Optimism rewarded

6-Day search for musher results in happy ending

Posted: Sunday, February 06, 2000

Editor's note: Clarion reporter McKibben Jackinsky joined the search effort for musher Rod Boyce on Friday. Her first-person account of Boyce's rescue follows.

Friday was a long time coming. Everyone involved in the search for Tustumena 200 musher Rod Boyce, who had been missing since early the previous Sunday, had no idea that by midafternoon our watches would synchronize on an event desperately being sought.

Everyone except Boyce's wife Julie Stricker.

"When I saw the blue sky Friday morning, I said, 'Today's the day.' I never did allow myself to think negatively," Stricker said.

Since Boyce's disappearance sometime after leaving the Caribou Lake checkpoint at 12:03 a.m. Jan. 30, the search for him had involved the Alaska State Troopers, Central Emergency Services, Civil Air Patrol, snowmachine clubs, Tustumena 200 race officials and mushers, and an assortment of businesses and individual volunteers (See related story, this page).

Everyone was doing their part. As a writer, I wanted to see the search area and talk to people that were searching. Like everyone else, I also wanted to help find Boyce.

Around 10:30 a.m. Friday morning, Terry and Margie Smith and I headed east on three snowmachines from a trail beginning at Mile 132 of the Sterling Highway. Terry was in front, I was in the middle, and Margie brought up the rear. They kept in constant radio contact with each other, keeping a sharp eye on the trail and the rookie snowmachiner between them.

They pointed out markers along the trail, stakes with fluorescent orange tips and strips of reflector tape at the top. These marked the Tustumena 200 race trail, on which we were riding. The Smiths said the paint and tape showed up easily in mushers' headlamps. This particular portion of the trail was between the Four Corners checkpoint and Clam Shell Lodge. Boyce had never made it this far.

A couple of hours later, at Four Corners, we listened to 11 searchers discuss the morning's efforts and make plans for the afternoon. Gordon Orth of Central Emergency Services pointed to a map of the Deep Creek drainage area, where he wanted them to focus their efforts.

"Don't look for the obvious find," he said. "Look for bumps in the snow, a sled runner sticking up."

The length of time since Boyce had disappeared was beginning to cause serious concerns. Tracks of a wolf pack found earlier in the week intensified those concerns.

"If there's wolves, they're looking for something," said one of the searchers.

"Yeah, lunch," came the whispered reply.

Shortly after 1:30 p.m., 34 miles into our day, at Harris Corner, just off the end of Caribou Lake, the loud whine of two snowmachines caught our attention. Speeding up to us, they stopped.

"They've found him," one of the drivers shouted. "He's at the lodge. They brought him in about 20 minutes ago."

It was a dream come true. After nearly a week of intense community-wide search efforts, what had been hoped for and focused on had happened.

Meanwhile, back in Soldotna, Stricker had just stepped out of her hotel room.

"I had just walked to the thrift store next door to pass the time," she said. "Mike (Robinson) came running in with his thumbs up and said they'd found him."

By the time she got the news, everyone else seemed to already know.

"Word spread so quickly. Even his family knew," said Stricker.

In California, Boyce's parents, Roy and Julie Boyce received word within minutes after he'd been found.

"When he (Rod) called, I said to him, 'My son, my son, it is so good to hear your voice!'" said Julie Boyce.

After hearing he'd been found, the Smiths and I headed for Caribou Lake Lodge, where a crowd of happy searchers filled the parking lot.

Inside, the atmosphere seemed subdued -- a stark contrast to the buzz of excitement outside.

Boyce sat on a couch, his elbows resting on his knees. He looked weary, his disheveled hair matted against his head. On the floor around him were his boots and other personal items.

He and the troopers talked in hushed tones.

Recognizing me from a discussion prior to the ceremonial start of the T-200 nearly a week earlier, Boyce offered to answer whatever questions I had in the few minutes before a chopper arrived to pick him up. As city editor for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, he knows how writers' minds work. How our curiosity and need to tell a story drives us, even to places as remote as Caribou Lake.

"Where have you been all this time?" I said.

"I've been sitting on a ridge, not knowing where I was," he responded.

After leaving Caribou Lake at 12:03 a.m. on Sunday, he said he headed for the next checkpoint, Lost Creek Lodge, 22 miles away. He didn't know exactly where he got off the trail, adding that it isn't uncommon for trail markers to be disturbed by dogs and sleds.

"When you're in the back of the pack, you know stakes are probably going to be knocked down."

Realizing he was following snowmachine tracks, not dog tracks, he knew something wasn't right.

"That's when I made my biggest mistake," he said. "I should have stopped right then."

Instead he doubled back, trying to find his way.

"I must have covered that stretch four or five times," he said. "It was a fairly open stretch, too. And it was clear with just a light wind blowing. Other people have talked about white-outs, but I didn't get into it."

He ended up following lots of snowmachine tracks, dropping down into a gully that eventually led to a ridge.

"It was probably four hours after I'd left Caribou Lake," he said, "I parked on top of that ridge and just stayed there."

