. Schneider was here (at Faith Hospital, which later became Cross Road Medical Center.) My grandfather, Edgar 'Pop' Miller went off Caribou Canyon on the Glennallen side. And then, my grandma told my Dad, 'He's late. She should be back by now.'

View From The Glenn Highway in Alaska.
"My Dad took her out looking. It was in the winter time. Every time they saw a place where a car had gone off the road, she would jump out of the car, get her flashlight and look. And then they came to Caribou Canyon. You couldn't miss it. They saw where a car really went off the cliff.

"She told my Dad, 'This is it. This is where they went off.' He said, 'You don't know that.'

"And she said, 'No, I know. I'm going to go down there.' My Dad couldn't prevent her from going there. She took her flashlight and went down the side of the cliff. And, found the car. Found my grandfather. He was still alive.

"She climbed back up the hill - I don't know how old they were. She told my Dad  she found him. He went back to wherever he had to go back to, for a wrecker. She went back down there to stay with him. And then, they came with a wrecker and pulled them out. To this day you can see where the trees haven't grown back. You can tell where he went off. It's where they put in that overlook. Just past that. When you get to the other side you can look back and see. There's a line back there, where are trees and nothing growing in it.

"So he had a broken wrist, frostbite on his hands, and they took him into the Palmer Hospital. Later, after he was sent back to Glennallen, he told my grandmother he heard the doctor say, "He's never going to make it. He's been out too long in the cold. He's pretty old and pretty fragile.' They didn't set his left wrist. And they didn't do anything to take care of the frostbite. They just thought they'd send him back to Glennallen and he would die.

"The wrist he could live with. He learned to live with the wrist, you know when you put your  hand back, you bend your wrist -- that was fractured. He had a great big bump there. He couldn't put his hand back. His hand went down from his arm. There was a great big bump there. Lower, was his wrist. There was nothing they could do about it.

"My grandfather had frostbite on his hands. My Dad said, 'You have to go to Dr. Schneider and get that fixed.' He said, 'Nah.' Finally, one day my Dad drove him up to Faith Hospital. That was when they had a very small one-room clinic. Dr. Schneider took one look, and said, 'Oh we have to amputate and then we have to skin-graft.'
"Dr. Schneider told my Dad, 'Can you stay here with him?' Dad said, 'Sure.' Dr. Schnieder said, 'Well you have to be my nurse.' So, they had supplies on a shelf, packaging and all that. They had it sitting on a shelf there. Dr. Schneider had a very small desk in his office. They went and got a sheet of plywood from somewhere and laid it across the desk and propped it up with I don't know what. And then went out and got a 2x4, and they had Grandpa lay down on the table. And they took a 2x4 and put it underneath his left arm, and roped him up to the 2x4, all the way to the palm. Including the palm of the hand.

Cross Road Medical Center (Formerly "Faith Hosptal")

"So then they got already. And he said, 'When we graft him, you have to hand me what I need.' So he set the utensils -- or whatever he called them, and the bandages and whatever he had to have all in a row. And he would tell my Dad, 'Next.' My Dad would pick up whatever the  next instrument was, and unwrap it, and hand it to Dr. Schneider. So then, they cut off the fingers that were frostbit. They were black nubs. So then, Dr. Schneider -- and this is what he told me years later -- they had to graft his left thigh, underneath the armpit. Dr. Schneider said, 'I was in the army you know, and I worked in a field hospital before I came here. And that is why I knew what to do.'

"They grafted. They scraped the skin off his thigh, and under his armpit, so they could cover the nubs of his finger, after they amputated the black part. Dr. Schneider said, 'I didn't know If it would work or not. Because I had done it only once at this military camp.'

"It grew. It covered up the bone and the rest of it. And it took… Some of his fingers -- some were cut off at the fingernail. Some had to go to the next joint. Some fingers -- it was cut like an inch. The next finger, maybe 3 inches. That was on his whole left hand.

"So then they rigged up a door handle for the steering wheel of his car. Like one of those round things, where you could steer your car. And he was able to drive."

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A Brief History Of Why The Glenn Highway Is The Way It Is Today

How Alaska's Glenn Highway Was Built

Interview With Harry Heintz Of Slana, Alaska 

Northcountry Communications. All Rights Reserved. 

