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Western Alaska resident found dead, 5 miles from his snowmachine

Craig Medred
Craig Medred photo

Alaska State Troopers report the body of 43-year-old Douglas E. Gamechuk of Togiak was found near the Togiak-Manokotak Trail on Tuesday. The trail runs for about 50 miles across frozen tundra and through low, rolling hills between the predominantly Alaska Native villages of Togiak, population 842, and Manokotak, population 450.

Both Yup'ik villages lie on the north side of Bristol Bay about 400 miles west of Anchorage. There are no roads connecting the region to the rest of the state, but there are trails used regularly by local residents on snowmachines in the winter. The Bristol Bay Native Association warns of the primitive nature of the trail system.

"The BBNA-DOT Winter Trails Project has experienced significant weather impacts to trail (marking) tripods," its Togiak-Manokotak trail map warns. "Section of trail may be lost or under repair/construction by the Village Councils. Persons using the trails, or other BBNA-DOT Winter Trails data should do so at your own risk."

Gamechuk, who grew up in the area, was reported to have left Togiak sometime on Thursday of last week. Troopers said they weren't notified he was missing until 4:35 p.m. on Tuesday -- five days later.

Village public safety officers in Manokotak and Togiak had by then talked to Gamechuk's family and friends and determined that he was in neither village. A search of the trail found his snowmachine by 7 p.m. that evening, according to troopers. It was out of gas and abandoned on the trail about 35 miles west of Manokotak.

Gamechuk was nowhere to be found.

"Searchers continued to look," a trooper statement said. "At approximately 5:30 a.m., Gamechuk was found deceased near the trail four to five miles from his snow machine."

Hypothermia, the deadly lowering of core body temperature when someone has spent too long in the cold, is suspected as the cause of death, but an autopsy is planned.

Temperatures were near freezing when Gamechuk left Togiak, but winds were gusting to 45 mph with rain and snow, according to a local weather report. It can be easy to lose a remote Alaska trail in such conditions and burn a lot of snowmachine gas circling and searching to find it again. The rain turned to snow in the days that followed and the temperature began to drop, but the wind did not ease much.

Such conditions are why search-and-rescue officials throughout Alaska warn snowmachine riders to always carry emergency survival equipment in case they get stuck out. It is unclear at this time what gear Gamechuk had with him. Several snowmachiners die almost every Alaska winter from hypothermia -- what used to be called "exposure" -- after suffering breakdowns.

Others are lucky to survive. A search for a missing snowmachiner lost near Homer at the end of of the Kenai Peninsula had a happier ending last week when 41-year-old Steve Craig was spotted hiking toward safety. A helicopter landed and picked him up. The Homer Tribune reported he was flown directly "to South Peninsula Hospital, incoherent, disoriented and frost-bitten, but otherwise OK."

Craig, too, had run out of gas.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com