ANCHORAGE - An 85-year-old minister in the Arctic Ocean village of Wainwright is alive today, thanks to the survival skills and cool judgment of two teenagers and a young man who found the elder on the frozen tundra when he was little more than an hour from death.
Those who rescued the Rev. Gregg Tagarook a dozen miles out of Wainwright on Oct. 31 after a hunting trip went awry were commended this month by Lt. Gov. Loren Leman for their "tracking skills and knowledge of first aid," according to Leman's office in Juneau.
The deeds of Benjamin "Buddy Boy" Tagarook, 25; Albert J. "AJ" Driggs, 19; and Jerry Ahmaogak, 16, all of Wainwright, were brought to Leman's attention by Arnold Brower Jr., an assistant to the mayor of the North Slope Borough.
"They did a remarkable job to find his trail in the midst of thousands and thousands of caribou tracks," Brower said Thursday in a phone interview from Barrow.
"They had a systematic pattern that they maintained," Brower added. One of the rescuers would post himself at Tagarook's last found footprint while the others moved off 100 or even 200 yards through caribou prints in heavily tracked soft snow until they could spot another, he said.
"They didn't get out of control."
The areas east of Wainwright were rich with caribou in late October, said Brower, and many hunters were bringing home kills. Gregg Tagarook, a semiretired minister of the Assembly of God Church, decided he would hunt too.
"I've been doing that for years," Tagarook said Thursday.
He left his house a little after noon on Oct. 31 and told his wife, Dorcas, he'd return by dinnertime, according to Brower.
Riding a new Polaris 550 snowmachine purchased just a month before, and pulling a sled, Tagarook ended up in the Aulatagruaq River area about 14 miles east-southeast of the village when his rig tipped over after it hit a snow-covered hole, he said.
He wasn't hurt, but the engine had cut off. He tried but failed to right the snowmachine.
The engine was now cold and wouldn't start. Temperatures at the time were down to minus 10, according to Brower. Ahmaogak, one of the rescuers, said it was nearly 20 below.
A younger man might have gotten the engine started, said Tagarook.
"I couldn't pull (the cord), because I'm so old," he said.
He thought of temporarily removing one of the two spark plugs to reduce compression and allow the engine to turn over more easily, but the spark-plug wrench was missing, Tagarook said.
"I finally make it my mind to walk home, but the snow was so soft- there was no wind to blow it away," he said. Walking exhausted him. It was near dark, so Tagarook used an ancient method of navigation, by the stars, heading in the direction of Wainwright.
"But I could barely walk, because I stumble," he said. "Sometime I fall over, fell down, and finally I was kind of weak, and every time I stepped, I fell. I asked my god, 'Lord, you have to send somebody to pick me up, I'm helpless.' I prayed three times. ... He sent people after a while."
That evening, Dorcas Tagarook notified Wainwright search-and-rescue volunteers that her husband was overdue. Three rescue groups fanned out in the search, Benjamin Tagarook said.
Gregg Tagarook is his ataata, or great-uncle, Benjamin said.
Around midnight, Benjamin, Ahmaogak and Driggs headed off on snowmachines. It took some time before they found what they felt were the missing man's snowmachine tracks. Between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m., they found his rig.
"All his stuff was scattered around on the ground when we went there - his backpack, his rifle case, and all around," Benjamin Tagarook said. "We tied 'em back on the sled, we marked the coordinates on GPS, called it in, and then we followed his footprints for like almost five or six miles."
They almost lost the man's track at one point.
Tagarook was taken to the clinic in Wainwright, where health authorities told Benjamin his uncle would have died had he been one more hour alone on the tundra. He was then flown to Barrow and on to Anchorage.