Alaska historic roadhouses: Slana Roadhouse.
The former Slana Roadhouse, around 2013.
Harry Heintz, who came to the Copper Valley from Seattle in 1935 to help his uncle run a non-productive mining camp at "Grubstake" on Ahtel Creek, wound up in the northern part of the region at the community of Slana. The Slana Roadhouse -- a trading post, post office, hotel and eating place -- was empty by 1938, and Harry Heintz leased the roadhouse for $30 a month, and $3 a month for the single-line phone that connected the roadhouse to Copper Center. Harry, a mustachioed, railroad cap-wearing big German-American, ran the roadhouse at Slana for 3 winters. Then, in the late 1930's, the Alaska Road Commission began planning a road to connect the Copper River Valley to the Matanuska Valley.

Scenic view on Glenn Highway
View Of King Mountain, from the Glenn Highway.
Hired by the Road Commission, Harry went down to Santa Claus Lodge, which at that time (before it was destroyed by an ice jam) stood on the banks of the Gulkana River. He got 4 pack horses and some supplies from the town of Chitina, which was the main supply town at the time, due to its rail links to the coastal community of Cordova. With a Juneau engineer and a Valdez man, Harry started cross-country toward Palmer, negotiating the tangle of black spruce, alder, bogs and willow that covers the Copper Valley.

After two weeks of bushwhacking across trackless terrain, Harry Heintz returned to Gulkana with the horses. The animals were defeated by the swamps, where they got stuck up to their necks. The two other explorers had continued on foot. Trail-blazing on their own for two months, they finally reached Sutton.

In the fall of 1940, Harry tried again. This time he brought in bigger guns. Four pack horses hadn't been enough.

This time, Harry Heintz charged toward the Matanuska Valley -- across the scrub, and the swamps, and the hills and mountains with a DC-7 Cat and two bobsleds -- loaded with gear, fuel and tents. A total of five men set out towards Palmer in October. They traveled cross-country for six weeks, some of them almost dying from drinking bad water along the way. Finally, they reached the steep and treacherous banks of Caribou Creek.  Today, Caribou Creek is a deadly switchback. Thoroughly intimidated by its dangerous ravine, Harry and his crew again turned back.

It didn't look all that hopeful. O.A. Nelson, the defacto "mayor" of Chitina -- a mayorless town then and now -- put up a playful sign at the point where the Richardson Highway met the new "road" to the Matanuska Valley, and the coast. The sign said, "Road to Chickaloon. Hopefully."

By 1941, the first 2 1/2 miles of the new road was finally put in, starting at the highway camp of Moose Creek -- where the Glennallen Library is now.
Cabin on the banks of Moose Creek, with logs hewed by Harry Heintz. 
This cabin served as Road Commission Headquarters when it was built.

The Moose Creek highway camp needed a name. And Harry offered one.

"The superintendent one day, he says to me -- I'm working 28 hours out of the 24 -- he says, 'Harry, this is Moose Creek. And it's going to be quite a settlement some day'," Harry recalled 50 years later. "This is Mr. Shepherd -- He says, 'We got to have a name for this area -- this Moose Creek area.'

"I said, 'Well, Mr. Shepherd, in the early days when the army was surveying up the Copper River Country to Fairbanks, two of the head engineers of that party -- one was a Major Glenn and the other was a Lieutenant Allen. 

"So I says, 'Mr. Shepherd, my uncle was here in the early days. I used to hear him talk about Glenn and Allen.' So I says, 'Mr. Shepherd, this is a new settlement going in here. How about naming it Glennallen, in honor of those two men?" So he says, "I'll write to Washington DC to get that name."  And about a month and a half later, he flagged me down. He says, 'Harry, our new settlement here will be Glennallen'."

Glennallen Alaska near Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.
Modern-Day Glennallen, with a view of Mt. Drum.
In 1941 and 1942, following the tortuous cat trail that Harry had worked on, a civilian crew, living out of tent camps, followed Harry Heintz's route and laid down what is known in Alaska as a "Pioneer Road" -- the trail that later became the Glenn Highway. A pioneer road uses everything that was available -- including corduroy (logs placed side-by-side), gravel and sand. When the crew came to daunting Caribou Creek, and to other major gulches, including Jackass Curve, they crossed them by building bridges made out of logs. 

The construction of what was to be known as the Glenn Highway was considered a military secret, and was completed in two years. "Most people can't comprehend what we did do. It was no contractors. Just will power," said Harry. The Copper River way.

