McCarthy’s only ambulance was vandalized. So a Wisconsin tourist bought the town a new one.

  28 May 2018

Jonathan Dobbs was visiting Alaska last fall from Wisconsin when he saw a sign.

He was in the little community of McCarthy, about 300 miles east of Anchorage in the Wrangell Mountains, with his girlfriend. They were leaving a bar and he saw a flyer outside. It showed a picture of McCarthy’s only ambulance, with a rat’s nest of wires pulled out of the center switch panel between the driver and passenger seats, and a plea to help find whoever had vandalized it and rendered it unusable.

“That bothered me for a very long time,” Dobbs said. Before retiring back in Wisconsin, he owned a medical-products company that sells automated external defibrillators, and he’s spent about 20 years volunteering as an EMT.

So, he decided to help. He heard that the small northern Wisconsin town of Plum Lake, about 14 miles from where he lives in Boulder Junction, was selling an ambulance.

“I walked over there and said, ‘I wanna buy that ambulance,’ ” Dobbs said. The man he was talking to asked him what he wanted it for. “I said, ‘I want to drive it to Alaska.’ He thought I was absolutely crazy.”

But that’s what he did, after buying the ambulance and putting a McCarthy EMS logo on it.

Dobbs and a friend, Randy Samz, drove the ambulance from Wisconsin to Bellingham, Washington. They put it on the ferry to Haines. Then they drove it from Haines to McCarthy, where they arrived Wednesday afternoon.

On Thursday, the community hosted a celebration potluck to thank the adventurers, complete with a cake with little ambulances on it, shown en route from the Midwest to the north.

A cake commemorates McCarthy’s new ambulance. (Jacob Shultz)
The ambulance — which Dobbs said cost $8,000 to buy, plus another couple thousand for some mechanical work and the ferry ride — means a lot to the isolated hamlet, which has a population of about 30 residents in the offseason and an estimated 200 to 300 people during the summer.

“The ambulance is our own sense of independence we took pride in,” said Jacob Shultz, who manages the nonprofit McCarthy EMS, which is served by volunteers. The vehicle acted as a kind of mini clinic in a way, he said, and kept people out of the weather when they waited for planes at the airstrip.

“I think it was just kind of important because we have a volunteer fire department and stuff, and it’s a very — you have to be very self-sustaining,” Shultz said.

Late one night last summer, when Shultz got into the ambulance, he found that all the wiring had been ripped loose from the center switch panel.

“It was a complete mess,” he said. They still haven’t figured out who did it.

Repairing the ambulance wasn’t a simple fix, so it’s been sitting in the town unusable ever since. Luckily, Shultz said, there haven’t been any big disasters since last summer.

Tamara Harper, a McCarthy resident and the secretary for the community’s area council, said fixing the old ambulance is still a goal. Maybe it could be used as a storage area for EMS supplies, she said.

McCarthy’s old ambulance was vandalized in 2017. (Jacob Shultz)
“We all were, I think, really bummed last summer,” Harper said. “It’s like, who vandalizes an ambulance? It was just this low point for me and a lot of people.”

The vandalism was also a big deal, Shultz said, because the community had recently made so much progress with its EMS response system. Over the past five years, things had evolved from neighbors calling neighbors to show up at the scene of an accident, for example, to a more formalized group getting training to respond, he said.

“Took the wind out of our sails,” he said about the damage.

The gift from Dobbs was a huge boost.

“This is just so out of the blue and such a surprise, and I think it’s hopefully going to re-energize our community,” Harper said. “That he was just a visitor here last year and apparently and just found the community to be really welcoming … that he specifically wanted to give us something, is a good feeling.”

Dobbs came to Alaska in 2014 for the first time and loved visiting McCarthy. After the potluck, he said he was “truly overwhelmed” by the hospitality he and Samz got from the community.

“A lot of people think that it’s a little crazy sometimes for doing things like this,” Dobbs said, “but if I can do it, I’ll do it, and I’ll do it as long as I possibly can.”

He said he recently went to Panama, where he decided to help support two schools to feed 90 children for the school year.

The visitors’ stay in McCarthy this week was a brief one. Dobbs and Samz put two motorcycles in the back of the ambulance for the trip up to Alaska, and on Friday morning they headed out, en route back to the Lower 48.

Left to right: Jonathan Dobbs, Jacob Shultz, Randy Samz and Stephens Harper. Dobbs and Samz drove the ambulance from Wisconsin to McCarthy, where they arrived Wednesday to gift the vehicle to the community. Shultz manages the volunteer EMS service in McCarthy and Harper is a National Park Service ranger. (Tamara Harper)