FRIENDS RECALL BOWERS' ENERGY, HEART
Anchorage Daily News
Yesterday was to have been the day Don Bowers signed up for his sixth Iditarod. The 2001 race, he hoped, would mark his breakthrough as a competitive musher.
"He was all fired up," friend, dog musher and fellow pilot Doug Grilliot said Friday. "I was going to go down there (to Wasilla) with him."
Instead, Grilliot will join a crowd in Talkeetna today for a memorial service for Bowers and National Park Service rangers Cale Shaffer, Brian Reagan and Adam Kolff. All died when a Cessna 185 with Bowers at the controls slammed into the Alaska Range along the Yentna Glacier on Monday.
Friends and co-workers of Bowers are still finding it difficult to believe the accident happened.
A careful, seasoned pilot, the 52-year-old Bowers was never expected to die this way. Flying was second nature to him. The Air Force trained him to pilot the HC-130 Hercules cargo plane, then shipped him from Arkansas to Alaska.
Bowers checks his dogs during the 1996 Iditarod near the Post River. JIM HAGER / Anchorage Daily News
He promptly fell in love with the great white north. When he wasn't at the controls of the four-engine "Herc," he was discovering the rest of the state in single-engine planes.
He caught the mushing bug while flying such aircraft as a volunteer for the Iditarod Air Force in the early '90s. To help pay for the expensive passion of mushing, he worked off and on through the winters as a substitute teacher and held down a seasonal job as chief pilot for Hudson Air Service in Talkeetna.
Sometimes the flying he did for Hudson around Mount McKinley proved dicey, but Bowers never thought of it as deadly. The rugged terrain surrounding North America's tallest peak has been the site of many aviation accidents in recent years, but it had been more than a decade since a fatal crash by a commercial pilot flying the daily shuttles of tourists and mountain climbers out of Talkeetna.
Grilliot, a first officer for Northwest Airlines and a small-plane pilot who has done a fair amount of Bush flying himself, said everyone always knew a deadly accident could happen; they just couldn't imagine it happening to Bowers.
'ALL AIRSPEED, NO RUDDER'
Friday, Grilliot was at Bowers' home in Talkeetna tending his late friend's 50 or so sled dogs. It was a warm day. Off to the north, McKinley looked like a cardboard cut-out pasted onto a pale and cloudless sky.
It was hard to fathom that only days before Bowers' plane had crashed there in bad weather.
A former Navy flier, Grilliot has known his share of pilots who went to work and never came back. He thought he knew how to deal with the emotions left behind.
"For some reason," he said, "this one's a lot harder."
A ceaseless bundle of energy with a big heart, Bowers had a way of touching people.
"We often joked about Don being all airspeed and no rudder," said friend Jeff Davis. "He was in a real hurry to get somewhere, but nobody except Don knew where that somewhere was."
"The thing about Don, he was involved in so many things," Grilliot said. "I don't know how he did it."
For most people, training a sled-dog team is a full-time job. For Bowers, it was just one of the balls in a giant juggle of civic and personal involvements.
He was up to his elbows in promoting the Iditarod, organizing for the Alaska Airmen's Association and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, helping out the Talkeetna Bachelor's Society, researching the development of mushing in Alaska, maintaining a continentwide network of e-mail friends interested in all things doggy, and writing his second book.
"I'm going to try to publish my Iditarod Trail Notes in book form this fall," he reported days before his death. "My publisher is already excited about it. I've been doing some serious research on the history of the trail, and it's going to be fun to write the extra stuff to go into the book."
Bowers loved the Iditarod. He loved flying, too, as well as Alaska and sled dogs. Sometimes he seemed to love them all full bore.
On Monday, though, he was just trying to get home, working the controls of a plane in which he had spent hundreds of hours, looking for a way back out of a maze of Alaska Range peaks. He had done this countless times over the years.
The weather had been like this when he helped rescue climber Malcolm Daly two years ago.