Meanwhile, using Slana as a jumping off point, the Army Corps of Engineers punched through another pioneer road -- to the Canada border. By the winter of 1942, the Alaskan stretch of the Alcan Highway was completed, and goods could be freighted across Canada to Alaska. 

© Copper River Country Journal, October 3, 1991 to 2016, Linda Weld, Editor
All rights reserved, including photographs and maps. 

SEPTEMBER 20, 2016:
The article on Harry Heintz was sent to me by my brother who picked it up in Delta Junction.
I met Harry and Gladys 39 years ago at their cabin at 10 mile Nabesna Road. I arrived there to meet up with a buddy ( Chuck Leake of Fairbanks )  from Arizona who had settled in at Harry's with his trailer to winter there. I arrived with empty pockets and a set of carpenter tools. Harry and Gladys were very glad to see me and I was glad to meet them;  it was starting to get cold and the back of my truck was losing its appeal. They were hoping to get a small addition done before winter set in. Now Harry wasn't one to just give his things away but he graciously afforded me a pair of felt packs taken from a case of them (for $12) , and allowed me to stay in an old cabin which had a tomato can wood stove in it. He handed me an old bow saw and said " there's plenty of wood out there" ,  and you can get your water down at Rufus Creek.  My friend moved over to stay with Bill Lmb and do some trapping and then back to Arizona a few weeks later. I was alone with Harry and Gladys until I moved on to Soldotna a couple months later. I took all my meals in Gladys' kitchen and got to know Harry as we worked together everyday. I'll never forget them and the interesting people of Nabesna Road, as well as some of the old timers I got to know thru Harry. I went back to visit many times thru the years and it was always clear to me  that I was pretty lucky for my path to cross that of Harry and Gladys .
Rob Landis

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Kids Who Rescue: Copper Valley Children Who Stepped Up To Help Their Neighbors

The Copper River Chronicles: Alaska Wilderness Rescue

Even Copper River Kids Felt Responsible For Rescuing Others

  Northcountry Communications. All Rights Reserved.

Historically, rivers and lakes are extremely dangerous in the Copper River Valley. Grown men have died crossing creeks. Part of the problem is the extremely cold water, which knocks the breath out of you and causes you to inhale reflexively -- pulling the water into your lungs. During the great Alaska Gold Rush, creeks were a hazard, both winter and summer. One of the following stories involves dealing with water. 

Creeks are dangerous. This is Brushkana Creek, on the Denali Highway. (Photo, BLM)

Four Year Old Rescued By Older Child Who Waded Into Water 

In 1990,  a nine and a half year old boy, T.J. Huddleston, saved the life of 4-year old Caleb Mailly after Caleb wandered over to watch some older children, and fell into Tolsona Creek at a picnic.
The incident occurred at a picnic that Mendeltna Chapel congregation members held at Tolsona Creek. T.J., who learned to swim in Valdez, told the Journal he waded into the water and grabbed Caleb. "He fell in pretty deep," said T.J. "He was crying when he got out."

Young Boys Scrambled To Help Put Out A Lawnmower Fire

By 1995, Copper Valley schoolchildren were being trained in genuine rescue techniques in the Copper River Native Association's Summer Safety Program, taught with Rocky Ansell, who was the local Fire Chief. In a place like the Copper Valley, where the population is small but the possible dangers are big, everybody has to be able to literally step up to the plate and help others -- no matter how young they are.

Chris Wright of Glennallen noted one day how the training paid off, in his own neighborhood.

"About 4 hours ago, Barry Gross and I were sitting on his front porch when Kathy Adler yelled for assistance -- her lawnmower was on fire. The fire had burned into the gas line and the machine was engulfed  amidst the trees in the front of her property. Barry and I ran over to pull it out of the woods, but had no way to put the fire out before an explosion. The real heroes were Christopher Leeper and B.J. Delaney -- maybe ages 9 and 8. They, unrequested, ran to the Leeper house, and returned with a fire extinguisher, which Barry used to put out the fire."

The boys credited their quick thinking to a class they had just attended … only the day before, at the Summer Swim Program, where they learned fire safety responsiveness. But the real reason they could do what they did is they were Copper River kids. They realized, in spite of their young ages, that they were expected to behave responsibly and to act when action was needed. If they didn't help, then who would?

© 2015, Copper River Country Journal,  Linda Weld, Editor
All rights reserved, including photographs and maps.



