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

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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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