Rescue doesn't sit well with lodge owner

Australian hiker appeared uninjured; shouldn't have received free room and board, says owner

Posted: Sunday, December 07, 2008

FAIRBANKS - Even though she was paid $210, the idea of renting a room and feeding a meal to Dave Roberts didn't sit well with Jamie Klaes, manager of the Bettles Lodge.

It would have been different had Roberts paid the bill, but the fact that the Alaska Air National Guard paid for his room and board rubbed Klaes the wrong way.

"It felt like he was being rewarded for stupidity," Klaes said on Monday, three days after Roberts was rescued by helicopter from an isolated area in the Brooks Range by the Alaska Air National Guard. "He got a free hotel room with a Jacuzzi tub, free meals, a free rescue.

"Then he had the audacity to complain that we didn't have the Internet here," she said.

The fact that Roberts, an Australian who was trying to walk almost 100 miles across the Brooks Range wilderness when he set off a long-distance distress call on Friday, didn't appear to be hurt or sick made Klaes question why the federal government would spend thousands of dollars to rescue him and then set him up with free and room and board.

"He didn't seem injured in any way," Klaes said. "In my own opinion, he should have had to fly out in a chartered plane by himself."

Instead, the Air Guard gave Roberts a helicopter ride to Eielson Air Force Base, where he told Alaska State Troopers he didn't need or want any help, medical or otherwise. One of the rescuers told Jamie Klaes the rescue could cost in the neighborhood of $60,000, she said.

Topping the whole thing off for Klaes is the fact that she and her family, who own the lodge and Bettles Air Service, refused to fly Roberts out to be dropped off for his expedition back in late September because he didn't have what they believed to be adequate gear for the trip he was planning.

Another air taxi in Bettles ended up flying him out to his destination.

"We saw it coming a long ways off," Klaes said of Roberts rescue. "We pretty much assumed he was either going to have to get rescued or die out there."

Klaes' brother, Tyler, a pilot, met Roberts back in September when he showed up and wanted a flight out to Nutuvukti Lake, about 75 nautical miles west of Bettles.

"He was kind of a goofy guy," Tyler Klaes said.

He described Roberts as being in his early to mid-40s and in average shape. He claimed to be from Australia but had no accent, he said.

"We thought he was some hard-core extremist or he didn't have a clue," Tyler Klaes said. "It turned out he didn't have a clue."

Right from the start, it was easy to see that Roberts wasn't prepared, Tyler Klaes said. Roberts had mailed winter gear to Bettles but it didn't show up before he was scheduled to fly out.

"He had ordered all this stuff that he had never tried on or worn before," Tyler Klaes said. "We told him to go back to Fairbanks and gear up and he said, 'I don't have the money for that.'"

Roberts ended up buying a used pair of Carhartt coveralls, used bunny boots and used musher mitts from a local resident, Tyler Klaes said.

"He had second-hand gear that barely fit him," he said. "The only thing he had going for him was he had a really good Arctic Oven Tent and he was going to have to haul that and all his food in a sled behind him."

Roberts had no idea how many miles the distance he planned to hike was and wasn't familiar with the area, Tyler Klaes said. He chose the lake because he liked the name, Klaes said. Roberts told him he planned to write a book.

"I haven't seen anybody this clueless in a long time who was so determined to get there," Tyler Klaes said. "The whole idea was ludicrous."

Jay Jespersen from Brooks Range Aviation was the pilot who flew Roberts to his starting point. While Jespersen was skeptical about Roberts' plan to hike 100 miles across the wilderness, he was willing to fly him out into it.

"I'm an air taxi operator; if that's what they want to do that's what I do," he said. "If you think you can go out and deal with environment, go ahead."

Alaska State Troopers say the rescue began with a distress call sent to a control center in Texas on Friday morning. The locator beacon was registered to Roberts and showed that he was located in the Brooks Range. The center contacted the troopers' Anchorage office, which notified the Alaska Air National Guard at the Anchorage Rescue Coordination Center.

"We were told he had possible frostbite and some kind of gastrointestinal pain," specialist Maggie Moonin with the RCC's public affairs office said. "Our best bet was to go out there and take the man to get help to where he needed it."

The RCC dispatched a Hercules C-130 plane and Pavehawk helicopter from Anchorage and located Roberts about 5:20 p.m. about 50 miles west of Bettles. He had traveled approximately 30 miles in two months.

Rescuers could not land because of bad weather and instead dropped a satellite phone to Roberts, who had a campfire burning. Using the phone, Roberts told rescuers he was not in need of immediate help but was experiencing early signs of frostbite and he possibly had giardiasis, Moonin said. Giardiasis is an intestinal infection caused by a parasite.

The rescuers returned to Bettles until the weather improved. They returned to pick Roberts up at approximately 1:30 a.m. and then went back to Bettles to spend the night.

A trooper picked Roberts up at Eielson Air Force Base and drove him to Fairbanks, Trooper Sgt. Chad Goeden said.

"We dropped him off at a hotel here, and he was making plans to fly back to Australia," Goeden said on Tuesday.

Goeden didn't talk to Roberts, and the trooper who did was not on duty Tuesday.

"I did see the guy walk by and he was wearing some sewn up canvas mukluks so he obviously had some footwear problems" Goeden said.

It's not the Air Guard's job to determine whether somebody needs to be rescued, Moonin said. They were simply responding to a distress call, she said.

"If we're told someone is distressed or in need of assistance, we can't go out there and say, You look fine. Let's go back," she said. "Our guys went out there did their job. They did what they're supposed to, and we're going to keep doing it to make sure people stay safe within Alaska."

As for the cost of the rescue, Moonin said she didn't know how much it cost, only that it was paid for with federal funds and it's considered a training mission.

"I'm sure it wasn't cheap but in the same respect it gives our guys good, solid training doing what they're supposed to do," Moonin said. "It's a shame tax dollars go to pay for this but at the same time it's better than taking some dummy out in the middle of nowhere and saving it."

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