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Don Deering of Eureka: Daring Bush Pilot, And Guardian Of The Glaciers

Don Deering, Of Eureka Summit On The Glenn Highway of Alaska, Saved Many An Unwary Plane Pilot From Catastrophe

  Northcountry Communications. All Rights Reserved.  


Don Deering, Guardian of the Copper Valley's Glaciers.
(Photo, Eureka Lodge hallway)

The Unlikely Guardian Of Alaska's Fiercest, Biggest, Baddest & Most Crashed-Upon Glaciers

High on the mounded, nearly-treeless Alaska mountain pass that is Eureka Summit lived Don Deering. It was a lonely, open place, flanked from behind by the Talkeetna Mountains, and in front by the huge, high mountains of the Chugach Range.

Don's name was painted in big, bold letters on a roadside rural mailbox, which had been pounded into the tundra next to the Glenn Highway near Eureka Lodge.

Don was round-faced and pleasant looking. In every way, he looked  like a member of the neighborhood small town Minnesota Friday night bowling league. Or your favorite uncle. Like lots of guys do, Don liked to hang out at the nearby Eureka Lodge, drinking coffee, to while away the hours, bantering with staff, and surveying the dramatic vista of Alaska wilderness that sprawled out in front of Eureka Lodge's large windows. From a booth in the lodge cafe, you could look out at miles of woods and valleys below.
"New" Eureka Lodge.

Beneath his mild exterior, Don Deering was a skilled bush pilot.

And, even though he lived at Eureka Summit, Don was a Copper Valley person. 

(Though only local people consider Eureka  Summit to be part of the Copper Valley.  The distant Matanuska-Susitna Borough headquarters in Palmer, 85 miles away, had legally appropriated all the land in that area, including the top of the summit.)

But you also knew Don Deering was a Copper Valley guy because he had adopted the Copper Valley attitude toward life. He was a firm believer in taking selfless responsibility for others.
Glacier in the Wrangell Mountains

The concept of being your brother's keeper had, in those days, spread like a virus throughout the huge Copper Valley area. Rescuing others, in this cold and precarious homeland, was considered normal and expected behavior for anybody who was capable of stepping forward. 

In 1989, local pilots and others who lived in the Copper Valley, met at the little Gulkana Airport, just north of Glennallen, on a sunny Saturday in September. The purpose of their meeting was to organize a Gulkana wing of the Civil Air Patrol. Civil Air Patrol members are volunteers. They provide disaster relief, look for downed planes, and develop education progams for young people who want to get involved in the Aerospace Program. 

Civil Air Patrol members also receive training on how to maintain flight books, search systematically, and provide efficient help in time of need. Volunteers fly on regular training weekends, following grids, and observing quadrants from maps. 

But that first fall weekend in 1989, the fledgling Copper Valley group had to jump right in, and get their training on the job, so to speak.  They immediately began a search for an airplane carrying 4 men that had disappeared in mid-August, on an aborted flight to a mine near Eureka. The leads were slim. It was believed that the lost plane may have detoured as far north as Paxson. Or,  maybe not. 

Typically, and tragically, the pilot had made a big mistake. He hadn't told anyone where he was going.

Now a month and a half later, Copper River people refused to give up searching for that lost plane. Though it was late September, local pilots, including the brand new Civil Air Patrol members, were still out there: Roy Tansy, an Ahtna leader from Cantwell; Chuck McMahan, a game guide from Gakona; Bob Carnahan, Gakona's elementary school principal; Ross Van Camp, the doctor at Cross Road Medical Center; Bob Gerlach, Scott Strauss...

There was a $25,000 reward for anyone finding the plane that fall. But that's not what motivated the search, explained Bob Carnahan. He pointed out that local pilots wouldn't want people to give up on them if they went down.

Don Deering was somebody whose skill and personality made him   a key player in the local Civil Air Patrol;  somebody who had a personal, unspoken goal of saving others. With no particular glory ever given to him, beyond the recognition of his immediate neighbors, and the guys he drank coffee with, Don Deering had, during his life in Alaska, rescued countless hapless pilots from disastrous crashes. 

In so many ways, Don Deering was the Guardian of the Glaciers.

From high on his 3,322 foot high perch on Eureka Summit, surrounded by thin and patchy groves of dwarf black spruce, he could look down and see the vestiges of the great Ice Age across the broad, wild, rolling valley. He could see the huge glaciers of the Chugach Mountains, churning through their glacial valleys and spilling ice and glacial rivers into the lowlands.

