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A search and rescue volunteer disappears in Interior Alaska

Craig Medred
Aaron Jansen illustration

It would appear that Good Samaritan Gerald DeBerry has joined the ranks of those gone missing in the wilds of the 49th state. Friends of DeBerry, who on Thursday continued an informal search for his body in rugged country 70 miles north of Fairbanks, can only hope for the best. People familiar with October weather conditions figured DeBerry for dead even before Alaska State Troopers decided to scale back a three-day search, Wednesday night.

"They had three helicopters for two days going everywhere," said Paul Potvin, an old DeBerry friend and the owner of the Long Creek Trading Post where searchers gathered. "They had an infrared helicopter at night. They pulled everyone off the mountain. They went all over it."

The mountain was swept with a high-tech Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) scanner by the highly-trained crew of an Alaska Air National Guard Pavehawk helicopter. An FLIR is designed to make warm bodies otherwise invisible appear magically on a screen displaying blue and red images. The technology is sophisticated enough to detect a North Slope polar bear sleeping in a den beneath the snow.

It was not sophisticated enough to find DeBerry.

"It's a mystery," Potvin said. "The four-wheeler is gone. Something had to have happened to him. He didn't get lost. Everybody agrees with that. He's been out there way too many times to get lost. That's the most baffling part."

DeBerry is by no means the first, nor the last, to disappear in Alaska. These mysteries happen with a certainly regularity in the only state that remains largely unconquered by civilization. Beyond a few cities, Alaska remains as much wilderness as it was a century ago. Some contend it might actually be more of a wilderness, given the modern-day disappearance of gold prospectors who once roamed the country like human caribou. Alaska's Native peoples now cluster in villages, where before they were more nomadic, forced to spread out widely when, pre-modernity, they depended fully for survival on fish and game. Alaska is a lean land, and one valley won't support many hunters if they all must be sure of a kill to survive.


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Interior Alaska mysterious even to Alaskans

As Alaskans cluster in few, farther-flung outposts, Alaska has become an easier place to get lost, an easier place to disappear. Sheila Nickerson, Alaska's poet laureate, wrote a whole book about this phenomena, "Disappearance: A Map -- A Meditation on Death and Loss in the High Latitudes."

Said Publisher's Weekly of her work:

Nickerson follows recent disappearances of hikers, climbers, tourists and adventurers … These gripping stories of death and loss are deftly interwoven with reflections on the author's life in Alaska. Beautifully written, "Disappearances" gives us a sense of place not found in ordinary maps.

An ordinary map does tell a lot about Alaska, though. Look at a map of the state and you see few roads, and a scattering of villages and cities that aside from Anchorage's urban sprawl looks like little more than pepper sprinkled on paper.

Alaska is an easy place to get lost. And it is a place where it is possible to stay lost forever.

Friends of DeBerry are still hoping they can find his body and keep his name from joining the ledger of those never found: Japanese national hero Naomi Uemera, who vanished from the face of Mount McKinley; crazy and legendary Alaska climber John Mallon Waterman who hiked off across the Ruth Glacier never to be seen again; Alaska Fish and Game biologist Kent Roth and brother, Jeff, who along with two friends vanished into thin air on a flight back to Anchorage after a fishing trip.

All are still out there, somewhere, along with many more. DeBerry is now, temporarily at least, among them.

"Will we ever find him?" Potvin wondered Thursday morning, his voice cracking a bit over the phone line. "That would be tough. It would be nice to put some closure to it."

DeBerry was 53. His health wasn't the best. He wasn't much for personal fitness, according to friends. Back down the two-lane Steese Highway, 30 miles or so from the Long Creek lodge at DeBerry's home in Fox, Alaska (population 417), he spent his time tinkering with cars and trucks. "He dabbled in vehicles," Potvin said. "He was just a real good mechanic. He bought and sold a lot of vehicles. If someone needed a vehicle," DeBerry's name often came up.

Sometimes it came up in a bar. DeBerry liked to tip a few. He made friends the way friends are made in the old television show Cheers.

"Gerald has many friends," Potvin said. "He's helped out many, many people over the years.''

Everyone one who got to know DeBerry said he had a big heart. And he demonstrated that once again on Monday when 38-year-old Melinda "Mindy" Straetz of Utah went missing after an all-terrain adventure near Frozen Foot Creek north of Potvin's lodge. DeBerry was one of the volunteers who jumped in quick to help search for her.

