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Chapter Six -
Frozen North
by Clinton B. DeSoto

IN THE sparsely settled regions of the Far North short-wave radio has made itself and indispensable aid to living. Like the airplane it is continually performing miracles. From Cape Race to Little Diomede and from Windsor to the Melville Peninsula the face of the Northland is dotted with the jutting antennas of amateur radio stations. In the twinkling of an eye their comforting signals leap the vast white spaces, bringing news and companionship and relieving distress.

The inhabitants of Ugashik, a little Indian village on the shores of Bristol Bay along the northwest coast of the Alaskan Peninsula, cowered in their huts while high winds from the north brought winter closer to them.

It was September, but already the ice of winter gripped the shore line. The fisher folk stayed in their scattered huts. Their boats were out of the water, and the fishing season was ended for another year.

But it was not the snow and ice that made them cower in their huts. It was fear--fear of the dreaded red plague. For a deadly scarlet-fever epidemic was sweeping the Indian village.

All of its sixty-five inhabitants had been exposed. Many were sick; some were dying. The others knew the same grim fate awaited all--unless something could be done. They sat, helpless, waiting to be struck down.

But there was one man in Ugashik who was not helpless. He was Virgil Hanson, the lone white resident, representative of the U.S. Department of the Interior in that isolated village and an amateur radio operator as well.

While the Indians burned herbs to propitiate the evil spirits and the smoke from their tiny fires curled upward to the low ceiling Hanson sat at his radio key and sent up a plea for help.

Over in Anchorage Halford Nogle, casually roving the dial, heard the frantic appeal. He answered Hanson's call. When he had received the message giving details he relayed it in turn to the Bureau of Indian Affairs at Juneau.

From Juneau orders came dispatching a Pacific International Airways plane, piloted by Al Monsen, a daring pioneer of the northern air trails. From Anchorage to Kanakanak Monsen flew. At Kanakanak Dr A.W. WIlson, who had come up from his home station of Dutch Harbor, and a nurse of the Indian Bureau boarded the plane. With Monsen and the antitoxin they roared off through the Arctic skies on their mission of mercy.

Meanwhile, Virgil Hanson and Halford Nogle, the Anchorage operator, stayed at their keys maintaining constant communication. Hanson had been a licensed operator for less than a month, but his father was one of Alaska's outstanding amateurs, and he had been nurtured in the tradition. He stayed at his post.

Less than twenty-four hours after the call for help had first been sent the plane landed safely on the wind-swept ice offshore from Ugashik. The fever-swept Indian village gave thanks as the white man's relief bird swooped low to their aid. The doctor and the nurse administered the antitoxin, treated those who were ill and curbed the epedemic.

The villagers blessed those who brought them relief from the deadly plague--but no less did they bless the magic ether waves that had carried their cry!

Virgil Hanson is one of dozens of amateur operators along Bristol Bay, some situated in the larger centers of Alaskan population, others isolated in tiny villages no larger than Ugashik. Radio is almost as much a part of that life as the telephone is in a suburban household.

The outgoing mail from Pilot Point was nine days late in reaching Anchorage one time, as an illustration, but had it not been for radio it might have been later still.

First of all, the air-mail pilot had the misfortune to blow out a cylinder head shortly after taking off from the Point and made a forced landing at Egegik. Mrs Williams, the government teacher's wife at Egegik, got busy with her amateur station, and soon another plane with two mechanics was on its way from Anchorage.

But when they arrived the mechanics found the engine couldn't be repaired. Mrs Williams got on the job again, and next day the head pilot of the Star Air Service flew in with a whole new engine.

Leaving the replacement, the Star pilot loaded part of the mail and passengers from the stranded ship and headed north. But misfortune overtook him, too; when he landed for the regular stop at Koggiung, fifty miles farther along, he cracked off a ski. However, at Koggiung the postmaster, Herman Hermann, was also a radio operator, and soon a new ski was on its way.

Eventually, after one more lift from radio's helping hand giving weather reports warning of a dangerous storm, the two planes landed at Anchorage and delivered their mail and passengers. They were a few days behind schedule, but they were safe, thanks to radio and a pair of helpful hams.

Amateurs of the Far North have written many such tales in their logs--so many that they are routine and commonplace, seldom mentioned.

And then every once in a while something comes along that puts these casual followers of the microphone and key into the hero class.

In the mining settlement of Selkirk, 150 miles northwest of Winnipeg, many winters ago, a small family owed to its existence to one of these unsung amateur heroes.

This isolated village was populated chiefly by struggling miners who dug for precious metals in darkness underneath the ground in order that their families might carry on a precarious existence above it. In the summer there was an occasional train, and the single line of telegraph wire provided a tenuous link between this outpost of humanity and the rest of the world. There was no doctor in Selkirk; the community could not support one.