A Land Surrounded By Glaciers
The entire Copper River Valley is surrounded by glaciers on all sides. Muscular, sinewy, vein-like glaciers that (when you soar over them, virtually, on Google Earth) look like an athlete's bulging blood vessels flowing out of the mountains, and tapering off into mighty, deadly rivers -- the unpredictable capillaries of the moving, beating heart of Alaska.

Plenty of glaciers pour out of the mountain ranges that surround the Copper Valley.

To the north, far from Eureka Summit, the Alaska Range arcs above the valley. Its big glaciers include: The East Fork Glacier, the West Fork Glacier, the Maclaren Glacier, and the Susitna Glacier. Off to the east is the Gulkana Glacier, which feeds the Gulkana River.

Farther east, smothering the hills and valleys of the mighty Wrangell Mountains with ice, are the many glaciers and icefields of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. This park contains 5,000 square miles of ice.  Some of the park's glaciers are serious reminders of the great, mile-thick ice sheets that once stretched all the way from the Copper Valley, down across all of Canada, and draping into the upper midwest, over 10,000 years ago.

The Wrangell's glaciers aren't to be trifled with. Even today. They're record-breakers. The Bagley Icefield, of the Wrangells, made up of many individual glaciers, is almost 130 miles long and 3,000 feet thick. The 75-mile long Nabesna Glacier is the world's longest interior valley glacier. The Malaspina Glacier is North America's largest piedmont glacier. And the Hubbard Glacier, also 75 miles long, is the North America's largest tidewater glacier.

To the south of Eureka Summit, beside the Glenn Highway, is the Matanuska Glacier of the Chugach Mountains -- the largest glacier you can get to by car in the United States. This glacier is 27 miles long and 4 miles wide.

"Old" Eureka Lodge.

And, directly across from Eureka Summit, east of the Matanuska Glacier, within Don Deering's immediate protective area, there are three big glaciers, all in a row, clawing their way out of the Chugach Range. The Nelchina Glacier flows into the Nelchina River. The Tazlina Glacier flows into Tazlina Lake. And next to that, south of Copper Center, the mighty Klutina Glacier flows into Klutina Lake, and on into the Klutina River. (This last, crevasse-filled glacier was one that was climbed by unlucky gold miners, entering the Copper Valley from Valdez, during the 1898 Gold Rush.)

Yes, there are many, many major glaciers ringing the Copper River Valley. And, yes, all of them are very large, and very far from help.

Alaska has a surfeit of people who own small airplanes. Its urban areas are wealthy, and men with money enjoy spending their hard-fought funds on planes. There are 8,000 "pilots" in Alaska. Out of a population of 800,000 residents. Compared to the rest of the U.S., the number of small planes is phenomenal: there are 16 times more planes per person, and 6 times more pilots. Not surprisingly the number of crashes in Alaska is high, too. Between 2004 and 2008, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association's Air Safety Foundation said that there were 5.85 accidents per 100,000 flight hours in small planes, nationally. In Alaska, it was almost 3 times that much: 13.59 accidents per 100,000 flight hours. This group has also pointed out that although Alaska has 2% of the nation's population, it accounts for 6% of the nation's small plane crashes.

The people who own and operate small planes in Alaska are not necessarily "pilots" in the sense that Don Deering was a pilot. They are people with planes. And, they might, or might not, have the flying hours, equipment maintenance skills, training, and abilities of a real pilot.

In Alaska, a weekend pilot might go out with some friends and family to check out the sights, including one or more glaciers. A surprising number end up crashing, and some are lost forever -- because they failed to file a flight plan; which is another name for a detailed description of where the plane intended to go, so  it could be found.

Hunting season is a common time for planes to crash. Anchorage's Merrill Field -- where small planes leave the city for the wilderness -- is abuzz every August, as a little fleet of Cessnas and Piper Cubs climbs into the sky and rattles off over the trackless, roadless Alaska wilderness, in all directions, looking for excitement, like a hive of bees looking for flowers.

The enormous distances, by air, in the Copper Valley make it difficult to find lost people, lost boats... and lost planes.  For example, in August, 1995, there were several Gulkana Civil Air Patrol callouts -- to three possible glaciers: Tazlina Glacier, Nelchina Glacier and Klutina Glacier. 

As if one glacier was just like another. Again, they're not.

