Tommy Lepak and his buddy Al each owned a specially modified tracked vehicle made by the Bombardier Company. These rugged vehicles were used to take moose hunters back into deep wilderness areas to hunt moose. However, during the summer fire season they were equipped with high pressure hoses attached to tanks filled with water. Each vehicle had a large round Steel eye attached so that it could be lifted by a helicopter and dropped in front of a fire where using the hoses two men could do the work of a 15 man fire crew
Often on a fire bust when there was limited manpower the Bombardiers would be leased from Tommy and Al and then dropped into a fire site to cut a line to contain a fire. Such was the situation in Kotzebue when the Candle fire needed to be fought. A large landmass surrounding the old Candle Mine site had been assigned to a reindeer herd project as a summer grazing area. A BLM biologist said that this site was given to the NANA Native corporation by the Federal government because of the nature of the vegetation used by the reindeer. One problem was that the lichens eaten by these animals could take up to 100 years to revegetate after being burned over. As a result, we were directed to put resources on this fire though no people or structures were in danger.
Having no crews available because of many higher-priority fires across the Fairbanks District, we resorted to a call for the two all-terrain vehicles (ATV’s). They were quickly shipped via a large cargo plane from the Anchorage International Airport to the Kotzebue airfield. From there we airlifted each via helicopter to the small Candle airstrip created from the old mining tailings.
Here’s where this story becomes interesting.
Along with each ATV came a driver and a second person to use the hoses. One of the “hosers” was a lanky young man with long blond hair pulled back into a ponytail. With earrings and tattoos, he was typical of what we then termed a “hippy”. Many young people seeking to escape the restrictions of “normal” life found freedom and adventure in the wilds of Alaska. Jonathan was one of them.
We flew Jonathan to the Lepak Bombardier to spend many long hours cutting a line to contain the Candle fire. We had occasional contact with Tommy and Al, but largely left them to their work. Several fuel drops were made by helicopter over the course of several weeks. As the fire began to die, we received a strange call from Tommy. Could we send out several cases of beer before they finished cleaning up?
Of course we wanted to know why. Tommy radioed back to us that Jonathan was to be picked up the next day, returned to Kotzebue, and then flown back to Anchorage where he was to be married.
Since the Candle fire had been largely contained due to the efforts of these men, and since we thought this a worthy reason for a party, we sent out the requested cases. We also made arrangements for Jonathan and me to fly back to Anchorage on a fancy two-pilot plane we were using for fire-spotting. The plane, a Merlin, was due for a 100-hour inspection to be done in Anchorage. It was an earned respite for me after 4 weeks of 16–20-hour days with only a few local breaks. I would get to see my wonderfully pregnant wife for one day, and Jonathan could join his fiancée for the planned wedding celebration.
Jonathan came into Kotzebue in a state that indicated he had probably imbibed at least half of one of the cases of beer! He could barely walk up the metal stairs to enter the Merlin. I spotted him as he clanked up and noticed him holding a cylindrical piece of sown canvas by a canvas handle. It reminded me of a smaller wine bag one would use to carry a bottle of wine. But it was too short to hold wine- and it had a thin leather strap attached from the open underside of this “bag” to his left wrist. What was this object?
As Jonathan tripped down a center aisle to take a seat opposite and behind me, I glanced back just as he reached under the canvas “bag” and extended his hand up and into the hidden inside.
He then pulled downward and out popped a ruffled chunk of white feathers! With a simple twist of his left wrist and a guide from his right hand, Jonathan awkwardly placed a baby snowy owl onto his left shoulder.
Jonathan proceeded to pass into a deep sleep for the flight, as his white feathered treasure looked at me with large yellow eyes and swiveled its head almost 180 degrees, much like a gun turret seeking a target. I must admit my neck also swiveled as I watched this smallish creature for much of our flight.
As we landed and Jonathan arose unsteadily from his seat, he grabbed his feathery charge and “stuffed” it back into the canvas cylinder.
I asked him where he got the bird and what was he going to do with it.
“Oh,” he replied, “I saved it as it was hopping in front of the fire line. I’m taking it to my new bride as a wedding present!”
And with that last note, Jonathan staggered out of my life.
Several years later I learned that Tommy Lepak retrofitted his Bombardier for a moose hunt off the Denali Highway. Tommy was an experienced guide, so we were quite surprised to hear that on that hunt he shot his uncle through the heart, mistaking his rustling in the brush for a moose.
Soon after, Tommy left the State and we never heard from him again.