Native Tucsonan Lucas Irons lived day by day; he never thought too far ahead.
But early last week, the 26-year-old orthopedic nurse living in Everett, Wash., broke pattern. In a telephone call with his parents, former Tucson stained glass artists Jean Aspen and Tom Irons, he laid out his plans for the next few months. It started with attending the Tucson premiere of his family's documentary, "Arctic Son: Fulfilling the Dream," and culminated with spending the summer at his parent's remote Alaska cabin.
"He was in a good space. He was excited about life. He was excited to see his friends. He was planning ahead, and things were good," said his mother. "He died happy."
Irons died in his sleep the night of Jan. 25. A cause of death has yet to be determined; however Lucas had several health problems including a heart condition and sleep apnea. Last year, he was hospitalized with pneumonia.
The documentary, which will premiere in Tucson Friday night at Green Fields Country Day School, provides insight into the early experiences that formed Lucas' personality and outlook. He is the star of the film, the "Arctic Son," who was 6 when he was dropped into the Alaskan wilderness with his parents to live off the land for 14 months. The family did it again when Irons was 13.
"I wanted him to understand that life was not limited by boundaries," said his mother, whose parents, Constance and Bud Helmerick, were Alaska adventurers. "You don't have to live the life someone has outlined for you to live. Life is an adventure, and you never know which breath is going to be your last one. You don't have forever. Follow your heart, follow your dreams.
"I meet people all the time who are busy pounding away at something they hate because they don't see another way out of the box," Aspen said. She didn't want her son to feel stuck in that kind of life.
In the spring of 1992, the family, along with friend, Laurie Schacht, were flown into the Alaska wilderness in the remote Brooks Range. They had limited supplies and dry goods, enough to feed them for a year. They also brought a video camera to record their struggles and their triumphs.
"In the summer months we were working like crazy building a cabin," Schacht said. "The work was hard, but it was gratifying and fun. Winter months looked very different" when they ventured from their small cabin, often in temperatures dipping past 40 degrees below zero, to hunt caribou and snowshoe across the frozen river to retrieve firewood.
Whatever the adults did, Lucas was right there.
"He wanted to participate in everything," said Schacht, who now lives in Vancouver, Wash. "They might have been smaller trees we had for him, but Luke would haul them. He would strip away bark and saw off limbs. He'd be augering the peg holes, pounding stuff in, and other times he'd be sitting in the corner playing with his Legos or doing imaginary stuff."
After a year, the foursome canoed 600 miles to civilization.
Lucas was a baby the first time his parents took him to the Brooks Range for a summer visit.
"Luke would crawl through the berry bushes. He was like a bear cub going through the bushes eating berries behind me," said Aspen, who left Tucson in the mid-2000s. She and her husband now live in Alaska.
Between adventures, the family returned to Tucson, where Lucas attended Green Fields Country Day School. One of Aspen's and Irons' stained-glass windows hangs in the library.
"Luke was a very unique kid. They liked the way Luke bloomed here," said teacher Becky Cordier. "He was a kind soul. He was the sort of the person who didn't need anything and whatever he had, he gave away to anyone who needed it."
Lucas was 17 when he accompanied his mother, a nurse, to Guatemala to do medical outreach. The experience prompted Lucas to skip his senior year at Green Fields and enroll at Pima Community College where he tested out of freshman classes. He graduated from the University of Arizona College of Nursing and worked in Everett for the last two years. Last week his father traveled to Washington to settle his son's affairs and attend two memorials. He was surprised by the diversity of friends who turned out, Aspen said. Homeless kids, the elderly, biker gangs, nurses, neighborhood friends.
"He saw beauty in people I was afraid of. He saw beauty in the bikers and the drug addicts. He seemed to have no boundaries from people. That was a good lesson for me," said his mother. "He didn't live in the best neighborhood. There'd be a knife fight, and Luke would be there putting on bandages and sending them off to the hospital. Luke was a nurse for an entire neighborhood in downtown Everett. I'm finding he had a much broader life than I knew.
"He was a gift to a lot of people."
If you go
What: Tucson premiere of "Arctic Son: Fulfilling the Dream."
Where: Green Fields Country Day School, 6000 N. Camino De La Tierra.
When: 7 p.m. Friday.
Go to: www.jeanaspen.com and the Arctic Son Facebook page.
"Luke would crawl through the berry bushes. He was like a bear cub going through the bushes eating berries behind me."
Jean Aspen, mother of Lucas Irons, describing their stay in Alaska wilds
Contact reporter Kimberly Matas at email@example.com or at 573-4191.