TALE: Hunter swept twice down creek, treks back to deliver smokes.
By ZAZ HOLLANDER
Anchorage Daily News
Published: August 27, 2006
Last Modified: August 27, 2006 at 02:30 AM
WASILLA -- As high water drops in the Valley, flood stories are emerging along with mangled roadways and muck-coated debris.
So far, the most extreme tale looks to belong to Mike Jennings, who says he's a 34-year-old former U.S. Marine and bear hunter and tells a story of being stranded for days by washouts at the far end of Petersville Road.
Jennings' saga began when he took off on a quick bear-hunting trip in the rain, he said, before flood warnings had been issued in the rugged country at road's end, a pocket of deep, steep canyons sandwiched between the 4,000-foot-high Dutch and Peters Hills not far from Denali National Park.
He emerged last Monday, four days overdue and a day after an Alaska State Troopers' aerial search was turned back by weather.
In between, according to accounts from Jennings and friends, he floated down the turgid waters of Cache Creek, clinging to the dead black bear he shot. He ended up on a sandbar, threatened by another bear at close range.
He chained the dead bear to a tree and slogged back up the creek to safety after stopping at a cabin for soup and dry clothes.
Then, on an hour's sleep, he turned right back around and brought smokes back to the people trapped by high water at the cabin because he said he would.
"He is probably THE toughest man in Alaska. I am not exaggerating," said Tom Marshall, a 52-year-old Kasilof man who was one of three prospectors at the cabin where Jennings stopped before walking out. "We were stuck in there for six days, and he made a special trip back in there to bring us cigarettes."
The whole thing started a week ago Thursday. Jennings drove into a spot in a ravine near Cache Creek from Peters Creek and parked his 1986 Suburban.
Here's how Jennings told it from there:
He shot a big black bear and was about to slide the animal over a hill when the hill -- saturated by days of rain -- slid man, bear and hillside into a tributary of Cache Creek.
In the water, Jennings clutched his .308 rifle and the bear. He hadn't field-dressed the bear, so the air in its organs helped it float. So did a waterproof dry bag in his daypack. As he floated, he passed a brown bear sitting on an island at Thunder Creek.
Flushed out at Dollar Creek, Jennings tied off the black bear and trudged back upriver. The river had risen too high to either drive out or cross on foot. It got dark. He returned to his Suburban and spent about three hours there before starting to move.
Jennings tried for a high trail back to Petersville Road over Peters Hills but he couldn't walk out, either: Up high it was snowing. He kept moving to keep warm, he said. He spent Friday night in "a crack" high in the hills.
By Saturday, he had once again slid into Cache Creek and was swept down to Dollar. Again, he walked all the way back up.
Both times he fell in, Jennings ended up on the wrong side of the creek; Cache Creek Cabins, which would have provided refuge, was on the north side and he was on the south.
Jennings tried swimming the creek, but the freezing water paralyzed him, and he was swept downriver one last time.
The water spat him out on a sandbar at Dollar Creek, where Cache Creek mellows and splits into smaller channels. This time, however, he was able to make it to the north side of Cache Creek, though the cabins remained back upriver.
Jennings tried to lie down and sleep but he was too chilled. He sat up. It was pitch black and probably 4 a.m. That's when Jennings said he heard the bear growl nearby.
The ammunition for his pistol and rifle -- still with him -- were too wet, he said. He ratcheted the rifle to spook the bear.
"He started woofing and snapping at me," Jennings said.
He picked up a stick. The bear moved off.
Sunday, Jennings started to walk back up. About five miles from Cache Creek Cabins, he passed Thunder Creek, where Marshall and two others remained trapped by high water at a cabin owned by miner Mike Palmquist.
How did he look?
"Exhausted, very thirsty," Marshall said. "He was trying to drink out of a mud puddle."
Jennings left the cabin after a short break with some soup in his belly, a drink of water, a fresh set of clothes, and some cigarettes, Marshall said. "He said he'd bring more back and he was a man of his word."
He made it back to Cache Creek Cabins at 4:30 a.m. Monday.
The first thing he did was eat about 10 peppermint pattie candies. Then he comforted his wife.
"She was a paranoid wreck," Jennings said.
"So was I," said Winona Lee, who co-owns the rental cabins with her husband, Kenneth.
Lee said she had to convince Jennings to rest. He lay down for an hour, she said, then got up and hoofed back to the cabin at Thunder Creek.
Now, this is a pretty tall order, even in Alaska. A guy floats down a flooding river with a bear, still has the bear and his gun, walks out, then turns around to deliver some cigarettes. No way, right?
An Alaska State Troopers account of the incident -- they got called out to look for Jennings -- is a bit dry:
"Investigation revealed that Jennings stayed with his vehicle for the first two days before attempting to walk out. He then found an occupied cabin where he was given food and kept warm ..."
But Lee, asked if she believed it, didn't flinch.
"He's not telling no fibs," said Lee, who described Jennings as "a solid kid" who at 6 feet tall looks all of his 230 pounds.
Jennings said he has worked as a bear guide in Canada and served as a small-arms specialist with the U.S. Marine Corps from 1989 to 1994. He grew up in Alaska, Michigan and Kentucky.
By Thursday afternoon, he had left the cabins again to go bear-hunting again. He was still out Friday.