How Gary Wilford Lost The Tip Of His Thumb To Frostbite On The Richardson Highway

Early Car Driving On The Valdez-Fairbanks Trail, or Richardson Highway.  (From Wrangell-St. Elias Website) Battling With The Elements ...

Early Car Driving On The Valdez-Fairbanks Trail, or Richardson Highway.  (From Wrangell-St. Elias Website)

Battling With The Elements North Of Paxson Lodge

A Story From Rescue Me. All Rights Reserved.

Alaska's "first road" of the modern era in the early 1900’s was the Richardson Highway. The Richardson started in the port of Valdez and ended in the Tanana River town of Fairbanks. It passed through the Copper Valley along the way north.

The Richardson was known as the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail. 

Roadhouses were put in at walking distances along the trail. One of them was at the top of Thompson Pass and was fashioned of rock. Because this roadhouse was positioned in the deepest snowfall region in Alaska, the lodge’s winter entrance was a chute in the roof, far above the ground below. 

Even today, there's so much snow at Thompson Pass that snow cannons are placed along the Richardson Highway south of the Copper Valley to shoot charges into nearby mountains when snows are heavy, triggering "controlled" (and presumably safer) avalanches.  Yet uncontrolled avalanches still happened – killing skiers, taking out Copper Valley Electric Association power lines, and blocking traffic.

Historic Postcards Showing Early Stage & Thompson Pass Horse Convoy.
Early Days 
In the early days, the Richardson’s main form of transportation – the Orr Stagecoach Line – operated out of Santa Claus Lodge, 127 miles north of Valdez.

The lodge was near what is now the Ahtna Native Village of Gulkana. 

The stagecoach traversed a wild and lonely place. Because there were no bridges, travel took place in winter, when ponds, creeks, lakes and rivers were frozen. The coaches ran on sled runners. 

Warning Bell Along The Trail At Yost's Roadhouse
It was a difficult journey. In 1913, there was a blizzard on the Valdez-to-Fairbanks Trail north of Paxson Lake.  The snow was so deep that only a stovepipe protruded from Yost's Lodge through the drifts. A dozen people, snugly wrapped in blankets and confidently braving the winter cold, were traveling – for a price– north to Fairbanks.

They all died when their stage couldn't find the roadhouse.  

In response, the U.S. Army Signal Corps strung a wire fence across the Valdez Trail, to divert and lead future sleds to the nearby Yost’s during blizzards. For good measure, they also put up a huge, 150-pound bell at Yost’s that clanged away in the arctic wind, hoping to lead stages through the blizzards and whiteouts to safety. 

The region remained dangerous. In modern days, the 136-mile stretch of road between Gakona Junction and Delta Junction, which passes by Paxson, is often considered too isolated and difficult to drive in the winter. Those driving from Fairbanks to Glennallen frequently avoid that section of the Richardson, and judiciously add an extra 100 miles, by detouring over the Alaska Highway through Tok.

Warning sign at Gakona Junction, Mile 129 Richardson. (Photo, Country Journal, 2011)

Cold Waters Of Gunn Creek
When motorists overrule their natural caution and brave the upper Richardson Highway north of Paxson, it can be a near-lethal mistake – even when it isn't yet winter. 

This message was driven home at the end of September 1993 to Thomas Connly, an Alyeska Pipeline technician, when he was performing valve maintenance work on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, which parallels the highway.

He came across a semi belly-dump trailer tipped over in the icy, autumnal waters of Gunn Creek 10 miles north of Paxson and the eastern entrance of the Denali Highway. Gunn Creek pours out of Gulkana Glacier, toward the Gulkana River. 

Connly wasn’t sure if he was looking at a recent accident or merely an old one. Just to check, he yelled out.

Lancer Green, a 22-year old North Pole driver who was strapped, half-submerged on his side in the crushed truck cab in the middle of the creek, hollered back. 

Troopers later said it was possible that Green wouldn’t have survived if Connly hadn’t stopped. Aided by two other truck drivers, Clair Lipscomb and Rick Daughenbaugh of K&W Trucking, Connly waded into the 35 degree water and stood there for almost an hour, encouraging Green to stay conscious. 

It was a dangerous maneuver. At those temperatures in freezing water, both Connly and Green – the savior and the saved – lost dexterity in under 3 minutes, were exhausted within 15 minutes, and had an expected survival time of only 30 to 90 minutes. 