The Gulkana Civil Air Patrol was now 6 years old. Lee Adler, the Squadron Commander of the Gulkana Civil Air Patrol talked to the Copper River Country Journal that August about their work:

"Last Friday, Don Deering had a call from the Troopers. There had been a plane accident on Tyone Creek. Two fellows were on a bush strip, a real short strip. They wrecked the plane. Flipped it. One of them had a cellular phone, so they got Don to fly out there. He picked them up. They weren't injured, luckily. They went back with a new propeller and struts the next day; put the plane back together, and on take-off they wrecked it again. The same two guys. This time, Don flew them out. He said, That was it. They now are going to have to get the plane hauled out as a wreck.

"The next story: On Sunday, I got a call from Rescue Coordination Center. I took Dave Bruno. They said there was a plane in distress on either the Tazlina Glacier or the Nelchina Glacier. They didn't know for sure. After about an hour, we searched the entire Tazlina area and went over to the Nelchina. When we got to the Nelchina Glacier, we found a Super Cub with some broken landing gear. He had landed on a crack in the ice. The pilots' name is Dan Montgomery. We couldn't land. We had a Cessna.  We fixed the location. We called the Rescue Coordination Center. At 8 o'clock that night, Don Deering rescued this guy. So he was the hero. Three times.

"The very next day, we got a call from Rescue Coordination Center. They said, 'There's another Super Cub missing. It was somewhere in the Tazlina Glacier or Klutina Glacier area. The pilot's name is Rick Crawford. We have searched four days now. There's been myself, and Brad Gavitt, Gladys Higginbotham, Paul Blair, Lori Routt, Dave Bruno, Don Deering...and after four days we have found nothing. The search is still going on, and now they're thinking, he's somewhere else. So, that man is missing. Now they think he's up at Mt. Susitna..."

The problem of finding downed pilots was compounded by a number of factors. The search teams were small, and volunteer-based. The areas involved were large. And nobody knew where anybody was headed because there were usually no flight plans.

The Tazlina Glacier, the Nelchina Glacier, the Klutina Glacier. They are not the same glacier.

After all these incidents in 1995, involving Don Deering, there were more, when hunting season rolled around again. 

Exactly a year later, in September, 1996, Lee Adler, Squadron Commander of the local Civil Air Patrol, shaking his head in disbelief at Don's ability to pluck incoming adventurers from near certain death, called in another report to the Copper River Country Journal, again about Don Deering. 

"We had a short mission yesterday," said Lee Adler. " It was an airboat on the Chitina River, He was somewhere between the Kennicott River and Chitina. We were sent out to search for him. We found him. He was already headed back under his own power and we just went over to Chitina and landed at Chitina Airport and found that he had returned back. We didn't do much.

"Two weeks ago, Don Deering at Eureka had two finds and saves, -- in two days. One was a sheep hunter who had fallen and injured himself, and was eventually picked up by the air National Guard Helicopter.  The very next day, there was another hunter that had some kind of health problem. He had had hip replacements, and I guess his hips froze up, and he had to be helicoptered out to safety. 

"Don's had a very active summer. Don's been with the Civil Air Patrol about 34 years. He's had about a hundred finds and saves. Don started his search and rescue work during the Korean War; he was rescuing downed airmen who were shot down over Korea. He's been doing it ever since. 

"He's about 74-75 years old now, and flies out of Eureka, and has over 30,000 hours of flying logged so far in his life. Unofficially, we think he has the most finds and saves of any Civil Air Patrol member in the history of the CAP. 

"There's nobody else that can come close in the Lower 48 because they don't have the opportunity."

Then, remembering he was talking to local people through the little newspaper, Lee Adler took a moment to caution his friends and neighbors who might be pilots:  "Always have a flight plan when you fly. Try to stay within the capabilities of your body and equipment. Let somebody know where you're going. Be properly equipped.'' It was obvious. But you can never say it too often.

Don Deering was never formally honored for his achievements. The FAA's job is not to talk about success, but failure. And, when you look up Don Deering on the internet, he is listed in a single FAA incident report: for banging up his Piper PA-18 on the Eureka airstrip in an incident that happened at 1 pm on July 6, 1991, when his engine stalled on liftoff, and the plane dropped and rolled 30 feet before the left wing struck an empty cabin at the end of the runway.

That's it.The official summation of a Copper River hero's life, on the internet. Until now.

© 2015, Copper River Country Journal,  Linda Weld, Editor All rights reserved, including photographs and maps. 

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