INTERVIEW WITH KEITH HARRINGTON
NOVEMBER 17, 2004 BY ROGER KAYE
MR. KAYE: This is a telephonic interview with Keith Harrington who now lives in
Wisconsin. It’s conducted by Roger Kaye here in Fairbanks on November 17, 2004. The
subject of today’s talk is Keith’s involvement in the Murie Sheenjek expedition of 1956.
It is also about his flying for them and his other flying out of Fort Yukon in the 1950’s.
Keith, thank you for being willing to talk to me about this today. I’d like to begin with
what brought you to Alaska in the first place and where did you come from?
MR. HARRINGTON: Well, I’d have to say that Harry Truman was probably
responsible for me coming to Alaska. I was flying out of Ely, Minnesota to the fishing
resorts in that area. I had been doing this for a year or more when President Truman
issued a Presidential Order. We understood that a Presidential Order is only good if it
holds up in court. So we proceeded to fly, and fight the case. We lost in a Federal Court
in Duluth. And we lost in a Federal Court of Appeals in St. Louis.
MR. KAYE: Now this was the ruling that there wouldn’t be any over flights under a
certain altitude over the Superior National Forest is that right?
MR. HARRINGTON: We weren’t allowed to fly beneath 4,000 feet and most every
area that we serviced was in the Superior National Forest. This effectively put us out of
business and put the resorts out of business. Of course, after a certain period of time
after that I just decided that I had to make the decision to either go back to flying
somewhere or stay where I was doing a different kind of work. I decided to go back to
flying and I thought what better place than Alaska. That’s where there is a lot of flying.
So I wrote letters. I wrote to Chambers of Commerce and got addresses of the various
flying services. I wrote to them and was offered two jobs. One of them was in Fairbanks
and one in Ketchikan, Alaska. I took the one in Fairbanks and spent the summer there.
Then got on with Ween that eventually led me to the station in Fort Yukon.
MR. KAYE: So what was your job in Fort Yukon? Were you the local Ween pilot?
MR. HARRINGTON: I was the local Ween pilot. I flew mail, freight, and passengers
and there was also charter work involved. It was more that a full-time job, even in the
wintertime. I was getting over 100 hours a month. In the summer it was considerable
MR. KAYE: What kind of flying were you doing?
MR. HARRINGTON: In the summer it was wheels and floats. In the winter it was ski-equipped
aircraft for the most part. I had schedules up and down the river at places like
Beaver, and Stephens, and Arctic Village and up towards the Brooks Range. It was just a
lot of flying.
MR. KAYE: Did you do a lot of bush flying, like flying trappers out and so on?
MR. HARRINGTON: Yeah, there was some of that. There were trappers who flew out
and just about anything that you can imagine I guess, would be what we did. But the bulk
of it was the scheduled flying.
MR. KAYE: What kind of planes were you flying up there?
MR. HARRINGTON: Primarily I had a Cessna 180. I also at times had a Cessna 185,
which was a little bigger. I usually had a Norseman, sometimes on floats, sometimes on
wheels. In the wintertime I had it on skis of course. I usually had two or three airplanes
MR. KAYE: I noticed in pictures and on one of the films that the Muries made; it
actually showed you landing in a Cessna 170, I think.
MR. HARRINGTON: That’s a possibility. They had a 170 probably. I don’t recall a
Cessna 170 up there, but they did have an Oranka sedan. I think it was a four place
Oranka sedan, which did not have the horsepower of the 180 Cessna and wasn’t
anywhere near as good. They didn’t have it there very much.
MR. KAYE: Tell me about your involvement with the Murie expedition. I understand
you did almost all of the flying and support of that.
MR. HARRINGTON: I think I probably did most all of the flying. I don’t recall
anybody else doing any flying on it. It just came in, pretty much unannounced as far as I
was concerned. I didn’t know they were coming. I didn’t have any information ahead of
time to lead me to believe that this would be any different from just a charter trip up there
and back. But it turned out that I was servicing them on a pretty regular basis after I got
them in there. I’d probably stop in there, at least on a weekly basis. Sometimes it was a
regular schedule out of Fort Yukon. Sometimes I would drop over from Arctic Village,
which wasn’t too far away. I’d take care of whatever their needs might be at that time.
MR. KAYE: So on the first flight, you flew them onto the ice at Lobo Lake didn’t you?
MR. HARRINGTON: I believe I landed on wheels because we hadn’t put on the floats I
don’t suppose yet. I landed a wheel-equipped airplane on the ice at Lobo, yes.
