Doug Harrison’s tragic, sudden and heartbreaking death is all the more shocking because few people could imagine, let alone actually live, his incredible life.
“He was such a renaissance man,” said Karol Seabolt, head organizer of a hiking group that counted Harrison as a member. “He seems to know everything and is the envy of every man in the group. He had it all.”
Indeed. There was nothing, it seemed, that Douglas Craig Harrison could not accomplish.
He was such a renaissance man. He seems to know everything and is the envy of every man in the group. He had it all.
Karol Seabolt, head organizer Central Valley Hiking Meetup Group
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He piloted helicopters in both war zones and dense jungles, and was involved in the 1986 airlift out of Manila of embattled Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
He was a scuba diver who became an accomplished underwater photographer.
He did stints in both the U.S. Marines and U.S. Navy, was a helicopter flight instructor in Pensacola, Fla., and served in Operation Desert Shield ahead of the first Gulf War.
He was a missionary on the island of Papua New Guinea, fighting off malaria while serving there.
He earned a law degree in a later-in-life second career and eventually became lead attorney for the Fresno County Department of Child Support Services.
His wife, Rachel, practically had to run to keep up, but that she did, for almost 36 years, as Harrison sought new mountains to conquer – literally and figuratively. And though things had been rough for the couple the past few years, she saw him the night before he died last week at age 59.
“He was a hard man to keep up with,” Rachel Harrison said. “He lived a full and amazing life.”
Hiking community memorializes him
An avid extreme hiker, Harrison’s friends and fellow hikers set up a Facebook page, Remembering Doug Harrison, that has since been filled with memories of his life.
Harrison was born in Fresno, but raised in several central San Joaquin Valley towns, including Le Grand and Exeter. His family also lived for a time in San Luis Obispo while his father, Byron Harrison, did a stint as a leave replacement in Cal Poly’s Agricultural Education Department.
He graduated from Coalinga High in 1975, where he was student body president as a senior and was an avid wrestler and swimmer.
After high school he attended Fresno Pacific University, with the intention of becoming a youth pastor. But after earning a Contemporary Christian Ministry degree, Harrison made the first of many interesting choices in his life. Instead of becoming a pastor, he chose the military, planning to become a pilot. He entered the Marine Corps Officer Candidates School in June 1980, and in December of that year, married Rachel.
Harrison would serve a dozen years in the military, first as a Marine and later in the Navy. While in the military, he participated in the helicopter airlift of Marcos to Clark Air Base in the Philippines, did drug interdiction work along the Venezuelan coast and flew Persian Gulf patrols in Operation Desert Shield. His military pilot nickname was “Mako.”
The Harrisons during this time became certified divers in Okinawa, which was the start of numerous dive vacations. Harrison combined that with a love for photography, eventually getting some of his underwater photos published. Not surprisingly, Harrison also took up motorcycles.
Back in Fresno with a new passion
In June 1992, he left the military after deciding he wanted to use his piloting skills as a Christian missionary. He and Rachel moved to Fresno, where Harrison enrolled in San Joaquin Valley College, where he learned to fix helicopters and aircraft – not just fly them. It was a necessary skill to be a missionary pilot in a Third World country.
“He’d get bored with a career and then find a new one that was interesting and exciting,” said hiking buddy Seth Nidever.
He was a hard man to keep up with. He lived a full and amazing life.
Doug and Rachel joined New Tribes Mission, eventually serving 15 months in Papua New Guinea, where Harrison flew missionaries in and out of remote jungle locations. While he flew helicopters in the military, he flew both helicopters and planes on New Guinea. Their daughter, Krista, was born in Fresno in 1994, and she went along to the remote southeast Asian island. All three got malaria, and Krista almost died from it, Rachel Harrison said.
Back in Fresno after Papua New Guinea, Harrison continued flying, including piloting Air George, Valley Children’s Hospital’s medical transport helicopter.
During his settled lifestyle, Harrison and his daughter Krista grew close, with father-daughter dates and he and Rachel supporting her as she played soccer.
“She was the largest part of him,” Rachel Harrison said of their daughter.
On to law
Harrison’s final big turn came in 2003, when he started at San Joaquin College of Law, eventually earning a law degree in 2007.
Rachel Harrison said Harrison eventually rose, in 2013, to become chief attorney for the Fresno County Department of Child Support Services. He became adept, she said, at tracking down deadbeat parents who owed child support, including developing a creative way to find money hidden in retirement accounts. It was implemented statewide, Rachel Harrison said, and her husband was invited to conferences to speak about it.
Even as a sedate attorney, however, Harrison never lost his sense for adventure. His parents had started taking him and his brother camping in Yosemite when they were tots, and Harrison found himself returning there again as an extreme hiker.
Many people knew Harrison through the Central Valley Hiking Meetup Group. But Harrison’s hikes weren’t just routine walks; they were tough boulder hopping or intense climbs that required skill and determination.
Nidever recalls the relatively short yet challenging hike up to Fern Ledge near Yosemite Falls. Harrison had read about it and decided to organize a hike. But he also weeded out those who lacked total commitment or weren’t tough enough to properly prepare. The Fern Ledge hike, after all, can be dangerous.
With a stressful job, Harrison “desperately needed to get out to the mountains to decompress,” Nidever said.
Seabolt said Harrison would “not take anyone not qualified to do a particular hike. He took great strides in his expertise hiking and granite scrambling. He did like to scramble up granite. I would say Doug was a mountain climber more than a trekker.”
Rachel Harrison said he broke many bones either by falling off of cliffs or crashing motorcycles.
Doug had a kind heart and an incredible sense of adventure and his true joy came from sharing his adventures with friends.
Morgan LeBlanc, Doug Harrison’s close friend
About three years ago, however, Harrison began struggling. A “darkness came over him,” Rachel Harrison said, that she could not understand. “I don’t know what triggered the decline.”
On Dec. 2, he committed suicide at Woodward Park.
The death shocked Harrison’s friends and family.
Morgan LeBlanc, Harrison’s close friend, said he and his wife “are both struggling with the void he left. Constant reminders are still in our home. Doug had a kind heart and an incredible sense of adventure, and his true joy came from sharing his adventures with friends.”
Rachel Harrison thinks back to what attracted her to Doug Harrison in the beginning, at Fresno Pacific University: his love of God.
Instead of dwelling on the dark, she said, “I want to remember him for how he lived.”
Douglas Craig Harrison
Born: April 17, 1957
Died: Dec. 2, 2016
Occupation: Attorney for Fresno County Department of Child Support Services, adventurer, extreme hiker and former missionary and military pilot
Survivors: Wife Rachel, daughter Krista, parents Byron and Mary Harrison, brother Rodney Harrison
Services: Monday, 11 a.m. at New Covenant Community Church in Fresno. In lieu of flowers the family asks for a donation to the Yosemite Conservancy.