Mysteries Of The Wilderness Triangle

From Juneau to Yakutat, north to the mountains of Barrow, and back to Anchorage, this vast expanse of landscape includes tundra, fijords, majestic mountains, and 6 million acres of Denali National Park and Preserve. Through the years, countless people, planes, and ships have been lost and remain unaccounted for within the Wilderness Triangle. This distant and unfamiliar territory was the site of the largest search and rescue mission ever attempted in the U.S. Some people had little knowledge of this area until the History Channel first aired “Alaska’s Bermuda Triangle” on June 26, 2001.

The ill-fated flight left Anchorage for Juneau on October 16, 1972 carrying prominent political leaders, Congressman Nick Begich, his aide Russell Brown, and House Majority Leader Hale Boggs. Although Don Jonz was an experienced pilot, weather conditions were poor, and the persistent fog and drizzle made flying difficult. Somewhere near the Chugach Mountains, the small Cessna and all onboard seemed to vanish into thin air.

A massive air search was launched, with the U.S. Coast Guard, 40 military aircraft from Elmendorf AFB, and over 20 civilian planes joining in the effort. Hampered by dense fog and extreme cold, the search covered the entire wilderness area including the shorelines of Icy Strait and Glacier Bay. Even though the super spy plane, SR-71 Blackbird, was also sent to photograph the area and aid in finding the missing, neither passengers nor plane could be found after an intensive 39-day search.

This was a time of political upheaval and controversy, as a few months before, in June of 1972, the FBI had become closely involved with the ongoing investigation of Watergate. Coincidentally or not, the missing plane and its passengers did arouse suspicion, as hints of conspiracy and cover-up rapidly surfaced. Other well-known figures also played a part in this venture including former president Bill Clinton, who took Boggs to the airport and later appointed his wife as ambassador to the Vatican. To add to the mystery, several interesting facts emerged about the events surrounding Hale Boggs, who was an active participant in the legislation of Alaska’s Native Claim Settlement. He had earlier requested the resignation of J. Edgar Hoover, the powerful and controversial head of the FBI, comparing his strategies to those of the Soviet Union. Boggs had also served on the Warren Commission to investigate the Kennedy assassination, which further stirred up the media worldwide, while rumors and speculation of questionable dealings circulated throughout the Internet.

During this time, an unknown informant called in an aircraft sighting near Yakutat Bay and a report of at least two passengers being still alive. A telex released by the Coast Guard documented the report, and the FBI evidently pursued the tip, but nothing ever came of it. Verification and credibility of this person were eventually dismissed as unreliable. According to an article that appeared in the Feb-Mar 2009 issue of Vertical Magazine on the history of Search and Rescue Satellite – Satellite Aided Tracking (SARSAT), one positive result did arise from this high profile, yet unsuccessful search. The new law passed by Congress required all aircraft to use an Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT) we know as the “black box.” This ELT activates upon impact and transmits on a specific radio band, bypassing the frequent military alerts that previously interfered with emergency transmissions. By 1979, an agreement to coordinate satellite tracking was reached by the U.S., Canada, France, and the former Soviet Union. Today, there are over 39 countries participating in SARSAT.

As so often happens with many unexplained disappearances, intriguing legends of mysterious people and strange places often appear. The Tingit Indians of Alaska believe in Kushtaka, meaning “land otter man,” a mythical creature with amazing powers and one who is able to change its shape at will. Many believe the Kushtaka is a friendly sort of spirit who changes shape to a familiar form that will be easily recognized by travelers lost in the wilderness. With the help of the Kushtaka, these people then manage to survive or are even happily transformed into other Kushtaka. Some Tingit Indians see the Kushtaka as evil, however, seeking the very young as their prey, a legend that mothers may have used to keep their small children from wandering too far. According to the legend, sailors are frequently lost at sea when tempted by the Kushtaka, reminiscent of the Sirens in Greek mythology. Unsuspecting travelers are lured to their death by mournful sounds of babies crying or women screaming in the wilderness. Similar to the legend of the dragon who lures his victims to the bottom of the Devil’s Sea, the Kushtaka may simply carry the missing away to some mysterious domain.

Although this area is nowhere near the Bermuda or the Dragon triangles, there are similarities in the disappearances and reports of the missing. Many have been thoroughly investigated, but some have never been explained. This rugged wilderness has an appeal of its own for people who relish seclusion, the pleasure of camping, or the excitement of hunting in the great outdoors. Exploring the Wilderness Triangle can be challenging and often dangerous, as many drown in lakes of cold water where bodies do not rise to the surface, or are lost across the frozen land and in the massive glacier rifts. Hikers, mountain climbers, residents, and tourists must cope with the huge population of bears and the extreme weather conditions that prevail in the Wilderness Triangle. It is not surprising, therefore, that over 2800 cases of missing people were reported in just one year. Considering that Alaska is not densely populated, this number is much higher in comparison with other states.

Curious travelers, amateur detectives, and avid adventurists are captivated by stories of the missing and the unsolved. Should you choose to visit the Wilderness Triangle and explore some of its mysteries, perhaps you’ll come upon the Kushtaka somewhere along the way.

Sharon L. Slayton

Filed Under: Travel mysteries

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