MR. KAYE: And you were the one who moved them up from there to Last Lake didn’t
MR. HARRINGTON: Yes, I was the one that moved them up to Last Lake. They
named Lobo after we got there and then they named Last Lake after we got there because
it was the last lake in the valley that I could land on.
MR. KAYE: I see.
MR. HARRINGTON: I suppose these were unnamed lakes prior to that.
MR. KAYE: I think you also flew some of the villages in from over in Arctic Village for
visits didn’t you?
MR. HARRINGTON: Some of the time I would be going to from Arctic Village back to
Fort Yukon. I would go out of my way to go up there to take care of their needs or to see
what they might want. The way we worked it was just to charge the regular rate for the
mail run up and back the charter would be just the extra, tacked on to that. This made it a
little cheaper for them to get the service. Sometimes I would have people coming from
Arctic Village back to Fort Yukon and they would be riding through there with me.
MR. KAYE: What was your own impression of what the Muries and that group people
were up there for?
MR. HARRINGTON: When I first took them up there, and I guess all during the
summer of 1956 when I serviced them, I really didn’t know; other than that they were
gathering information about the flora and fauna of the area. I didn’t know that they were
planning to instrumental in creating what eventually became the Arctic National Wildlife
Refuge. I learned that afterwards and I could tell that was where that came from. They
didn’t talk to me about that specifically.
MR. KAYE: I see. In Mardy’s book, To the Far North she references a discussion they
had that you were involved in regarding the question of airplane use in that area. She
mentioned that you had been instrumental in that issue in the boundary waters canoe area.
She mentioned that you had some thoughts on the use of planes. And secondly that you
discussed whether the area should be available just for use of airplanes in natural areas or
whether there should be developed airstrips. Do you remember that discussion?
MR. HARRINGTON: I don’t recall much about that discussion. But I felt about the
area that I flew and of course I was directly involved there and it cost me my job when
they got rid of the airplane. But there was a strong possibility that the defendants in the
case; some of the resort owners and the head of the flying service that I worked for in Ely,
Minnesota had been willing to compromise; they could have come up with a compromise
deal whereby we would not fly to so called ‘outside lakes’ where there were no cabins
suitable for human habitation. We’d fly only to the established resorts. But nobody
wanted to do that. They didn’t want to compromise. Their statement was, “We’ll win it
all, or we’ll lose it, on the merits”. So we lost it. But there was nothing like that in the
area that was set up in ANWR. There wasn’t any place at all; no village or anything like
that in the area.
MR. KAYE: Do you feel that the area should have been left open for landing airplanes in
naturals areas rather than establishing airports? Or do you think some airstrips should
have been developed?
MR. HARRINGTON: I don’t see any reason why it should have been open for building
airports or anything like that. I think that it being left entirely as it is was probably an
excellent idea. And I am definitely opposed to the drilling for oil in ANWR. I know that
that’s up on the North Slope just a little bit up from where we were; the same think
MR. KAYE: You were telling me a little while ago that you flew Justice Douglas from
Fort Yukon to the area and had a discussion about the airplane use with him, didn’t you?
MR. HARRINGTON: Yes, I did. I remember Justice Douglas going up and on the way
back I had a chance to ask him about the situation in Ely. I asked him if he remembered
the “air ban” case that we brought to the U.S. Supreme Court. He said that he did
remember. I found him to be a very, intelligent and very, very likeable individual. We had
a fairly good discussion about that.
MR. KAYE: Tell me your impression of the others, starting with the Muries, Olaus and
Mardy. What were the interactions you had with them?
MR. HARRINGTON: They were very, very nice people. And they were at home in the
wilderness. There is an interesting quick little story I can remember. When were getting
ready to load them onto in Fort Yukon, the two Indians fellows who were helping to load
the airplane remarked about the fact that they had no guns with them, or no weapons at
all. They noticed that Olaus was fairly old at that time and they wondered if these guys
knew what they were doing. Olaus and his wife of course, did know what they were
doing. They were very experienced in that type of situation. They did any excellent job
there. The thing that I was concerned about was the fact that there are Grizzly’s. That’s
Grizzly country around the Sheenjek. Almost every time I would fly in there, I’d see
Grizzlies within a mile or two of camp. Sometimes as I’d get down low I would notice
the Grizzlies running across the tundra and the fat, shaking on their sides. Obviously,
they encountered Grizzlies up there a few times also. But they had the idea that if they
got upwind of the Grizzly and he could tell it was ‘man’, he would leave them alone.
They did have a couple of encounters I believe that might have been somewhat scary, but
they did escape any kind of harm.
MR. KAYE: Do you remember if the natives had any kind of impressions as to what the
Muries were doing up there?
