‘SOS’ Helps Alaska State Troopers Save Man Stranded in Snowy Wilderness

By Stephen Owsinski

Although I’ve never served as a cop in a remote environment, like all policing…it intrigues me. Whether a sole rural cop patrolling on dirt roads strewn with slow-moving cows or an unforgiving remote outpost chilled with ice and polar wildlife, cops everywhere do it all, often against all odds, yet somehow manage to save the day…and lives!

Here is a real-life story depicting a citizen whose survival looked bleaker than bleak but was nevertheless salvaged…thanks to some Alaska State troopers paying acute attention to a snowy-white blended-together backdrop.

Since September 2019, a man named Tyson Steele, 30, lived as a lone outlier approximately 20 miles away from the relative civilization in Skwentna (population 51 ), a checkpoint along the Iditarod Trail famed for its sled dog race. Faring fairly well since he endeavored to go somewhat off the grid, his family lost communication with him around mid-December; no one heard from Steele for one week, then two, and week-three approached…without a word. Knowing where he was and how remotely he was living alone, and fearing something awful happened, Steele’s family elicited the services of Alaska State troopers. A typical welfare check ensued. Well, maybe not so typical in other regions across the country but, given the remoteness and harsh climate, Alaska State troopers dispatched a duo in one of their helicopters.

Unbeknownst to Alaska State troopers, Steele’s log cabin caught flame from an errant spark after he stuffed cardboard into his wood stove and fell asleep. Awakened by smoke inhalation and the sounds of inferno, his best efforts were exhausted: his wooden outpost burned to the chilly ground. With his comforts-of-home lifestyle (called “homesteading” in this context—more on that in a moment) demolished, left with only a meager measure of food supply, he dealt with emotional strain throughout a three-week ordeal of nothing but “heavy powder” (snow). His two pair of snowshoes burned in the fire, so trekking anywhere was ill-advised.

Collecting pieces of debris, Steele fashioned a makeshift shelter  (“a snow cave”) in which to survive by the minute. Final few remnants of food tasted like burned rubble and melted plastic (the log cabin was lined with a tarp). His situation defaulted to quiet repose and thoughts of miracles, holding hope with cold hands while being taunted by thoughts of despair.

Steele struggled with a “crappy” cell phone, one which didn’t recharge well. That lead to his family not receiving the usual weekly phone call to check in. Technically, a blessing in disguise, one which started the welfare check thought-process and influenced whirring of the Alaska State troopers’ helo blades.

The irony is that Steele would later recount how his isolated desperation could only be salvaged by air, saying, “I thought if someone is going to come and get me it is going to be my air service.”

Well, on January 9, 2020, his prayerful place in tundra territory materialized in professionals donning Alaska State trooper badges. Alaska Department of Public Safety Helo 3 pilot Cliff Gilliland and Tactical Flight Officer Zac Johnson located Steele via a telltale sign: a large-enough “SOS” carved in the thick snow, darkened by Steele applying “some ashes from the fireplace to make it black, keep it dark, and I had to keep doing that often because it would snow and I would have to redo it. I figured that was going to be my best signal.” It was, magnetizing attention and supplemented by a nearby lone figure jutting tired arms in the air, signaling Help! (For a synopsis of the origin of SOS, read here.)

Despite the massive mounds of snow, Troopers Gilliland and Johnson circled the scene, calculated the best LZ (landing zone), and deftly perched the helicopter in a clearing of knee-deep snow.

Once contact was made with Mr. Steele the survivor, troopers learned their latest chapter about human resiliency: In its press release —to include Mr. Steele’s personal account— Alaska State troopers cited how Steele feverishly attempted to extinguish the fire with snow, to no avail, adding that the inferno resulted in “killing his [110-pound] dog, [Phil, a chocolate Lab], and leaving him stranded in subzero temperatures with no cabin, and no means of communication, for 23 days.”

Yet there is more to the story. Alaska troopers didn’t yet know that even though fire licked the plastic-lined wooden ceiling and reduced it to nothing, Mother Nature nonetheless prolonged Mr. Steele’s life and measured his resiliency. You see, Steele’s supply of 500 rounds of ammunition all discharged in the conflagration, sending him ducking while a makeshift fireworks display spent itself to nothing. As Mr. Steele explained it, “…bullets were in an ammo box exploding. Pow, pow, pow, pow, pow! It was like a war zone. It was just 500 rounds going off all at once. I don’t know if I can even approach the cabin to put it out. There’s 500 rounds of ammunition going off!”

Incredibly, not one errant bullet struck him. That’s important for a gravely stark reason: he was at the point whereby he was contemplating suicide, seeing no other way out of the seemingly abysmal conditions.

Technically, you are reading about back-to-back saves: one by forces of nature and the other by a force of law enforcement officers with the courage, know-how and means to accomplish unimaginable feats.

Regarding the “homesteading” context we mentioned above, it turns out the log-cabin home Steele was living in was formerly owned/occupied by a Vietnam veteran. Research indicated the former occupant chose to live alone in the wilderness homestead, to include dying there in peace. We can read into it or simply honor the military man’s wishes. One naturalist successively picked up after another. Mr. Steele embraced the life choice and all its natural splendor. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but Steele exercised his right to live life his way and on his terms. Not much different than Alaska State troopers who opt to live in bone-chilling climate while preserving lives of others harboring the same life principles and geographic affinities. In Steele’s case, two Alaska troopers got the extreme duty of saving his life while endangering theirs.

The legacy of “SOS” prevails no matter how you look at it: right-side up or upside down, the message remains the same…Help! It just takes saviors to search/detect an SOS.

And that is exactly what Alaska State troopers provided, protecting life when destroyed property is a foregone conclusion. And that leads to another deeply poignant layer in this episode of tragedy, human survival, and badged men and women who provide such heroic life-saving feats.

Trooper Gilliland’s wife, Barbara S. Gilliland, wrote, “So proud of my husband Clifford Gilliland!! Events like this make it all worth the long hours and insane schedule. You have always been my hero!!” to which Mr. Steele’s dad, Bert Steele, replied, “Barbara S. Gilliland, your husband is now one of our family’s heroes! Thanks for saving my son.”

Salute, Troopers Gilliland and Johnson!

And to punctuate their heroism with dose of kindness, they purchased a McDonald’s combo meal for Mr. Steele…washed down with fresh-brewed, piping-hot coffee.

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