"He had to be part of that party, because he knew that girl really well," Potvin said.

The country up behind the lodge on the south slope of the White Mountains is rugged and brushy, but there are a lot of old Jeep trails. Hunters, prospectors and would-be homesteaders pioneered most of them long ago. Today, they are more popular with four-wheelers who tour the country for fun. Straetz was one of them. She went riding over the weekend with her brother, Mitchell Straetz, some friends and her Jack Russell terrier.

It wasn't revealed that Mindy Straetz had become lost until everyone had returned back to the Steese trailhead, where the ride had started, her brother later told troopers. She had "disappeared along the trail somewhere between Smith Creek and a nearby hill." Mitchell went back to look for her, but found no sign. At about 2 a.m. Monday morning, he called troopers from Potvin's lodge to ask for help. A search was organized the next morning. DeBerry joined it. It went well.

Within eight hours troopers reported that a ground searcher had reached Straetz "and the two were starting the drive out of the trail system by four-wheeler." That ground searcher called Potvin on a satellite phone minutes later to report he did indeed have Mindy with him and she was fine.

"She'd spent the night out. So she was cold and hungry," Potvin said Thursday, but she was alive and well, and searchers were happy.

Only later did they realize DeBerry had not returned. He'd last been seen only about four miles from the Steese on a trail with which everyone agreed DeBerry was well familiar. Why he failed to cover the few miles back to the highway -- a ride of but tens of minutes on a four-wheeler -- left everyone mystified.

"From where he was last seen, it's like a mystery; he disappeared," Potvin repeated. "We can't find him or the four-wheeler or anything. Somebody suggested maybe he fell into an old sink hole ... and we just can't see him."

Potvin added that there was also a possibility DeBerry had for reasons unknown gone into the river and become pinned under a log jam somewhere.

"Where the heck could he have gone? Him, I can understand, maybe. But a four-wheeler? How can that disappear?" the lodge owner wondered.

DeBerry was driving a Yamaha Kodiak -- a big, green, 600-pound vehicle more than 6 feet long and almost 4 feet wide. It is a bigger target than a human body for searchers spotting from the air, but -- as Potvin conceded -- it is lost in an even bigger country. And he admitted, when you think about it, "every root ball out there looks like a four-wheeler turned upside down."

'No way he could have survived'

What Potvin and DeBerry's other friends truly hoped from the beginning was that the missing man would get himself found. They weren't sure if he had matches with him, but they were sure he could figure out how to dip a piece of fabric into the gas tank of his four-wheeler, ignite the fuel-soaked material with a spark from the machine's spark plug, and in that way get a fire started. A fire, especially a big one, is visible for a long way in the Alaska Interior even without infrared scanners.

In fact, Potvin said, one of the first things folks did after DeBerry disappeared was raise a huge bonfire. "You could have seen if for miles." If DeBerry had been unhurt, "he would have come to it."

That he didn't was a first ominous sign. That searchers found no sign of DeBerry Tuesday was a second. When the National Guard found nothing with the FLIR that night, and further search efforts came up empty Wednesday, those who know the country up in the White Mountains pretty much accepted the obvious.

"Living out here, I know, there's no way he could have survived," Potvin said. "When I woke up yesterday at 6 a.m., it was 5 degrees. Last night was night three. It was bone-chilling cold, and we all know he wasn't dressed for that."

Troopers said that when last seen, DeBerry's warmest garment was a sweatshirt. Given the conditions he faced, he would have been considered lightly dressed. A man would need to make a fire just to survive, and as Potvin noted there was "no fire."

"Last night at 8 o'clock, troopers called the search and rescue off, and now it's considered a (body) recovery," Potvin said.

None of DeBerry's friends protested.

The troopers and the National Guard, the lodge owner said, "did everything they possibly could do. We believe that. We want to thank them."

And Gerald?

"He was part of a rescue team, and then became a rescuee," Potvin said. "Something had to have happened to him. It's tearing us up. The worst part is we can't find him. Where the heck could he have been? We went everywhere and searched everywhere. We're all distraught around here. We don't know what to do. It's crazy."

And it is Alaska.

"Everything up here is extreme," Potvin added, and "you better be prepared. He (Gerald) wasn't the first."

A few weeks ago, Potvin noted, a four-wheeler rolled over on a woman not far back in the hills behind the lodge. She was seriously injured. She died before help could get to her. It is what happens in the still wild north.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com