For as long as I can remember I have been interested in the lost and forgotten. Some of my first memories are of my grandparent’s ranch in the hills of California, where I would use my father’s beat up metal detector to search for old coins and abandoned gold mines.
I never found anything on the property really worth sharing, but it sparked my passion for exploration.
I started small, first giving guided tours of Mammoth Caves in Kentucky, and for a short spell working for the Department of National Resources in updating national parks maps for inclusion into a digital database. Mammoth Cave is beautiful, and I recommend going any time you get the chance, however it was my work with DNR that really pointed me in the direction of my life’s passion.
Part of my job included cross checking various geological surveys and previous maps so that we could have one comprehensive image that could be filtered or overlaid with any requested information. For instance, if you were interested in the geysers of Yellowstone, then you could select to remove all info from the overlay except icons showing the different geyser systems. This way the DNR could do things like track anything from the numbers of visitors to each park vs. the distribution of the parks wildlife, to active seismological activity in a location against elevation and forest density. It was a complicated and time consuming project, but it gave me access to a map I still use to this day. The map itself is a plot of where small planes that were lost over national parks were last recorded.
As a side project, I began to try and track down any of the planes I could in order to keep a running total of how many had been recovered, and how many were still lost. Anytime I was in an area near a national park or preserve, I’d consult my map to see if there were any missing aircraft that I could search for on an off day or a weekend. Most of the time I’d find that the planes in question had been accounted for, or were likely to have gone down over large bodies of water and out of reach for me. A few of them I was able to search for on foot, but I never really found much and I explained it to my friends as more of an eccentric hobby than anything else.
On a DNR trip up to Denali in Alaska, I noticed that there was a mark on the chart indicating that a Piper Super Cub disappeared in the region in 1957. After finishing my work for the day I tried to interview some of the local park rangers to find out if they could tell me if the plane had been discovered or not. Most of the rangers weren’t able to give me any information, but after making an annoyance out of myself they recommended I speak with a retired ranger named Dan McGivern. They gave me his address and told me to pick up a bottle of Jack Daniels if I planned on dropping by unannounced, since he was a bit of a recluse and it seems that getting hammered was the only reason he went into town anymore.
McGivern lived about three hours away on the outskirts of Anchorage in a simple one-story cabin about a quarter-mile from his closest neighbors. The cabin looked worn and shoddy, and if anyone had attempted to maintain the yard it 10 years it didn’t show. The grass was waist high except along gravel driveway that ran along the cabin. Even the stone path that led to the front door was uneven, with weeds choking their way between the bricks of the paving stones.
I summoned up some courage and got out of my rented pick-up truck with a printout of the map, bottle of Jack, and my smartphone. I figured I could use the smartphone’s voice recorder to record our conversation in case I wanted to make any additional notes on the map later, or he was able to give me a precise location of the plane.
McGivern had opened the door as soon as I got out of my truck. Frankly, I was kind of expecting some guy who looked like Wilford Brimley standing in the doorway and holding a shotgun, but the man looking back at me was extremely thin, clean shaven, and tanned. What stood out the most though were his nervous eyes, darting back in forth like an animal searching for a predator.
I introduced myself and told him why I was there, and he reluctantly let me in to sit down and talk. Well, he let me in once I gave him the bottle. McGivern seemed originally to be of few words, but when he started talking he spoke loud and steadily. During our conversation I could see him tilting his right ear towards me, straining to hear.
At first he didn’t want to tell me much about his time at Denali, so after giving him some of my stories from Mammoth Cave, and sharing a few glasses of whiskey, he became very quiet. His weary eyes stopped looking out the windows and checking the entrances, and finally focused on me. McGivern said he’d tell me about the plane, if I promised not to go look for it. I agreed, and asked if I could use the recorder for my notes. He simply nodded, and waited until I set down the phone. The transcription is below.
Me: “Ok, it looks like its recording. Interview with Dan McGivern, um, 2:30 p.m., outside Anchorage. Interview regarding Piper Super Cub November -2-2-7-5-Charlie. Sorry, I haven’t done this before.”
