Scout chaperone dies as tree hits tent

Posted: Tuesday, March 15, 2005

ANCHORAGE - An Anchorage man helping to chaperone a Boy Scout winter camping trip died when a tree blew down and fell on him.

Matthew Johnson, 37, was apparently killed as he slept Sunday in his tent on the Devil's Pass Trail in Chugach National Forest near Cooper Landing.

Johnson was on an outing that included four Scouts and three adults. They were part of Troop 84 sponsored by Moose Lodge 1534 in midtown Anchorage, said Bill Haines, Scout executive and chief executive officer of the Western Alaska Council.

Johnson was not a registered leader with the unit but was accompanying his 11-year-old step-grandson on the trip, Haines said. Scouts can be age 11 to 18. He said the boys on the winter campout likely were 11 to 14.

The Devil's Pass Trail begins at Mile 39.4 Seward Highway, about two miles north of the Sterling Highway junction. Alaska State Trooper spokesman Greg Wilkinson said the group was about a mile off the highway near a bridge.

The group hiked in Saturday afternoon and set up three tents in a clearing. Two were together under one set of trees. Johnson and his 11-year-old grandson were 20 feet away under other trees.

Survivors told troopers the weather started out good but turned to wind, snow and rain.

One of the other adults heard a crash about 2 a.m. He stuck his head out of the tent but saw nothing out of the ordinary, Wilkinson said.

Johnson's grandson woke as the sun rose Sunday, saw what happened, crawled out of the tent and summoned the other adults.

Troopers said the fallen tree was a spruce about one foot thick. The tree was rotten at its base. The tree was rooted among trees closer to the other two tents. It fell across the clearing and struck Johnson's tent, Wilkinson said.

"It was just a freak accident," Wilkinson said.

An adult and at least one Scout hiked out to the highway for help and had to drive until they could make a cell phone connection.

The scoutmaster with the campers used other wood to make a lever and lift the tree, Wilkinson said.

They had to cut the tent away to reach Johnson's body, Haines said.

Troopers in Soldotna received a 911 call at 8:13 a.m. Emergency medical personnel from Moose Pass and Cooper Landing responded. Troopers confirmed Johnson died at the scene.

Moose Pass EMS used two snowmobiles to pack out the campers and their gear. Haines said the Scouts were shaken by the death.

"Anytime the kids get to experience something like that, it's going to be a tough situation," he said.

Johnson's grandson suffered a leg injury and was transported by Cooper Landing ambulance to Providence Hospital in Anchorage for treatment.

Johnson's body was released to an Anchorage funeral home.

Devil's Pass Trail is about 10 miles long and hooks into Resurrection Trail. Winter travel past Mile 3 is not recommended because of avalanche danger.

The trail features spruce and birch forests at lower elevations. Many of the spruce have been killed by spruce bark beetles and turned reddish gray.

The Western Alaska Boy Scout Council covers about 80 percent of the state, Haines said, except for Fairbanks and northern Alaska and the Panhandle. The council oversees 10,400 children, including 6,400 uniform Scouts and another 4,000 in other programs.

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