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There were, to borrow one trooper’s phrase, a great number of “equally plausible alternative inferences.”Within hours, news of the discovery spread from the firefighters’ camps to the small communities along the Sterling Highway, the road that transects the peninsula. Later, Dolly began to hear from people around town.
In the town of Soldotna, about 20 miles from where the bones were found, Dolly Hills got a call from one of her granddaughters. They wondered the same thing that Lieutenant Shuey wondered aloud at headquarters, a question Dolly wasn’t prepared to entertain quite yet. In private, though, she could think of nothing else: Could it be Rick?
Troopers guessed that the bones were those of an adult male, based on the size and style of the boot and the fact that in these circumstances, the deceased is usually a man.
But the condition of the bones made determining the cause of death impossible. He could have tumbled down one of several steep embankments nearby and broken his neck.
Fire crews in Alaska are used to seeing the bones of moose, caribou, bears, and other large creatures that live and die in these woods.
So it wasn’t until crew members found a human skull that they stopped to consider that the pieces might go together. The Alaska State Troopers arrived by helicopter and salvaged what they could.
The skull was resting on its side, the face angled toward the ground. “The bones were close to being ash,” Lieutenant Kat Shuey later recalled.
“They weren’t quite to the point where if you touched them they would disintegrate, but close.” The remains were spread across an area about 60 yards in diameter, presumably the work of scavenging animals.
He could have run into the wrong bear; as many as 4,000 of them roam the peninsula, including some of the largest brown bears on the planet.
He might have eaten poison berries, by accident or by design—the location was ideal for someone who wanted to vanish, and Alaska is famous for attracting dropouts, runaways, and end-of-the-roaders who wish to conduct a life, and sometimes a death, in isolation.