‘Backwards through hell to get to Purgatory’: The tourist who spent 67 days lost in the Alaska wilds
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‘Backwards through hell to get to Purgatory’: The tourist who spent 67 days lost in the Alaska wilds

Nov 24, 2023

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Part of a continuing weekly series on Alaska history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage or Alaska history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.

In 1961, William "Bill" Waters, a postal clerk from Erlanger, Kentucky, just south of Cincinnati, had some significant leave time built up. Like any reasonable person, he seized the opportunity to drive to Alaska. He later said, "I drove alone to Alaska on a vacation and decided to take a side trip on the Steese Highway to Circle City, which is on the banks of the Yukon River. When I got to Circle, I decided to take a hike." Sixty-seven days later, he emerged, rescued from death by the slimmest of margins.

Day one, June 20, 1961, Waters parked his car on the highway near Circle, 150 miles northeast of Fairbanks, and headed off on foot for Big Lake, nearly three miles away to the west by Birch Creek. In keeping with his long journey north, he packed a variety of camping gear, most of which was left locked inside the vehicle.

Also left behind was a copy of "How to Camp Out" by Civil War veteran John Mead Gould, originally published in 1877. While some parts are expectedly dated, much of the book remains insightful. Gould wrote, "Do not be in a hurry to spend money on new inventions. Every year there is put upon the market some patent knapsack, folding stove, cooking-utensil, or camp trunk and cot combined ... leave them all alone." Other wisdom included "time used in making a bed is well spent" and "wear what you please if it be comfortable and durable." More relevant for Waters, Gould noted, "If you are going to travel where you have never been before, begin early to study your map."

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On that day, Waters had no problem reaching the lake. He fished for an hour but was unsatisfied. He told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, "I figured there must be a creek off in the foothills and set for it, but I never found one. I turned to go back and started following this stream thinking it would take me back to the road."

He returned to Big Lake and began following Birch Creek. Unfortunately, he took a wrong turn and followed the creek downstream. If he had headed upstream — or if he had studied an area map as per Gould — Waters would have run into roads and people.

Day five, June 25, a Wien Alaska Airlines employee notified Fairbanks-area authorities of a then unidentified tourist walking along the highway near Circle with a small pack who had not been seen in days.

Day six, June 26, the search began in earnest. Fairbanks Search and Rescue Unit members found a T-shirt attached to a pole about a mile from Big Lake. A Civilian Air Patrol flight spotted a makeshift tarp sleeping bag just north of the trail Waters should have been on.

Day seven, June 27, a team of bloodhounds from Talkeetna owned by C.W. "Shorty" Bradley were flown in to assist with the hunt. Most of the people involved assumed Waters was dead. By then, the News-Miner referred to the operation as a search to "find the body of William C. Waters."

The bloodhounds picked up a scent on the trail and followed it directly to Big Lake, where they repeatedly attempted to jump into the water. Bradley was confident Waters was dead and at the bottom of the lake. A diver searched for two and a half hours but found no traces of human remains. That same day, a state police officer discovered an abandoned camp 14 miles from Circle at Birch Creek.

Day eight, June 28, the search continued at the lake. Grappling hooks were dragged across, obviously without any luck. By now, the authorities presumed but did not declare Waters dead.

Meanwhile, Waters had only just realized that he might be in trouble. "For the first three or four days I heard airplanes, but I didn't think I was lost or didn't think much about them," he said. Panic finally set in, and he "began to follow the stream as fast as I could," unknowingly moving farther away from his rescuers.

From the end of June through July and deep into August, Waters wandered the Alaska wilderness. Low trees jabbed out at every angle, ripping his thin clothes to shreds. His feet, clad in insufficient moccasins, swelled as he plowed over rough land and through muskeg. He said, "Every day would get worse, my feet became sore and swollen, and I could barely go on. I was afraid to take off my shoes for fear that I could not get them back on again." The swarms of mosquitoes left his vulnerable wrists and ankles raw. "At first, it was hot, and the mosquitoes were bad, then it rained for two and a half days and turned cold and miserable."

He lived off cranberries, raspberries, and rose hips for over two months. "I ate the berries before they became ripe," said Waters, "and then as the season ended and the berries started to go, I figured I’d go too. Ravaged by hunger, vivid food memories and cravings dominated his thoughts and dreams. "I would dream of roast beef and gravy, hot minced meat pie with ice cream, buttered popcorn, of boiled eggs and country ham. I would think how wonderful it would be to make a pot of chili or vegetable soup."

Day 43, August 1, a coroner's jury convened in Fairbanks but concluded it was too early to declare Waters dead. Back home, his family had begun dividing up his possessions, and the post office took him off their payroll. After Waters was rescued, Alaska State Police Lt. William Trafton declared, "I have more faith in juries now."

Once, he collapsed on the ground, too tired to move. Said Waters, "I was laying on my back and had my feet crossed and my hunting coat over me. Something was turning my feet over and over. I would put them back, and something would turn them over again. Finally, I pulled my coat off my head, and there was a little cub." He could see two larger bears nearby, but at his sudden movement, they all ran away.