"I got a call at 5:30 this morning to see if the weather was any better on ... the south ridge of Mount Hunter for the Malcolm Daly operation," Bowers had said of that flight. "Jay Hudson was off duty, and I'm his stand-in. ... I got lucky and spotted Daly through a break in the clouds, waving wildly - definitely a good sign."
Bowers and Hudson, the owner of Hudson Air, were the only Talkeetna pilots certified by the federal Office of Aviation Services to fly top cover for the National Park Service's high-altitude rescue helicopter, the Llama. It was often the job of Bowers or Hudson to spot the holes in the clouds through which the Llama could climb.
"Our main use in rescues is doing the initial searching and then guiding the Llama and staying over him for safety lookout and radio coverage while he does his stuff," Bowers said. "The Llama has no weather capability and can't handle even a hint of icing, plus it has limited range and lots of times it's out of radio contact when he's next to the rocks."
On Monday, the same Llama was involved in the search that found the shattered remains of Bowers' plane and the four bodies.
Clouds had forced the 52-year-old pilot to abort what was to have been another, almost-routine flight from Talkeetna to the Mount McKinley base camp at 7,200 feet on the Kahiltna Glacier.
After turning back, he probably found himself flying down a tunnel, with the mountains along the Kahiltna rising to meet the clouds, said Mark Stasik, a Talkeetna climber and sometimes Park Service volunteer.
It was Stasik who discovered the bodies after being dropped onto a scree slope near the confluences of the Yentna and Lacuna glaciers on Tuesday.
It was a tough moment for Stasik. He knew Bowers, and Shaffer had been a friend. But most troubling was the death of Reagan, who worked in the Public Lands Information Center in downtown Anchorage.
Stasik and friend Daryl Miller, a Park Service ranger, had encouraged Reagan to volunteer to go to McKinley. They'd met the younger climber at a slideshow about the Alaska Range. Reagan said he was looking for a safe and inexpensive way to get to better know North America's highest peak.
Stasik and Miller thought a stint as a volunteer ranger would be the perfect opportunity. Reagan was headed off for his first patrol on Monday.
Shaffer, who had spent years trying to land a Park Service job as a climbing ranger, was on his way to the mountain for the first time, too. Kolff, a native of Seattle, had come from a three-year stint with an environmental group in Peru to volunteer. He was planning to go back to graduate school in Colorado.
They and their gear were still stuffed into Bowers' plane as he turned back from Kahiltna base and headed down the glacier, looking for a place to turn east to Talkeetna and home. He never found it. He reported a wall of clouds blocking any escape from that side of the Kahiltna, but there was a break to the west.
Bowers radioed that he would go that way. It was his last radio transmission.
Stasik, who knows this corner of the Alaska Range as well as anyone, speculates that Bowers managed to sneak through Bastion Pass. That put him out over the Lacuna Glacier. He probably planned to follow it down to the Yentna Glacier and then out into the Yentna River drainage until he could get below the clouds and start working toward home.
He never made it. Stasik said it looked like the plane flew right into a mountain near the junction of the Lacuna and the Yentna.
Bowers might simply have gotten lost in country he did not fly that often, Stasik said. He might have lost visibility in a terrific thunderstorm; there were reports of inches of hail falling at Chelatna Lake. His plane might even have been hit by lightning.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating. Eventually it will decide what caused the crash. Meanwhile, friends and acquaintances are wrestling with the void left by his death.
A MAN WITH A STORY
Bowers touched a lot of people.
"He was a real character," said Vern Halter, a fellow musher and Willow-area neighbor.
And he had that special gift of gab - not only personally but electronically.
When he wasn't flying, working with his dogs, writing or studying the history of the Iditarod Trail, Bowers was busy talking to the world on the Internet. He posted his training journals on the Iditarod's Web site, worked with other teachers to try to establish a better Iditarod curriculum, and corresponded with people from everywhere.
A lot of the latter were left numb by his unexpected death.