In the spring of 1925 a young mining engineer brought his bride to the village. The winter before the engineer had gone out to Winnipeg and there he married. When the spring thaws came and the early buds appeared along the Manitoba countryside he brought his bride back to the mines.

They were idyllically happy in their love, content at first in themselves and later in the thoughts of the child that was on the way. Occasionally there would be a twinge of dread as they thought of the ordeal ahead, but that was dismissed with ready self-assurance.

The glorious summer bloomed and faded again, and then all too quickly autumn came. The sun lost its warmth, and the cold winds searched out the chinks in the miner's cabin. The young husband was tenderly solicitous of his bride.

But the young wife was of more delicate stuff than most of the miners' wives, and when October's winds had swept the ground bare of leaves the old women of the village told him that she would die unless a doctor could attend her.

The lines of strain deepened in the miner's sallow face, and he stumbled about the mine shaft and passages absently, intent on the worry inside him, But there was still the railroad and the telegraph line to depend on. As long as they were there she would be safe.

Then the heavy snows came and blocked the branch-line railroad service, and a glazestorm completed the village’s isolation by depositing a heavy load of ice on the single strand of telegraph wire, breaking it.

The men of the village told him no doctor could be reached now.

And now the young wife was suffering, and her time was drawing near. As the last days approached the miner became desperate. Frantic with the urgency of his need, he went from person to person, begging help. It was then someone told him about the radio "bug"—the young fellow who played with an amateur set in a shack on the side of the mountain. A lonely figure, a youth they had laughed at for his eccentricities…. It seemed strange to hear them speak seriously of help from him now.

The sick woman’s husband hurried to the radio "bug’s" home.

When the miner asked the youth to perform a miracle and save the lives of his young wife and her unborn child the operator looked at him for a long moment. Then he said quietly: "I’ll do the best I can."

He did not tell them of the struggle he had been having to make himself heard outside the settlement at all, of the handicaps of working without electric power and without proper parts and accessories, or of the flashing iridescence of the aurora borealis that blotted out signals for hours and even days on end.

He just sat down to work. For two successive nights the amateur remained constantly at his key, taking scarcely a moment for sleep before the next day’s labor down in the mine. His skill and his prayers went into every dot and dash. But throughout the Northwest the crashing aurora smothered out his weak signals and kept them from the ears of other operators. With all his efforts he could not make himself heard.

It was not until the third night of trying that another amateur in Fargo, N.D., distinguished the faint whisper from Selkirk through the roar of static. He answered the call and wrote down the urgent message and then he wired the owners of the Selkirk mine at Winnipeg.

At the offices of the mining company there was immediate action. The company physician himself started out on the perilous and exhausting journey to the village of Selkirk. He arrived just in time. Almost before he could shrug himself free of his heavy clothing and restore the circulation in numbed hands and fingers the climax came. The frail wife fought for strength and life with every ounce of nerve she possessed. In the end the woman’s courage and the surgeon’s skill triumphed. The mother lived, and so did the child. And the radio "bug" of course, became a local hero.

Back in Alaska, in another autumn, high winds again came blowing down from the north, bringing ice and storm. The snow-laden winds wailed around the corner of the world.

The wind whistled high, but higher still there were dots and dashes hurtling through the ether. Their burden was a plea for help--the call of another radio amateur, his mission the saving of another human life.

A thousand miles to the south, in Seattle, Ed Stevens flipped the switches and prepared to keep an early-morning schedule. He heard the call, the hurrying, portent-filled call from Alitak on Kodiak Island in the Gulf of Alaska, and he answered it.

At lonely Lazy Bay on Kodiak Island five-year-old Henry Looff, son of the Bureau of Fisheries warden on the island, was gravely ill. There was no doctor on the island, Stevens learned from the Alitak operator. The boy's parents feared the worst but did not know what was wrong or what to do about it.

Stevens asked Cyril Pemberton, the operator in Alitak, to stand by and reached for the telephone. He described the little lad's symptoms to Dr A.H. Seering of Harbor View Hospital, Seattle. The physician diagnosed the case as accute appendicitis and gravely warned of the danger of peritonitis. He urged that the boy be rushed to a hospital at once.

Stevens relayed this information. But the nearest hospital was at Anchorage. "Can't reach Anchorage because of bad weather," the Alitak amateur flashed back. "Please send a message to Anchorage for help," he pleaded.

Stevens called the United States Army Telegraph which employs both wireless and cable, and the message was relayed through to Anchorage--a radio-wire circuit of more than two thousand miles.

