For nearly 50 years local author John Fraley has wrestled with questions about what truly happened to his friend and “kindred spirit” Terry McCoy, who died in a plane crash in the Sapphire Mountains in August of 1974 in an area now known as the Welcome Creek Wilderness. Fraley, now 68, was supposed to have been on the plane, but couldn’t make the trip.
At the time Fraley was continuing to discover a deep sense of belonging in the backcountry solidified through adventures that he, McCoy and others shared. McCoy was 19 when his life ended. In the ensuing decades, Fraley started a family and had a 40-year-career with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, where he studied fish and fur bearers in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex and also worked as a regional education and outreach specialist. Life has continued for Fraley but closure about his friend’s death remained elusive.
The story of McCoy’s fate, and Fraley’s search for closure bookends Fraley’s most recent book “My Wilderness Life,” which was released last month by Helena-based publisher Farcountry Press. While McCoy’s story looms large in the book and essentially bookends its contents, “My Wilderness Life” is about much more. There are stories of backcountry skiing trips, hunting expeditions, river crossings, mountain lion tracking, fishing and snorkeling. There are also tales of moose chases, helicopter rides into the Bob, and catching 12-year-old cutthroat trout. Fraley described the book as a celebration of wilderness.
“I call it my wilderness heart and soul in 90,000 words. A lot of it took place when I was an undergrad at the University of Montana in the early ‘70s with friends,” Fraley said.
He’s been working on “My Wilderness Life” since 2017. In the years since he started it, Fraley has published “Rangers, Trappers and Trailblazers,” about early adventures in the Bob Marshall Wilderness and Glacier National Park, and an updated and expanded version of his 2008 book, “Wild River Pioneers,” which explores the history of some of the more memorable residents of the Middle Fork Drainage of the Flathead River in the 19th and early 20th century.
Right now, Fraley said he’s not working on anything at all.
“There’s kind of a pause,” Fraley said. “This was very emotionally draining. A lot of anxiety to do a book like this. But it was kind of fun, too.”
When he’s finished with a series of talks and other events oriented around his new book, and when he feels up to it, Fraley said he’s got plans for one more book ,which he said will cover ground similar to some of his past books that focused on “lifting up a lot of other old timers that weren’t known.”
“People yearn to be interpreted and remembered,” Fraley said. “Some of the old timers I wrote about, even though they were in the Forest Service 100 years ago or whatever, the Forest Service doesn’t even have any knowledge of them at all.”
He added that part of his goal in his books is to “bring those people back up.
“I mean, what are you if no one remembers you, not even historically? You did all this great stuff and no one remembers you anymore. It’s kind of sad.”
The day of the 1974 plane crash that killed McCoy, Fraley was supposed to be on the plane for a radio telemetry flight to locate elk. A last-minute switch in aircraft cut down the number of seats. Fraley became the odd man out. After the flight, he and McCoy were supposed to be taking a trip to Big Salmon Lake in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. He recalls pulling up to the University of Montana forestry building in his Volkswagen bug to pick up McCoy. Both of their packs were in the car and ready to go. And then Fraley found out that his friend hadn’t returned. After two days of searching the crash site was found. The area was so thick with vegetation that smokejumpers were dropped in to identify if it was a salvage or rescue operation. They also cut out a helipad so that aircraft could land as part of the recovery operation.
In his investigation into McCoy’s death, Fraley said his final visit to the crash site in 2019 was probably his last. In total he has visited the site somewhere between six and seven times. After conversations with smokejumpers who first encountered the wreckage and uncovering other information about what happened after the plane went down, he said he has a feeling of closure now. And after so many years with little change to the crash site, Fraley said he suspects it’s gone now as he remembers it. In 2020 the Cinnabar fire burned over the area, which he said is likely now tough to access amid jackstrawed fallen trees.
“What a weird coincidence that it sat there all that time and then burned right after we visited the last time,” Fraley said. “The way this crazy book has gone, maybe it missed that little spot the plane’s on, but I’m never going back to find out.”
John Fraley will be discussing his book Dec. 20 at 6 p.m. at the Flathead Valley Community College Library.
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