Flying ranger keeps tabs on nation's largest state park

Posted: Friday, July 22, 2005

WOOD-TIKCHIK STATE PARK — Backcountry outlaws beware.

The Wood-Tikchik State Park just got a plane — a Piper Super Cub seized from a village bootlegger — and it's piloted by a tough-as-nails ranger who doesn't take kindly to people trashing his backyard.

Friendly as can be when he's chatting up lawful outdoorsmen, or waxing proud about his three kids, former Dillingham cop Johnny Evans bristles like a cornered wolverine when the conversation turns to perpetrators in the park.

''I consider it a personal attack when someone messes up this park,'' Evans said, with typical staccato delivery. ''This is the crown jewel of the state of Alaska.''

A narcotics investigator for the troopers before moving to Dillingham 16 years ago, Evans is part detective, part neighborhood cop. Most of all, he's passionate about protecting the park for future generations.

Once, after learning that someone had baited bear with a bull moose they'd shot, Evans flew to the scene with a metal detector. He's still got the bullet, and he's waiting for funds to get it analyzed.

''I know who did it,'' he snarled.

The only flying ranger in the state, the 52-year-old Evans knows the park north of Dillingham like the back of his hand. It's a good thing, too. With 1.6 million acres of rugged wilderness, it's the largest state park in the nation. And with just one other ranger to help, patrolling it is a monumental task.

That's where the Super Cub comes in. Confiscated by the Alaska State Troopers after a drug bust, the rusty two-seater sat idle until Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Irwin convinced the Department of Public Safety to donate it.

DNR spokesman Dan Saddler said $15,000 made it airworthy. The state troopers helped with repairs, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sold a pair of old floats for a song. Dillingham mechanic Jim McMurray did most of the work.

''He pimped my ride,'' Evans said, laughing.

The fabric-covered plane is now shiny white with green-and-turquoise racing stripes. It has extended wings for greater lift — and a panoramic cockpit that makes spotting criminals easy. The word ''RANGER,'' painted in large, black letters beneath each wing, is visible from the ground.

Dan Hourihan, the park's lone ranger until Evans came along, called the plane an ''absolute necessity.'' Boasting hundreds of miles of mountain-cradled lakes linked by twisting rivers, the park is increasingly popular. Visits have jumped from 47,000 to 52,000 in just two years, and the number of guides and lodges is up to 42.

During most of Hourihan's 20-year tenure, air patrols were ''prohibitively expensive,'' since chartered flights cost hundreds of dollars a day. So three years ago he advertised for a ranger who could fly. Evans jumped at the chance.

''I quit my job at the police department like that,'' Evans said, snapping his fingers. ''This is just my dream job.''

Until this year, Evans patrolled several days a week in his own plane, collecting state reimbursement. Now that the park owns a plane, flying will be cheaper. Come hunting season Sept. 5, Evans will be aloft seven days a week.

That's good news for the park. Since air patrols began, big-ticket violations like antler poaching and meat abandonment have dropped, Evans said. And smaller violations like littering are on the rise. The park has flown out 20 planeloads of trash in two years, Evans estimates, including tarps, 55-gallon drums, even a portable toilet.

A lifetime pilot and regular park user, Evans has a special loathing for litterbugs. He'll mark a campsite's coordinates on his hand-held GPS, for example, and return later.

''If they even leave so much as a scrap of paper they're getting fined,'' he said.

He's especially protective of Native allotment owners, who survive on subsistence fishing, and commercial lodges, which depend on pristine wilderness.

Molly Chythlook, whose family owns a Native allotment in the park, is grateful for his watchful eye.

''He's doing a real good job,'' she said.

Evans loves the park so much he even wants to be buried on Emerald Island, a lush, five-acre paradise rising majestically from Kulik Lake. So when he got a tip two weeks ago that boaters had illegally cut down several fresh trees and left a smoldering campfire in the middle of the island, he was none too happy.

''I'm gonna do 'em so hard,'' Evans said, pulling a pair of hip waders over an olive-green flightsuit before fueling the plane at Shannon's Pond.

You don't want Evans on your bad side. He's fast, quick-witted and built like a brickhouse. His shaved head glistening in the sun, a Glock handgun glaring from a chest harness, he looked like an action hero ready to pounce. Squeezing into the cockpit and clapping a headset over his ears, he flipped switches, muttered through a checklist then roared the plane to life.

He screamed as the plane left the water. ''This is so much fun!''

His prey: a group in a red kayak and gray Zodiac, somewhere in the park's southern lake system. First stop, Lake Nerka, where Evans scanned the shore as the rippling lake slid beneath the plane.

''What have we got here?'' Evans said suddenly, tipping the wings earthward.

Two inflatable kayaks rose into view. One was gray, one purple. Evans glided onto the water, taxied to three stunned paddlers and splashed into the lake to tow the plane ashore. A lifelong cop who hails from southwest Missouri, he can be downright charming when he pumps suspects for answers, but he doesn't beat around the bush.

''How you guys doin'?'' he asked like he meant it. ''Where'd you guys put in? You don't have a chainsaw in there do you?''

Eagle River residents wearing bright life jackets, their boats overflowed with colorful dry bags. But there was no room for a chainsaw. The conversation that followed was light-hearted, and Evans joked that he owed the group a six-pack. He even handed out his business card if they needed help in Dillingham.

''Good people,'' he said, as the plane skimmed off the water.

Next stop, the Agulukpak River. The small waterway connects Beverly and Nerka lakes. It's only two miles long, but it's the state's second-most popular trout stream. As the plane flew low, skiffloads of fishermen worked the river's mouth at Lake Beverly. Evans had planned a stop there anyway, to deliver a weed-eater to a summer volunteer, so he was doubly pleased to see a group on the shore loading two Zodiacs, one gray and one red.

''How convenient,'' he said.

But he was foiled again. He drew them out with friendly banter. It was a group of six from Fairbanks wearing head nets and waders — and it was obvious they'd just landed.

He checked their licenses, helped assemble a Zodiac, and left to continue the manhunt. But the rest of Lake Beverly and Lake Kulik, the last lake in the system, were empty. So Evans returned to the scene of the crime at Emerald Island, parking the plane in a sandy cove flanked by rocky outcroppings. He photographed the charred campfire and took a closer look at the trees, concluding anew that they were cut last year and burned this year. He thinks he has his man: a guide who's visited the island two years in a row. The lapsed time could make the case difficult to solve, he said, but he'll talk to the guide anyway. If nothing else, he'll know Evans is watching.

And tomorrow, he'll wake up and do it all again.

''I want this park to be around for my kids and my grandkids,'' he said. ''I want my grandkids to say, 'My granddad protected this park.' This is a beautiful place and it's gotta be preserved forever.''

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