"Very sad," a woman named Beverly e-mailed the ADN.com news forum shortly after the first report of the accident. "I've had Don on my e-mail, and it will be strange not hearing from him talking to my group."
Bowers always seemed to have a good tale to tell. His e-mails were a string of them.
"As far as moose go," he reported last winter, "I'm now on the shoot-first-ask questions-later side of the fence. I got charged in January half a mile from my yard putting a trail in on my antique (Ski-doo) Alpine. I came around a corner in a little grove of trees and the biggest antlerless bull I've ever seen, minimum 1,000 pounds and muscled like Schwarzenegger, was standing in the trail demolishing a tree. He took one look at me and just flat charged. I never knew you could jam one of those old dual-tracks in reverse so quickly. I backed up at full throttle for at least 50 yards before he gave up, and got so close I could literally smell his breath."
The incident was classic Bowers. He loved being out there in Alaska where life is real.
He loved his dogs for much the same reason.
"There's nothing as satisfying as seeing one of your proteges growing and learning and maturing, whether it's going after a downed mallard or earning a spot as part of a fine-tuned team on the trail. I wish more people understood that."
As much as he loved those dogs, though, he wasn't much of a musher.
"I told him he's a better writer than dog musher," said three-time Iditarod champion Martin Buser.
A short man, Bowers was of the size to be a top-level musher, but he confessed that he carried a few too many pounds, and then there was the bigger problem of simply lacking the gift for the sport.
People like Buser, Jeff King, Rick Swenson and Susan Butcher make it all look so smooth and easy - the sled riding, the dog handling, the animal care.
It was different for Bowers. Sometimes he had trouble staying on the sled's runners. Sometimes his dogs didn't get along. Sometimes they got along too well.
"I've been a human weed-whacker, eaten buckets full of snow, imitated a Pachinko ball, gotten bit, sorted out dog fights and nursed sick dogs," he wrote in his book, "Back of the Back: An Iditarod Musher's Alaska Pilgrimage to Nome." "I've untangled Gordian knots of dogs, sleds, trees and me. I've had to figure out how to keep always amorous males away from unexpectedly amorous females."
His sense of humor got him through. His sense of humor was almost always there, the eyes twinkling below his gray hair, the smile flickering across his bearded face.
"I'm almost ready to think the rural preference (for subsistence) isn't such a good idea," he joked once, "because it would eliminate a major source of amusement every year when the City Guys go 'hunting.' I never cease to be amazed....
"We fly a lot of them out, of course, and it's easy to tell the pros from the wannabes, or the ones who actually expect to get something from the yahoos who are more interested in setting a new outdoor beer drinking record. One party of two brought so much gear a couple of days ago we had to stuff it into the airplane like it was a Tokyo subway and then try to get it off the lake. This particular pair has been out for the last five years with no luck and if anything they bring more every year.
"It's just like the Iditarod. My first year I had so much stuff I must have looked like one of the old Oregon Trail Conestogas swaying along, occasionally kicking out a piano or a cast-iron cookstove along the trail."
He never let the lack of success get him down.
Bowers was looking forward to heading up the 1,100-mile trail yet again next March. He thought he had the makings of a top 20 dog team this time. The only weak link, he said, was the musher. He thought the musher would be lucky to place in the top 25 with a top 20 team.
Somehow, all the piloting and writing skill never translated into mushing success. And now it will be up to someone else to take his dogs to Nome.
"I think we've got homes for them all," Doug Grilliot, the musher and pilot, said.
A few will go to other mushers. Most will go to e-mail friends of Bowers who've offered to take as pets dogs that are too old, too young or simply not suited for competitive mushing.
"There's a few really good dogs out there," Grilliot said, "but there's a bunch that need to go. Don, like always, kept everything. He couldn't bear to give a dog away unless he knew it was going to go to a good home. He couldn't even think about putting one down."
He had a good heart, and it always seemed to shine through.
Reporter Craig Medred can be reached email@example.com.
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