MR. HARRINGTON: I don’t think that at the time, the natives had any more idea about
what they were doing than I did. But I think they would have been one hundred percent
in favor of what they were doing. I don’t think there was any problem with them.
MR. KAYE: What about George Schauller? You probably knew him from that.
MR. HARRINGTON: George Schauller was a real goer, even at that time. I would
estimate that at the time he was in his early twenties. He was the kind of fellow would
put a pack on his back and be gone for three days at least, into the mountains. Of course,
that was just the start of a great career for him.
MR. KAYE: What about Bob Kreer, did you know him?
MR. HARRINGTON: I knew him, but not too well. I kind of understood that he was
the primary photographer for the group. I also understood that he had come through the
University of Wisconsin system.
MR. KAYE: And Brina Kessel?
MR. HARRINGTON: Brina was definitely a goer. She was enthusiastic about
everything she did. She was at the University of Alaska at the time. She was right there
at the forefront, every time I would come in and there was some stuff to unload out of the
airplane. She was right there to grab it.
MR. KAYE: Are there any other impressions you have about you interactions with
those people up there?
MR. HARRINGTON: Are you talking about the people at the lakes at Sheenjek?
MR. KAYE: Yes.
MR. HARRINGTON: Well, it was a fine group of people. They got along well, and
they were very good at what they did, obviously.
MR. KAYE: In the years following, there were several hearings in Fairbanks and quite a
bit of controversy over whether the Arctic Range should be established or not. Do you
recall that? Did you have any involvement in that, or were in Fort Yukon and kind of way
from it at the time?
MR. HARRINGTON: I don’t recall the controversy especially. Mardy Murie did
contact me later when I was in Anchorage. She was coming up for some kind of a get
together; I’m not sure what it was. She wanted me to go with her and meet some of the
Park people; which I did. That situation was pretty well resolved by that time.
MR. KAYE: These are the questions I had. The last one I’ll just open up to you. Are
there any other thoughts you have about the Arctic Refuge and what became of the work
that the Muries and others worked on up there, that you’d like to share?
MR. HARRINGTON: Well, I was once asked not too long ago by someone if I thought
they ought to drill for oil in ANWR. My answer of course to that is; no, I don’t think
they should. That’s where I stand on that. Which I think would be in perfect agreement
with Olaus or Mardy. It was great country. It was interesting country. It was probably
unforgiving country if you happened to get hurt or injured. You had to know what you
were doing there. I think those people did, they spent a lot of time in that environment.
MR. KAYE: Did you ever fly any hunters or recreationists up there over the years?
MR. HARRINGTON: Well, that’s an interesting question. This was before the Murie
party went up there. I was flying for Fairbanks Air Service and I was the floatplane pilot
for them. I came in on a wheel ship from the Usabelly coal mine. They said, “Our plane
is loaded and ready to go, where are you going?” They pointed to a spot on the map and
I took this fellow up there. We landed on a lake near the Sheenjek, but not as far up. I
dropped him off at that lake. And to make a long story short, he just disappeared from
the face of the earth.
MR. KAYE: Oh really?
MR. HARRINGTON: Yeah. It was over a year later when his mother was trying to
contact him. I was still in Fort Yukon. I happened to see a paper that mentioned
something about it. I said, “Well that’s the fellow I flew up there!” I talked to the
Marshall there and they got BLM to come up in the Grumman Goose. I went up with
them to show them where I dropped him. We landed at the same place I dropped him
off. There was his campsite, just as we had unloaded it. Everything was there that I
remembered, such as snowshoes that were still in the wrapping from the store. The three
of us spread out. It was about 11pm, but it was daylight. So we spread out and walked
toward the river from that point. We figured that was what he would have done. We
found a sleeping bag and a rifle leaned up against a tree, but we never found any sight of
him. They later went back and made a more thorough search. They never found him. I
think he was either dead or in serious trouble within twenty-four hours after I dropped
him off. He was a young fellow from about Pittsburgh, PA.
MR. KAYE: Interesting, what year was that?
MR. HARRINGTON: The year I dropped him off was about June of 1955. I suppose
it was a year or a year and a half later when I was in Fort Yukon when I happened to see
that article and recognize him.
MR. KAYE: Did you take any hunters or other recreationists up to that area of the
Sheenjek, or what became ANWR?
MR. HARRINGTON: No, I didn’t take anybody else up there. I might have had one or
so parties. I really can’t be sure. My memory doesn’t serve me that well. But I never
was back into that particular area after that. I go close to it sometimes, but that into that
MR. KAYE: Okay, well Keith, those are the questions that I had. I want to thank you
for this interview.
MR. HARRINGTON: Well you are more than welcome.
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