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Missing in Alaska: Deconstructing search and rescue in Last Frontier

Hannah HeimbuchThe Arctic Sounder
Alaska State Troopers photo

In the first week of February, Alaska's northwest witnessed a survival success story when two young Noatak men returned safely home after getting lost in a blizzard. Jerome Onalik, 20, spent a day in the storm before a search and rescue team found him. Lonnie Arnold, 21, was missing  for three full days.

Ground searchers from Kotzebue located Arnold after following his trail Tuesday afternoon.

They found his machine, which still had three quarters of a tank of gas but a broken starter rope. They also found his backpack and later footprints that eventually led them to the area Arnold had found some shelter. But the saving grace was when Arnold, upon hearing engines nearby, stuck a leg out from the snow-covered bush concealing him.

Persistence and a bit of luck paid off after that, as ground crews were able to flag down a Super Cub searching the air and get Arnold on the way to medical professionals within minutes of finding him.

Alaska has no shortage of search and rescue mission stories -- those that end in homecoming happiness as well as tragedy. After all, Alaska's landscape is unforgiving in all seasons.

Alaska's volunteer expeditionary force

There is a force there to meet Mother Nature's fury though, a network of men and women who pit their energy against often-spectacular odds. Alaska search and rescue teams are, for the most part, volunteers.

That mobilization is just what happened in the Noatak and Kotzebue area last week. The search involved employees of the Northwest Arctic Borough; ground crews from Kotzebue, Noatak, Kivalina, Kiana; the Alaska State Troopers; Department of Fish and Game air support; mapping and technical support from Elmendorf Air Force base and countless community members that kept the crews fed and fueled as they searched around the clock.

"I've never seen anything like it in my life," said Kotzebue Fish and Game biologist Jim Dau. "When people get lost, it's not just the number of people that participate, but when they don't find somebody, they will search for months. They do so much to try and provide closure to the family."

Dau flew the Fish and Game Super Cub that assisted troopers in picking up Arnold.

The teams follow a protocol that is geared toward keeping searchers safe and accounting for supplies, explained Rodney Snyder, president of Kotzebue's Arctic Circle Search and Rescue. After a missing person is reported to the troopers and the borough, they coordinate supplies and information to the individual search teams in each village.

Going through these channels, and documenting all efforts and materials used, are important steps because of the funding needed to gear up these teams.

The borough dropped off four drums of gas at the ACSR headquarters in Kotzebue last Monday, which rang in at about $280 apiece. Snyder said he went and bought another $400 in oil. They also stock searchers with extra spark plugs, tools, hand warmers and survival gear. It's not cheap, and getting the OK from troopers and the borough to stage an official search means the state will likely foot the bill.

At the end of it all, Northwest Arctic Borough Public Services Deputy Director Wendie Schaeffer estimates the cost of this search to be around $12,000.

The ACSR deployed 13 people to Noatak last Monday, all on personal snowmachines.

They also refueled the Kiana crew before sending them on their way. Once volunteers left the Kotzebue staging area, they were under the leadership of search headquarters in Noatak. This is where the strength of volunteer efforts is seen in full force.

Camaraderie and prayer

"SARs are a vital organization in every community as first responders to people overdue or missing," said Carol Wesley, President of the Noatak Search and Rescue Team.

"(Because) the only means of travel in this region besides the airlines are by snowmachine, and boats in the summer."

In the end, countless people throw their energy toward the effort, she said, with cooks and mechanics, people keeping gas supply going and SAR officers keeping accurate documentation.

Camaraderie and prayer often play large roles in these situations, Wesley said, as people band together to support families regardless of the outcome.

Wesley has been involved with Noatak SAR for more than a decade, and first became interested when she had a loved one missing, resulting in a massive search.

"After that it really made me want to give more to the organization," she said.

It's impossible to count the number of people that step up and help bring missing men and women home. And officials from the borough to the troopers to Fish and Game applauded efforts of ground crews that carry on in terrible weather, on emotional missions.

"These people do miraculous work," said Kotzebue trooper Sgt. Duane Stone. "It's unforgiving and there are not a lot of thank-yous in it. My hat's off to them."

Another sentiment voiced across the board was the need for preventative measures when traveling the region. Trip plans, appropriate gear, working sleds and perhaps above all choosing appropriate weather to travel in all rank high in terms of safety precautions.

Another option Schaeffer highlighted was the use of SPOT locators, which allow the user to press a button transmitting a location and help message if need be. The Maniilaq Association donated 65 of the units last year, Schaeffer said, and they spread them out around the borough's communities in relation to village population. Any resident can go to their local SAR and check one out, she said, it could make the difference between being lost for hours, and being lost for days.

This article was originally published by The Arctic Sounder and is reprinted here with permission.