Two Alyeska Pipeline Service Company employees, Bob Hogan and Gary Lyons, hurried to the scene to help, along with Chuck Lee, Richard Knox, and Vern Billeci, of Alyeska Pump Station #10. The men from the Pipeline brought in the big guns. They used a winch to remove the truck’s door, steering wheel, and gearshift, freeing the trapped driver. Then Bob Hogan took over, carried Green through the ice water and up the steep bank – and took care of him until an ambulance arrived from Pump Station #10. 

Green was evacuated to Fairbanks, and the Alyeska Fuel Spill Team, which responded to all the fuel spills reported in the Pipeline Corridor, contained the fuel that was leaking from the truck into the creek and siphoned the remaining fuel from the truck's tanks. 

Local People Depend On Each Other
Sgt. Greg Tanner of Glennallen – who was working hard to encourage and reward involvement from the community – said later in the Copper River Country Journal that local people depend on each other in situations like this. The incident was an object lesson of proper behavior, he told the Country Journal. "In this rural area you never know whether you're going to be the first one on the scene," he said. 

The area in the Gakona-to-Delta Junction death zone on the Richardson, where it passes by Paxson, never became safe.

Over 30 years after the trucker fell into Gunn Creek, a Glennallen father found himself on that same hazardous stretch of road. 

It was January 24th, 2015, and Gary Wilford  had gone up to Delta Junction from Glennallen to a basketball tournament.  He was coming back. “It was probably 20 below,” he said later, but the wind was blowing hard, and visibility was low as he reached Milepost 206. It was empty wilderness. 

Back in Delta Junction, when Gary was at the tourney, it didn’t seem as if there would be a problem. “I had checked with people who had come from Glennallen to watch the girls play. When I left Delta, the weather wasn’t really bad. The weather turned bad about 60 miles from Delta Junction.” 

Somebody before him had gotten stuck and run off the road.

Gary got out of his car to help: the Good Samaritan. It was a typical situation. Gary got stuck, too. 

There are two places on Alaska’s highways where high winds are common, and both are near the Denali Highway. One is at Broad Pass on the Parks Highway by Cantwell on the western end of the Denali. The other is near Summit on the Richardson Highway, the road’s eastern end. 

This was an unusually busy night.  A tanker was making his daredevil run down the Richardson and came up behind them, pulling a trailer. 

Typical Winter Sign For Region South Of Delta Junction.
 High Winds Ripped The Car Door Open
The winds were running between 100 and 125 mph as Gary Wilford staggered back to his truck after talking with the tanker driver. The high winds pulled Gary’s door open, ripped it off, and flattened it against the car.  “I couldn’t pull it shut. My gloves kept slipping. I took off my gloves for just an instant, and that’s when I frostbit my hand.” 

It took ten seconds, and now Gary Wilford, the Good Samaritan, was seriously injured. The other drivers picked up the slack. Now they themselves had become Good Samaritans.

Gary Wilford was taken to Trimms Highway camp, and then on to Delta Junction and the emergency room at Fairbanks Memorial Hospital. “They were good citizens,” said Gary Wilford gratefully, when he recalled the story for the Country Journal. 

"I Have All My Fingers"
Both his hands were badly blistered, and he had torn his quad tendon. A year later he commented how lucky he had been that night:  “I am thankful I have all my fingers. I can’t make a tight fist and I lost the tip of my thumb, but I can still use my hands.”

ABOUT THIS STORY: This is a Copper River Country Journal original story.  This story is a chapter of a book about Copper Valley courage, Rescue Me: Life & Death In Rural Alaska.  The tale of Yost's Lodge and the clanging bell is from The Golden Age Of Roadhouses by Tricia Brown.  The story of Thomas Connly wading into the waters of Gunn Creek to save Lancer Green is from a Copper River Country Journal story, "Trucker Pried From Icy Waters By Good Samaritans," in the October 7th, 1993 edition of the Journal. The story of Gary Wilford is from an October 30th, 2016 Copper River Country Journal interview with Gary, by phone. We are printing this story here for Copper Valley people to read and enjoy. The story is the property of the Copper River Country Journal and Red Truck Printing Company of Gakona, Alaska. Copyright © 2020, All rights reserved.


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