In the dense spruce forests that hug the shoulders of the Seward Highway, where the trees are shrouded in a thick, white blanket of snow, the solemnity of winter can be profound. Here, the frigid air bites against exposed skin, and the long, silent, winter nights linger long into the morning.
Few people bother to stop in the turnouts along the highway during the winter, except for an occasional skier, and fewer still notice a lone, snow-covered car waiting for its owner to return.
The days move along, and the snow continues; the footprints disappear.
A state trooper stops one day to inspect the vehicle, and determines there is nothing wrong. Probably just a skier, he thinks.
Vandals roaming the highway stop long enough to smash one of the windows on a lark, but there is nobody around to hear.
And then, finally, highway workers clearing the road of snow happen upon the car and call the police to request a tow.
A wrecker arrives, dusts the snow off of the license plate and calls it in.
And police realize they have found Chandler Braley.
Braley, a 22-year-old senior at UAA, had been missing since Jan. 17. He left his Muldoon home that day on his way to work at the Dance Spectrum School of Dance in seemingly good spirits, his roommate Erika Johnson said. He never returned.
State Trooper Sgt. Bill Welch was called into work early the morning of Feb. 1, and began to organize a search party for Braley, who he thought might have been holed up in one of several nearby cabins. By 12:30 p.m., after familiarizing himself with the investigation, he and four members of the U.S. Forest Service were at the location of Braley’s vehicle near Turnagain Pass at mile 72.5 on the Seward Highway.
Within minutes, professor Brian Jeffery of the theater and dance department, who knew Braley as one of his students, was on the scene to assist with the search.
“I talked with (Jeffery) and then we went out – it was about 45 minutes later that we found him,” Welch said. “We were within a couple of hundred feet of each other when I located him.”
Braley had hanged himself, Welch said. He did not leave a suicide note.
Although Erika Johnson said he had his father’s Toyota Camry when he left, the Anchorage Police Department did not put a locate order on the vehicle at the same time they did Braley because the vehicle was registered to Braley’s father. For that reason, when highway workers first reported the vehicle on Jan. 19, and when Welch ran its tags on Jan. 24, nothing came up. It was not until Jan. 27 that the APD put the order on the vehicle, after which point it was found five days later.
“Friday the 27th is when it was determined that there was no link to the car in the locate (order), and so they did that,” Lt. Paul Honeman of the Anchorage Police said. “I don’t know why it was not listed initially – again, I don’t know that – but I know that it wasn’t done, so it was corrected at that time.”
Chandler’s mother, Barbara Braley, said the last time she had talked to Chandler was Dec. 26 when she dropped him off at the airport in Fairbanks for his flight back to Anchorage. Nobody had seen any indication that something was wrong then, Barbara said, and friends say they didn’t see reason for concern in the days leading up to his death.
Barbara said there will be a funeral service for Chandler, although it was still too soon to determine the date it will be held.
Chandler intended to get his master’s degree in dance after finishing at UAA, Barbara said, because that is what he loved to do.
“He was a kid who never gave himself a day off; I mean he used to work seven days a week just because he liked what he did and he was dancing,” she said. “In Fairbanks, he was mostly known for musical theater, because he was the leading role in a lot of musical productions. You know, like, he was Colin in ‘Secret Garden;’ he wouldn’t be Tony in ‘West Side Story,’ because he thought Tony was a wimp.”
Professor Jeffery said he has known Braley for nearly four years, during which time Braley had been in a number of his classes in the theater and dance department. He remembers Braley as a man with promise and a world of possibilities ahead of him.
“I’ve had an extraordinary relationship with Chandler,” he said. “He had proven himself as an extraordinarily talented emerging choreographer – He was just a very, very generous and responsible contributor in many aspects to the theater and dance community here in Anchorage.”
Braley, despite majoring in English, was an active participant in the theater and dance department, where his passion lay.
He had been dancing for most of his life, during which he focused primarily on ballet and modern dance. During most of the nearly four years that he attended UAA, he performed with the Dance Ensemble and had been a contributor to numerous performances the group produced before his death.
Dr. Bruno Kappes, a professor in the psychology department, said it is difficult to determine why people commit suicide if they don’t leave a note, but that most people are actually seeking attention.
“Suicide is about the fact that – it’s not that they want to die, it’s that they can’t live with the current circumstances they have in their lives.” Kappes said. “Usually it’s only like one out of 10 people that are really fully intent on dying and killing themselves. Most people reach out for help.”
This gives rise to subtle cries for help meant to test others’ reactions, which he said can be seemingly innocuous statements made casually, such as jokes about life insurance money or that nobody would miss the person.
“Students who are thinking about that kind of stuff need to know that they’re not alone and that there are a lot of people who have various fears and anxieties and they need to connect.” Kappes said. “If you must do something, try to connect to the rest of the human race, because it’s a very extreme, sad loss for so many people, and so unnecessary.”
A memorial service was held on Feb. 5 at the Student Union Den, in which family and friends held a dance and potluck in Braley’s honor. The family is working on a Web site that will allow users to post writings, poems, and photos in memory of Braley. The address is www.chandlerbraley.com.
Students feeling depressed or suicidal can call 786-4040 to talk to a counselor on campus or 1-800-SUICIDE to speak to a representative from the National Hopeline Network 24 hours a day.