Making camp and staying put is exactly what Stricker told troopers Boyce would do.

"I knew when he realized he was lost, he would stop, make camp and sit out the storm," she said. "It was just a matter of time to find out where he had stopped."

Boyce remembered hearing commercial flights overhead the next day. Aware that his food supplies would only last himself and the dogs a day, he knew a plan was needed.

"I realized I had a big problem because of the minimal food," Boyce remembered. "I had a drop bag with more supplies waiting at Fifth Trail, but that wasn't going to do me any good."

Hauling out his dog food cooker, he made a broth to feed the dogs, while he finished his Reese's pieces.

"I tried not to think about food. But when I did, it was a cheeseburger. It's been a water diet for the dogs and me," he said. "Whenever the cooker was going, it was working. I was melting snow or drying socks.

"I had a lot of water and kept my thermos full."

Boyce said it snowed the first, second and third days.

"The second night it was howling so hard. I was sleeping in the bag on my sled, and when I looked out in the morning, there were drifts all around the sled. Some of the dogs were even covered up.

"I heard lots of snowmachine activity, but I couldn't see them," he said, referencing the way sound bounces off the hills, making it difficult to pinpoint the source. "I was not about to head for something I couldn't see.

"On Wednesday I wrote 'help' in the snow with sticks. And I walked 2 hours straight ahead and back, looking for a trail," said Boyce. "The next day I stamped 'help' in the snow and started lining it with sticks. Then I walked 2 hours to the right."

Troopers said Boyce's camp was within the search grid, but the weather kept searchers from locating him. The infrared heat sensor that troopers brought in missed him because the musher only started small, intermittent fires in his dog food cooker.

"That infrared has to be right on the target or it's going to miss it," Sgt. Jim Hibpshman said.

Boyce remembers hearing helicopters and waving at them, but they weren't close enough to see him.

"On Friday I finished lining 'help' with sticks and walked 2 hours to the left. That's when I found the snowmachine trail.

"I figured there was enough activity that someone would find me," he said.

While Boyce waited for the helicopter, snowmachiners continued to come over to shake his hand. He thanked each one. One man, in particular, caught Boyce's attention.

"I'm Ron Poston, the one who found you. I just want you to know how good it is to see you."

Boyce looked up and grabbed Poston's extended hand.

Musher Dean Osmar introduced himself to Boyce, saying he had food for Boyce's dogs, but trooper John Brown from Homer said the team was being taken care of and encouraged Boyce not to worry.

After nearly five days, they had chewed through their harnesses and were starting to gnaw on the sled. But the reassurance they would be taken care of was welcomed by the musher.

"There wasn't a heartbeat of time when I worried about getting the dogs down," Boyce said. "I was told they would be taken care of. It was a great feeling to have people help out that way."

Sounds of the approaching helicopter caught everyone's attention and trooper Brown helped Boyce gather his things. Before stepping out the door, Boyce looked around the lodge.

"Is there anyone in here I haven't thanked?" he asked. Everyone smiled back, his survival clearly thanks enough.

Walking through the parking area, people continued to stop Boyce, shaking his hand, expressing their relief that he had been found. He continued to offer his gratitude.

In minutes, the chopper lifted off the ground and carried Boyce from Caribou Lake back to friends and family that never wavered in their belief that he was OK.

Boyce had maintained that same optimism.

"Sunday and Monday nights I thought, 'What if," but it was silly to think that because there was still so much I could do to help myself and the people looking for me," said Boyce. "And caring for the dogs, I was too busy to worry."

Back inside the lodge, Ron Poston sipped a drink.

"I wanted to join the search on Monday, but I couldn't make it up here until today," said the soft-spoken member of the Homer snowmachine club, Snomads. "I found Rod about six miles from the lodge.

"The guy was standing on the side of the trail and I didn't have the foggiest idea it was him," said Poston. "I pulled up and he said, 'I'm the musher that's lost.'

"I said, 'You've got to be kidding.'

"I gave him a big hug and told him how happy I was to see he was well and that everyone was looking for him," Poston continued.

"Chuck Hagen radioed the lodge to tell them we'd found Boyce," said Poston, referring to another snowmachiner in the area. Hagen and his wife Tammy own Caribou Lake Lodge.

"I figured it was better to get him to a place he could get food," recalled Poston, who had given Boyce a Power Bar.

"It just doesn't get any better than this," he said. "When you find someone alive you never expected to see -- it just doesn't get any better than this."

As I zipped up my jacket and headed for the door, Poston had one more comment that voiced the worry many people had begun to feel, even though they continued to search.

"But I'll tell you something. I wouldn't have given you a plug nickel for his life."

Tammy Hagen said she had remained optimistic.

"If you aren't, then people aren't trying their hardest. You know the elements, you know what can happen," she said. "But you've still got to expect the best."

That was the truest statement of the day. It was true for Poston. It was true for Boyce. And it was true for everyone who had participated in the search.

Friday had been a long time coming. But it had finally arrived.

Peninsula Clarion reporter Jon Holland contributed to this story.

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