McGivern: “It’s ok. I mentioned that I was a park ranger from 1964-1998. I was fresh out of the military, and had just missed being shipped over to Vietnam and decided I wanted to see the world. Somehow ended up near Anchorage and fell in love with the place. That’s when I first found Denali and McKinley, and figured I liked the outdoors enough to try and become a park ranger. It was pretty interesting work, could be tedious but more often than not it was good.
“Anyways, I had heard tales from before my time of a small plane that had gone missing over the western edge of the park in the late ‘50s. None of the other guys had ever found anything, so we didn’t pay it much mind. One day though, in the middle of 1974 this wildlife photographer came into the ranger station saying he had seen a flash of bright yellow up one of the ridges he couldn’t climb, in an area not too well traveled. He gave a brief description of the thing, which sounded like that banana color you always see Super Cub’s painted in. Well the other rangers and I just started talking this poor fellow’s ears off. Where’d you see it? Did you see any other wreckage? Stuff like that.
“The photographer said he took a picture of it, and would try and develop the prints so he could show us. We were overjoyed I’ll tell ya, and began planning who would go to find this missing airplane. Sad story though, some guy and his wife had taken off from Anchorage just to sightsee when they went down in a storm. The mountains around here are dangerous, and these new pilots get in their heads that the first thing they want to do is go for a trip into the mountains. Then the poor bastards hit some of the wind that bursts from around the peaks and it’s just too much for ‘em.
“So a few days had passed and the photographer came back with the prints. Me and Jackson, (he was the other ranger in the station at the time,) both cried out that the damn thing was a Cub! I don’t remember the last time I had been that excited. We were able to track down the rough location of where the photographer found it, and decided we’d try and head out the next day to see if we could find it.
“Jackson decided that we should tell the others where we were going as soon as we left, just so that we could try and find the damn things first. We headed out in an old Willys Jeep and drove about as close as we could. It was still about a six hour hike from where we left the truck, so we brought camping supplies and our rifles. I don’t know how it is now, but back then you had to buy your own guns to patrol with. I had a Marlin 1895, it’s a lever action chambered in .45-70. That round will bring down damn near anything on the North American continent, which is reassuring when you’re working with grizzlies. Jackson had some Weatherby bolt action his daddy had given him, and even though he barely had fired the thing he seemed ok with it.
“So, we begin hiking and after a few hours find the ridge the photographer was talking about. Damn thing was that we couldn’t tell where exactly the plane would be on the ridge. So, we walked along this creek that ran by the base of the mountains, looking for any sign of that ugly yellow. It ended up getting dark, so we built a fire and bedded down for the night.
“I woke up in the middle of the night, don’t know why but something just felt off. I called out to Jackson, but didn’t get an answer. Usually he snored like a sonovabitch so it was pretty strange. I climbed out of my small pup tent and found his empty. I figured he was taking a leak, since all of his stuff seemed to be there except for his gun and this big flashlight he always carried with him.
“The fire was dying down, so I stoked it a bit and threw some more wood on while I waited for him to come back. He never did.
“The sun came up, and I decided to look for him. I was thinking he probably had been hurt, or maybe got lost on his way back to camp. I started hollerin’ his name and walked all up and down that damn ridge when I finally saw the thing. A flash of yellow on top of the ridge in front of me. I climbed the ridge in a hurry and ended up finding the remains of the Super Cub crashed into the side of the mountain. The wings had been torn off when it slid between a pair of boulders, and the fuselage was on its side. The glass canopy had been torn open, and there was no sign of either the husband or the wife. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the seat restraints had been ripped to shreds. When I turned around a noticed a small cave about 30 feet away from the plane, and a trail of blood just short of the entrance.
“I just about screamed and the only thing that popped into my mind is some grizzly dragging poor Jackson into that cave while I’m lyin’ in my sleeping bag. So I run over to the cave entrance and load my rifle. At that point in my life I was used to dealing with bears. Usually they’re big cowards, but every once in a while you run into one that’s not afraid of people. Those are the ones we had to put down because they’d get too close to attacking visitors who might stumble upon them without knowing any better.
“So I get my flashlight out of my pack and clip it to my packs harness so I can have both hands free. I walked into the cave, and my light barely reached six feet in front of me it felt like. As I’m walking, I just about trip over Jackson’s broken rifle. I checked it, and it had an empty shell in the chamber. It looked like Jackson had gotten a shot off but hadn’t been able to work the bolt. Looking back, I figure that the gunshot must have been what woke me up the night before.
