Daryl called this morning, "Have you heard the bad news?" "No", I answered... "Jeff Bennett was killed yesterday. The railroad found his ultralight next to the tracks north of Eklutna." I reeled.
I've seen a lot of death in my life, maybe too much. All my adult life I worked for the National Park Service, rescuing people off mountains, out of rivers, burning buildings, automobile and aircraft wrecks. Many of my friends have been killed in mountains and rivers all over the world; their names would fill pages, and their fascinating and brilliant lives do fill volumes. You'd think I'd be inured to death by now, but it is not so; it is harder with every one.
Jeff and his family lived up Peters Creek about a mile from my home. His son went to school with my daughter. Jeff worked in the GIS division of the Alaska Regional Office of the National Park Service; I was the Associate Regional Director, so I saw him almost daily at work. I loved to go down and visit with him in GIS; he would trace routes on maps, showing me fascinating places to explore, dreaming of the next big adventure he had planned.
But the thing that bonded us was a love of the outdoors. I'm sure Jeff was the finest Telemark skier I knew. When it was an extreme powder day, I would see him in the mountains; all the best telemarkers knew where the best snow was and magically appeared after a big dump of champagne powder. His enthusiasm always set me dreaming of distant lands, great hikes, climbs, and river trips. He was so full of life.
As a surveyor and map maker, entering the most minute details on maps for years at a time, he was meticulous. This attention to detail was one of the traits that made him such a superb athlete. But Jeff's main passion had been hang-gliding, then parapenting, and finally his ultralight aircraft, an experimental model.
On any given Sunday I would look up at "Baldy", the hill above Eagle River north of Anchorage and watch the parapenters floating like huge kites on the thermals with the snowy Chugach mountains framing the picture. I envied them; I'm a climber, not a careful detail-oriented guy. I would think of Jeff, knowing he was one of those brilliant sails soaring above me. I saw Jeff and his girlfriend at the opera "Eugene Onegin" just a month ago. He was so vibrant and alive, talking about skiing, life, and flying the length of the Yukon River. Whenever I see those colorful wings gliding across the sky I will think of him.