Where Were You On 9/11?

Everyone has a story about September 11, 2001, the day that changed America forever.  They know where they were, what they were doing, etc.  I thought I would share my story as a guide.

The morning of September 11, 2001, I was cooking breakfast for my clients and staff at our Western Alaska camp when the satellite phone rang.  It was Karen.  She tearfully told me that two commercial airplanes had flown into the World Trade Center and at that time no one knew why or weren’t saying why or how it happened.  She told me they were showing it on TV, that it was devastating, and the destruction and loss of life was unbelievable.  I couldn’t begin to wrap my brain around the magnitude of what she told me just happened.  She then told me that all planes were grounded.  I told her that I was sure that didn’t mean my little “super cub” out here in the wilderness.  She told me the news said “all planes.”  Camp wise, it wasn’t a big deal as I hadn’t planned on flying that day.  We said goodbye and I continued preparing breakfast.  I had two clients, a couple of guides and three packers with me in base camp.  As they came in for breakfast, I told them what had happened.  They were stunned and it was like they didn’t believe me until they heard it on the news.  The mood was very somber with lots of discussion and speculation around the table.  It was impossible to comprehend such a tragedy. 

After everyone had finished eating, I told them they should go ahead and go hunting since there was nothing we could do.  I told John Koldaway that since I couldn’t fly I would go along with him and his client, Dianne Hutchison.  The packers decided they also wanted to go, so we were off.  I’m not sure who spotted the caribou but it was on the top of the hill that we called Ron’s Roost at the east end of Otter Lake.  Using the wind, we made our stalk and got within 75 yards of the caribou.  After a clean kill and while still wondering who could have orchestrated this terrible attack on our country, we took pictures as we always did and offered congratulations to our hunter.  With so many of us on this hunt, it was an easy pack back to camp.  John and Dianne stayed on the top watching for moose on the back side of the mountain.

Dianne Hutchison and her guide John Koldaway with her September 11 caribou.

Dianne Hutchison and her guide John Koldaway with her September 11 caribou.

When we got back to camp more details were released on the news with another plane flying into the Pentagon and then another one forced down to crash off target.  Could this really be happening?  Are we going to war?  With limited communications and news and no TV, it was difficult to grasp what was really going on.  I called Karen and she updated me with what the news was saying happened and their theories.  She also told me that the Alaska News was still saying all planes including small planes were grounded everywhere.   

The following day, I called Freshwater Adventures Flying Service and talked to Phil Bingman, the owner, to see if he had heard anything from FAA.  He told me the same thing that Karen had – grounded.  Two days without checking of my spike camps is okay in bad weather but I always check on day three.  The law says I must be in contact or in the field with my clients.   I met the definition of “in the field” but I feel it was my responsibility to check on them a minimum of every three days.  They expect me to be there.  The guides take enough food for five to seven days so that wasn’t a problem but they were used to me bringing them fresh ground moose or caribou burger with other fresh supplies.  I needed to fly water into the camps that were on top of the hills and to let them all know about the attack on our country.

Day three, I’m thinking very strongly that I need to get to my spike camps.  I call Phil again.  He told me everyone is still grounded.  I tell him I’m going to fly that I have to check on my camps.  He said, “no way, there are rumors that a guide in a cub was forced down by an F-15.”  That was true, as I later found out by seeing a picture in the news.

Sometime between day three and four, I received word that I could fly.  I packed the cub with supplies and took off for the spike camps.  It was still early in the day as I headed for Arrow Creek.  It is about 8 miles and is the closest one to base camp.  I checked the camp but no one was there.  I spotted a note on the Coleman stove.  It was from Dennis Byrne, our guide.  He wrote that they were walking back to camp.  The camp is on top of a 1000 foot hill so I walked over to the edge and looked down.  I saw Dennis and his hunter coming back up the hill.  I had caught them in time and started down to meet them.  They were out of breath.  Dennis said “I’m glad you are okay.  We initially thought you might have crashed or had plane problems, but we haven’t seen one plane for the last three days and thought that was pretty strange”.  I began to tell them what happened and as I’m talking I get all choked up and really emotional.  It was like it had just happened all over again.  They know it’s true but have a difficult time taking it all in.  I gave them their supplies and told them to stay at their camp and continue to hunt for moose and that I would bring more food later that evening.  Dennis was the only guide who was going to walk back to camp but all the guides and clients had the same reaction, stunned and speechless.

Dan, my partner, arrived that afternoon.  He had closed down the Wrangell Mountain camp and had gotten grounded in Anchorage the day before he was to fly out to camp.  Now we had two planes and we could fly.  Things seemed back to normal, at least in our camp. 

Ed Blair, New York City police officer with his well deserved caribou.

Ed Blair, New York City police officer with his well deserved caribou.

Our next six caribou hunters were arriving on September 18th.  It was taking most airports a long time to recover from the three day shut down and with all the new security changes, it was a headache for travelers, however understandable.  Four of our hunters cancelled out and two wanted a full refund but the other two were a father and son from New York City.  In fact, they were New York City police officers.  They had been in Ground Zero.  They had lost friends and had pulled many people out of the rubble but they made it and were glad to be there.  Their Captain had told them that the hunt would give them a well-deserved break.  They told us many first hand stories of the devastation.  It was heartbreaking.  I’m happy to say that they both took nice caribous.  They deserved them. 

Mike Blair, New York City police officer with his well deserved caribou.

Mike Blair, New York City police officer with his well deserved caribou.

Dan and I closed down Western Alaska and flew to our Dog Salmon camp September 27th.  It was a long season ending on October 23rd.  In Dillingham, I saw pictures of the Twin Towers and Mike and Ed Blair, the New York police officers, had brought a magazine with them, but I didn’t see the video until I got home.  It was old news to other people but to me it was fresh and my emotions were all over the place; anger, disbelief and sadness.  How could this happen to us!

I will never forget 9/11 nor will I forget where I was on the day that changed America!!