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."

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

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