Hiker's three-day trek in Alaska failed to save sick friend's life

July 25, 1991|By Dan Thanh Dang and Traci Johnson

Donald St. Clair wasn't alarmed when he went to get help for his friend, Clyde "Bubby" Bowman, after he got sick last weekend during a wilderness trip in remote Alaska. The two men had traveled together for 16 years and never had any serious problems.

"I was saying to myself, 'We'll get Bub down here, get some good food in him and give him some rest," said Mr. St. Clair, a sand and gravel salesman from Calverton. "Then I'll call United and book us another flight back home."

But Mr. St. Clair returned to Maryland alone Tuesday night. Mr.Bowman, a 40-year-old Beltsville man who was an experienced outdoorsman, died sometime during the three days took Mr. St. Clair to hike 15 miles for help.

"It was never in my mind that Bubby would die," said Mr. St. Clair, 51, who had known Mr. Bowman for 24 years. "He didn't look terminal; he just looked weak."

Mr. Bowman apparently died of natural causes, according to Alaska state troopers. Police call the death "non-suspicious," but blood and tissue analyses were being done to investigate the cause of his death further.

Mr. Bowman and Mr. St. Clair started their adventure in Bettles, Alaska, at the Gates of the Arctic National Park on July 12, a Friday, for what was supposed to be a 2 1/2 -week trip.

They flew to Summit Lake, where they spent two days, and began to hike the 40 miles south to Red Star Lake, where a plane would have dropped off their canoe and other supplies. The two men would then begin a 120-mile canoe trip on the North Fork of the Koyukuk River back to Bettles.

But halfway through the hike to the lake, Mr. Bowman began to feel nauseated and weak, and the illness worsened steadily.

By the time they got to Ernie Creek, Mr. St. Clair decided that his friend was too weak to go on. Mr. Bowman, the outdoorsman, didn'tput up a fight. "By that time Bubby was so weak," Mr. St. Clair said, "he was ready to stop."

"He wasn't coughing or sneezing. Bubby was weak, but he helped me put up the tent before I left," said Mr. St. Clair, who wrapped Mr. Bowman in a sleeping bag and left him with food and water before setting out for help last Thursday.

"As I was leaving, he asked for his gun."

Mr. St. Clair began hiking south for help, trying to meet the plane that was to leave supplies at Red Star Lake on Friday. He hiked all night, stopping once about 3:30 a.m. to rest.

"The trail got rougher after I left," Mr. St. Clair said. "I knew that because Bub was so weak, he couldn't have gone on."

He reached the lake Friday afternoon. He slept in the bushes that night.

When Mr. St. Clair woke Saturday morning, he found his canoe and other supplies for the trip lying 30 feet up the river from where he had slept. He realized then that he had missed the supply plane, but he wasn't worried because he soon found another line to the outside that he was confident would arrive in time.

"Beyond the canoe, I found a campsite," Mr. St. Clair said. "A couple who was camping there said a plane would be coming for them the next day."

Mr. St. Clair stayed with the couple until the plane arrived. He notified park officials, and rescuers from the park service went for Mr. Bowman immediately.

When they got to Ernie Creek, they found that Mr. Bowman had been dead at least 24 hours.

Mr. St. Clair said he'd never realized that Mr. Bowman was seriously ill. On his three-day hike for help, he said, he kept a daily log on a miniature tape recorder. More than once, he said, "I commented into it that Bubby was going to get help."

"Bubby just got into hiking a couple of months ago," he said. "This was our second trip to Alaska, but it was our first major hiking trip."

Mr. Bowman's family said he'd shown no signs of deteriorating health.

"It came as a total surprise," said Mr. Bowman's mother, Roma, 65, who has lived with her husband and two sons in the 4400 block of Greenwood Road for 40 years. "This was really unexpected."

His brother, Walter, 43, called him a "quiet person that wanted things to be very simple."

Walter Bowman said his brother helped run the family business, Beltsville Sports Center, which sells hunting and fishing equipment, and enjoyed working on cars. "When he left on the trip, he was remodeling an A-model Ford," he said.

Clinton Bowman, 69, said his son, was an "avid hiking and outdoorsy type person."

"He was my right-hand man at the store," said Mr. Bowman, who was at his store yesterday because, he said, he knew his son would have wanted them to open for business. "He liked to paint, too. He knew a lot about guns."

Mr. St. Clair and Mr. Bowman had camped in many places, from Oregon to the Bahamas, to which they had planned to return after their trip to Alaska. "He was one of the most agreeable people you'd ever meet in your whole life," Mr. St. Clair said.

He also said the tragic ending of this trip would not keep him from returning to Alaska.

"If you lose a loved one, you would still go back to your house." Mr. St. Clair said. "It's a beautiful spot. If Bubby were here, he'd go back with me."

Mr. Bowman, who was born in a room above the family store, graduated from High Point Senior High and the University of Maryland at College Park.

In addition to his parents and brother, he is survived by a sister, Marsha McMillan of Beltsville.

Services for Mr. Bowman will be at 11 a.m. Saturday at the Borgwardt Funeral Home, 4400 Powder Mill Road in Beltsville.

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