Amid the unending solitude, he despaired and contemplated suicide. His hopes had long since disappeared. "Occasionally, planes would come reasonably close, and I would go out and wave my hunting coat," he said. "The planes were too far away, and I figured they will never find me — not in a million years." Per Waters, the worst part was the lack of sleep. "I would lie down, but the tension was terrible. I couldn't sleep and would get up tired."

His path, coincidentally enough, took him in the direction of Purgatory, Alaska. The site had been the retirement home of cartographer William Yanert who named the place Purgatory because "it was a hell of a place to live!" As fellow geographer Thom Eley noted, "the site was also as mosquito infested as any I have ever experienced along the Yukon River, which is saying something." The News-Miner later suggested Waters had traveled "backwards through hell to get to Purgatory."

Day 65, August 24, Waters turned 42, not that he was aware of the occasion. By then, he had lost track of time. In his delirium, the days become longer and longer until they blended into one another. He no longer survived day to day but moment to moment. Every additional minute alive was a victory, each hour an almost immeasurable triumph. When rescued, he thought only two to three weeks had passed, not more than two months.

Day 66, August 25, he was at the ragged edge of his physical limits. In preparation for the seemingly inevitable, he laid against a sturdy log amid a supply of rose hips. Then, he heard a motor. Said Waters, "I heard a boat go up the river one day, but I fell down getting to the river. I was too weak, and then they went on by. I figured I would never see them again."

Day 67, August 26, he again heard the sound of the boat passing by. "I crawled down to the river with my tackle box, and I waited there, and in an hour, they came back." Two moose hunters were shocked when they saw a thin arm reaching up from the side of the stream, in the middle of nowhere, 75 miles from where Waters had last been seen.

The hunters fortified Waters with some sugared vodka and water before moving him. They first took him to the Circle Hot Springs resort, where Waters enjoyed what he called the best meal of his life, a bowl of chicken noodle soup. He also sent a short, almost laconic telegram back to Kentucky, "I am on way to hospital. Will be home sometime. Tell Mrs. Root and Budd. Bill Waters."

When he arrived at St. Joseph's Hospital in Fairbanks, his temperature was too low to be measured by any instrument on site though likely in the low 90s. A healthy 180 pounds at the beginning of June, he now weighed only 90. His emaciated body and sunken eyes reminded staff of nothing else than Holocaust survivors.

The front page of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported on the rescue of William "Bill" Waters in August 1961.

His story garnered national attention. In humble Fairbanks, he was a celebrity, which had benefits for his recovery. Nurses and other staff doted on him. Area residents went out of their way to drop off food. After Waters told a reporter how much he missed chocolates during his hike gone awry, a Fairbanks couple immediately sent him a box. When people read of his missed birthday, a grocery store dropped off a huge cake.

Letters poured into the hospital from relatives, friends, and even his favorite restaurant back in Erlander. But most of the messages came from strangers who read the story and wanted to connect or compliment him. Some women offered to marry him, and one offered to pay her way to Alaska so that she could accompany him back to Kentucky.

Thanks to a protein and dessert-heavy diet, Waters was up to 130 pounds by Sept. 5, though his strength was slower to recover. On Sept. 21, the hospital released him. A friend flew in from Kentucky, and they drove back home. Ninety-six days after starting his hike to Big Lake, he left Fairbanks. "I goofed up a good fishing trip," said Waters. In 1974, he somewhat rectified that error with a brief return trip to Alaska.

No suitable lessons can be drawn from Waters’ experience. The 67 days of suffering lost in Alaska were severe, yet it is still notable that he experienced no repercussions for his actions, no lasting damage to his livelihood or health. His postal supervisor reinstated him, gave him a raise, granted him retroactive pay, and said Waters would have "all the time he wanted" for recuperation. When Dermot Cole of the News-Miner checked in with him 25 years later, Waters had not made a single visit to a doctor since returning home.

As Waters would have agreed, he should have died. He suffered primarily due to his choices and lived with little to no thanks to any inherent skills or determination. As he explicitly admitted, he possessed "not too much brains but a good constitution." He should have been a statistic, a cautionary tale told to visitors for decades. Yet, sometimes chance is more important than preparation. Instead of dying before the Beatles released their first single in 1962, Waters outlived two members of the band. He lived until 2003, dying at the age of 84.

Key sources:

Cole, Dermot. "Waters Saga Thrills the World." Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, January 12, 1986, H-5.

Eley, Thom. "Sergeant William Yanert, Cartographer from Hell." Geographical Review 92, no. 4 (2002): 582-596.

Gould, John Mead. How to Camp Out: Expert Advice for the Outdoor Adventure based on the Experience of a Civil War Soldier. New York: Scribner, Armstrong, & Company, 1877.

"Skin Diver Fails to Find Tourist." Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, June 28, 1961, 7.

Snapp, Tom. "Letters, Gifts Pour in for Visiting Kentucky Tourist." Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, September 5, 1961, 1, 9.

Snapp, Tom. "Missing Tourist Found Alive." Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, August 28, 1961, 1, 3.

Snapp, Tom. "Walks Backward from Hell to Purgatory." Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, August 30, 1961, 1, 9.

"Things Looking Up for Waters." Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, September 18, 1961, 7.

"Tourist in Circle Area Missing." Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, June 26, 1961, 1, 3.

"Waters Set to Return to His Kentucky Home." Anchorage Daily Times, September 22, 1961, 15.