Pilot Harry Blunt, pioneer Alaskan flier, at once took off through the storm with Dr A.S. Walkowski. Twice the seaplane was forced down. Twice the intrepid duo again roared into the gale. Late that afternoon they reached the sick boy's bedside at Lazy Bay, four hundred miles' air line from Anchorage.

Henry Looff was dangerously ill. An operation was imperative if peritonitis were to be avoided. Dr Walkowski administered emergency treatment to forestall more serious complications. Taking the boy and his mother aboard the seaplane, they set out for Anchorage.

But thick weather during the morning forced the ship down before they had gone half the distance. They came down near Barren Island. All day long they stayed near the southern shore of this shelterless island, fearing to take off again. But when night came the storm became even more severe. They were exposed to the open sea, and Blunt decided to risk crossing over to the leeward side of the island.

They made the brief hop successfully and came down on the Aleutian side at Inska Bay. Shelter was found there, but they were still fogbound and they decided to stay until morning.

Dr Walkowski continued his treatment of the stricken boy through the night. When morning came the weather lifted, and they took off on the last leg of the thousand-mile mercy flight through fog and storm. Blunt became concerned over his gasoline supply and wirelessed that they were running low. Pilot Al Monsen flew to meet them, but the aid was unecessary. They landed safely at Anchorage without further misadventure.

Henry Looff was taken to the hospital immediately and at once underwent an operation. The next day he was reported "doing splendidly." An alert operator, a daring aviator, a courageous physician--together they had saved his life.

In the Far North, too, there are times when amateur radio serves to lengthen the long arm of the law.

Such a service was performed by Samuel Hanson of Pilot Point on Bristol Bay, Alaska. As a matter of record, Hanson is himself something akin to the law in that small community, for he is the resident teacher in the Indian Field Service of the U.S. Interior Department. Besides the teaching of Eskimo children on behalf of the Office of Education (the territory provides its own schools for whites) his job entails handling the work of the Reindeer Service, actively engaging in the care of the sick and distressed, distributing food and clothing to the destitute, providing hospital care and performing other incidental services.

It might be assumed that Samuel Hanson is a busy man. Yet he finds time to be an active radio amateur with an elaborate station installed in the teacherage of Pilot Point's big new government school. Moreover, he is an expert 16-mm. color-movie maker.

It was this combination of his hobbies that fitted him for a leading role in this affair. It was a tragedy of the frozen North that might well be titled: The Stepdaughter and the Eskimo.

Yet that is treating with levity what actially was a fairly serious business--serious to Hanson and his Eskimo charges at least.

The opening scene of the drama was laid in Pilot Point; the time--autumn, 1939.

In his official capacity Samuel Hanson received an invitation to attend a wedding, the wedding of attractive Annie Olympic to an up-and-coming young Eskimo. In his unofficial capacity he took advantage of the opportunity to preserve the colorful occasion on 16-mm. Kodachrome. He took shots of the bride and the groom and the bride's mother and all the assembled guests. Even Tim, the bride's stepfather, was around somewhere in the background of the pictures.

The next day Samuel Hanson made more movies, but Tim was no longer in the background. Nor was Hanson acting any longer in an unofficial capacity. It was official now.

For at twelve-fifty-three that morning, Annie Olympic had died with three bullets in her body.

Retribution is swift and sure in the north country. Hardly more than an hour's time elapsed after the shooting before clues pointing to the identity of the murderer were uncovered. In less than an hour more the killer himself was in custody.

The murderer was Tim, the dead girl's stepfather. He was jealous of Annie's marriage to her handsome Eskimo husband, it seemed. There was an element of revenge, too, for Annie had testified against him at Valdez, the seat of the law, where he had been tried some time before on a statutory charge.

And so before her marital night was ended he shot Annie three times.

At 4 A.M., the killer safely in custody, Samuel Hanson warmed up his transmitter and sent out an urgent general call. He had a message for Valdez, center for the law-enforcement agencies of the territory, twelve hundred miles away.

No one nearer than San Francisco answered his call, but the California operator agreed to take his message and telephoned it to Western Union. Back up the coast it came by wire to Valdez.

Early that forenoon the U.S. marshal at Naknek, one hundred miles distant from Bristol Bay, received orders from his headquarters to go to Pilot Point and take the prisoner. The coroner's jury met, and Tim and the marshal boarded the airplane that carried them to Valdez.

Tim was jailed and held for trial. In the meantime Samuel Hanson had his film developed. He had pictures of the wedding, of the coroner's jury, of Tim as he was taken to the plane and of the corpse in her blood. The pictures helped to gain a confession from Tim.

When the trial was held Hanson and his Kodachrome movies were subpoenaed as witnesses. He got an airplane trip to Valdez out of it.

Tim? Tim got twenty-five years.