Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve is a land of river canyons, flatlands, and gently-sloping mountains due east of Fairbanks, smack in the middle of Alaska’s long eastern flank. It’s very remote, it’s very rugged, and it gets very, very cold. To properly outfit yourself for an expedition there, you’d want plenty of wool baselayers, rain-proof outer shells, a four-season tent, a packraft, and, of course, plenty of food. And that’s just in shoulder season. In winter? Forget it. Let it snow, leave it to the bears.
From December 1943 until March 1944, Leon Crane spent nearly 3 months, through the dead of winter, in that land of icy rivers and freezing winds with almost none of those things.
Crane survived. That he did owes far more to his clear-headed resilience, and blind fortune, than it does to any wilderness skills.
Lt. Leon Crane’s ordeal began 25,000 feet above that lonely stretch of the Yukon on December 21, 1943. He was a co-pilot on a B-24 Liberator, a heavy bomber, on a training flight out of Ladd air base in Fairbanks, when they lost an engine 130 miles east of base. The pilots wrestled with the controls and as the big plane slipped into an uncontrollable spin, they told the crew to abandon ship.
Two of the crew members were able to bail out, Crane and M. Sgt. Richard Pompeo. The rest went down with the ship, pinned to the airframe by centrifugal forces.
Crane later recalled that as he leapt from the open bomb bay doors, a parachute strapped to his back, he was immediately shocked by the icy slap of cold to his exposed face; it’s commonly -40°F in December in that part of Alaska. The plane burst into flames below Crane as it slammed into the frozen turf. Crane watched Pompeo’s parachute drift over a nearby ridge before he landed up to his waist in snow. Then, silence.
After calling out to no response, Crane starting pushing through the snow making for the smoking crash site, some 1/4 mile away. Soon realizing that was a hopeless trudge, he turned and headed for a small waterway below him, the Charley River, its snaking course a frozen white road leading, well, somewhere Crane hoped. He was wearing a new down parka the Army was experimenting with. That was good. He had his parachute, two matchbooks, and a small knife. Crane managed to start a fire next to the frozen river using a letter from his father warmed in his breast pocket. He set it alight and torched a nearby pine bough. He wrapped himself in his parachute and sat through the long December night, which in winter, meant nearly 20 hours of darkness.
After a week or so waiting within earshot of the crash site, with no food and no shelter, praying for the sounds of rescue, Crane realized help wasn’t coming. He began to slog downstream, assuming the river would lead to a town eventually. It didn’t, at least not there. A short walk away, Crane spotted a small rustic cabin. He approached, discovered it unlocked, and opened the door to discover his salvation. The cabin was stocked with canned food, bags of sugar, and powdered milk. There was a stove for heating and cooking. A rifle was propped in a corner. Mittens, snowshoes, and a canvas tent were positioned near the door, as if waiting.
Crane spent the night in the cabin, waiting for the owner’s return. The next day, nobody showed. Crane, well-fed and warmed by a fire in the stove, set out for a road to town, or some sign of the trapper or hunter who supplied the cabin. Crane didn’t know it, but he was more than 100 miles from the nearest settlement. After a day’s fruitless search for help, he retired to the cabin, and rested, temporarily safe.
For the next six weeks, the cabin was Crane’s. Wind whistled and moaned throw gaps in the hand-hewn logs. With only four hours of daylight per day, Crane mostly slept and waited, listening for the sound of an aircraft, maybe the bark of a dog team. Occasionally, when he felt strong enough, he pushed down the frozen river with several days supplies of food, returning to the cabin when he’d gone as far as he dared push his provisions. Finally nearing the end of his food supply, Crane built a crude sled out of a wooden washbasin, loaded it with far more food than he’d tried to carry on his previous excursions, added the canvas tent, and shoved off dragging the sled over the Charley’s icy surface.
For two weeks Crane wandered down the river, nothing but the trees for an audience to hear his shouts as he twice broke through to the water below, once nearly drowning. How he didn’t die of hypothermia is a wonder, probably even to the trees themselves. Eventually, nearing the end of his tinned supplies, Crane found another cabin, again, as if something he imagined in a hypothermic fever dream, stocked with food (he would later learn of the custom of Alaska hunters and trappers to leave food in their cabins in case stranded hikers wandered into one looking for help). He topped up his food stores, spent a few days resting, then pushed on.
Several more weeks of traveling along the river followed. He’d abandoned his sled after it betrayed him by breaking through the ice multiple times, and was carrying all of his food in a single backpack, still wearing that invaluable down parka. By this point, he’d covered more than 100 miles, but with no map, Crane had no idea where he was, or where he was headed; he just followed the wise intuition that a waterway like this must lead to something that attracted some kind of settlement.
On March 9, Crane walked onto a flat clearing, lined with pine boughs that he instantly recognized as a wilderness airstrip. Eager now, sensing the end, Crane pushed into the forest and out into a clearing fronting another cabin. This one however had smoke curling out of a chimney, and outside, pinned to a tree-strung line, clothing gently fluttering on an icy breeze. A man emerged from the cabin stared at Crane and lit a cigarette.
Crane was saved.
He’d arrived at the cabin of Albert Ames, a local hunter who was in the backcountry with his family. Ames listened to Crane’s wild story, this man in tattered clothes, a strange puffy jacket, and wild hair, then realized Crane had traveled more than 100 miles downriver, alone, with little wilderness experience, in Alaska, in the dead of winter, and marveled.
The following day, Ames gathered a dog team and took Crane to a nearby airfield by sled, where he was finally flown out of his nightmare.
In the coming weeks, Ames led a search team back to the wreckage. The bodies of two of the crew were found. Many years later, in 2006, another team returned to the wreckage, sifting the soil nearby searching for more remains. They eventually found bone fragments belonging to the pilot, 2nd Lt. Harold Hoskin. As for Pompeo, the man whose parachute drifted to ground before Crane’s, nobody ever saw the man again. The whereabouts of his remains are unknown.
Crane survived over 80 days in the Alaskan wilderness, with no training, no experience in the Arctic, and no survival skills. That he survived is a testament to keeping calm in the face of absurd danger. Yes, his life was saved by two well-stocked cabins. But he spent 9 days before he discovered the first, and nearly two months walking and camping in the open en route to his ticket home.
Hunter Steven Rinella wrote about Crane in his recent book, The Meateater Guide to Wilderness Skills and Survival.
“There’s a lot to love from that story and a lot to learn from it. First and foremost is Crane’s mental and physical tenacity. After watching his fellow airmen die, he suffers hunger, cold, and loneliness for weeks on end without giving in to despair or making foolish mistakes. He’s calculating in his movements and mindful of when it’s time to pack up and go. When he travels, he does so with purpose and lets the landscape guide his movements. His ultimate salvation is testament to the fact that he doesn’t make big mistakes.”
Top photo: US National Archives/Clayton Knight, artist
To read more on Crane’s unbelievable experience, pick up a copy of 81 Days Below Zero: The Incredible Survival Story of a World War II Pilot in Alaska’s Frozen Wilderness.