“I went further into the cave, and it opened up into a large room. There was random shit scattered all over the floor. A bunch of old Indian artifacts, some random things that you’d find at camp sites, you know, camp stoves and cookware and things like that. I just figured I had stumbled on to some kind of grizzly den where they dragged whatever they stole from campsites back to.
“That was before I shined my lights on the walls.”
At this point during the conversation McGivern began shaking and downed the rest of his whiskey. He excused himself for a few moments and entered the bathroom. When he came back his eyes were bloodshot and red-rimmed.
He poured himself another glass, after about a half a minute began to talk again.
“The walls… they had been painted on like cave paintings. There were crude stick figures like cavemen being chased by some large hunched over white creature. It looked like a giant white gorilla or something. Moving along there were pictures of an Indian village being torn apart by the same type of giant white creature. I tripped on the uneven floor and looked down realized I was walking over old broken bones.
“I screamed and fell backwards and my light fell out of my hands and hit the ground. The beam shone on the next section of the wall, and showed a more recent drawing. It was a crude representation of a plane fuselage, and this thing… this thing was reaching inside and pulling out the screaming people. My eyes caught something glinting on the floor, and I realized it was the seatbelt latch from the Piper.
“I picked up the light and… and I held it over the newest section of the wall. There was a picture of the thing grabbing a stick figure out of a pup tent. Lying on the floor below the drawing was what was left of Jackson. His body was twisted, like when a dog catches a rabbit and shakes it around. His eyelids were open, but his eyes were gone.
“I dropped the light again and started crying, and grabbed my rifle. That’s when I heard shifting from the other side of the cave. I raised my rifle and yelled, and the fucking thing started making this horrible noise. I realized that the goddamn thing was laughing at me! I fired the rifle at the sound, and heard whatever it was shriek. The flash of the .45-70 lit up the room and I felt my left ear drum burst. Next thing I know I’m running out of the cave, my rifle dragging along behind me on its sling.
“I don’t remember what the thing looked like, but I knew I hit it. I didn’t see it because in the muzzle flash from the rifle lit up the cave like a goddamn flare went off, and what was right in front of me was a fresh cave painting, showing a man sitting next to two tents near a fire, while eyes watch from the brush behind him.
“The other rangers found me two days later, delirious and dehydrated. After they got me back to the station I was shipped to Anchorage to the hospital for treatment for a few days. As soon as I was out, I grabbed my rifle and tried to organize a search party. I kept tellin’ em what I saw, but they kept saying it was just a goddamn grizzly. I know what I saw, and grizzlies don’t keep any fucking trophies.
“Finally a group of us went out. We borrowed a Huey from the air base in Anchorage and they dropped us off pretty close to where I thought the cave was. We hiked and after a bit of time found the fuselage from the plane, and a pile of big boulders where the cave should have been.
“Lying on the ground was Jackson’s rifle. We collected it, and the other rangers figured he died in a cave in. They thought that I must have had a breakdown seeing him die and then got chased by a bear, but I knew it wasn’t right. They took some pictures for the accident report, and told me they’d write it up when we got back. A few days later they brought me the folder to sign off on, and I began flipping through the pictures of the plane and noticed something that made my blood run cold. I pulled the original picture the photographer took and compared them.
“The fuselage was tilted the wrong way, and the boulders that sheared off the wings weren’t in the new pictures. Something had dragged the goddamn plane away from the cave after I ran and planted the rifle. Every few years you’ll hear about hikers going missing, and usually it can be explained by being caught in bad weather unprepared. Sometimes though, they’re never found. I quit as soon as I started comparing disappearances with the park map, and saw the people were missing closer and closer the cabin I was living in each year.”
That was the last time I heard from McGivern. I marked the plane as recovered, but put an asterisk next to it. I didn’t realize at the time, but soon my map would be filled with asterisks and annotations. I contacted the Ranger station to follow up, and they told me that after I had visited McGivern had shown up. He was carrying a hunting rifle and some camping gear, and left for the interior of the park. The weather got bad and they presumed he was killed by exposure. His body was never found.