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Wisconsin survivalist missing in remote Alaska since September

Craig Medred
Courtesy Julia Bevins

In the far northwest corner of Alaska, the temperature was 6 degrees below zero on Monday afternoon, already falling toward the 20 below expected overnight, while authorities contemplated the fate of a 31-year-old Wisconsin man apparently gone missing for weeks. Where Thomas Seibold might have gone, or what fate might have befallen him, was a subject of considerable discussion in the community of Kotzebue, a regional hub of 3,224 people on the edge of the Chukchi Sea.

Kotzebue is the closet thing to what anyone would call a city in an area the size of the state of Washington. From Kotzebue to where Seibold went missing upriver from the village of Ambler, population 276, is even farther into the void. It is a long, cold, 150-mile flight in single-engine airplane to the east.

A German adventurer by way of Three Rivers, Wisc., Seibold flew into Ambler in the fall. He joined a Swedish woman and her 13-year-old son on a canoe trip from there up the gentle waters of the Ambler River to a cabin near Ulaneak Creek.

Planned to hike to Kobuk 

The woman and her son paddled the canoe back downstream before freeze up and caught a flight back to their home in Fairbanks to spend the winter in civilization. Seibold lingered on. His plan, according to friend and mentor Tamarack Song of the Three Lakes Teaching Drum Outdoor School back in Wisconsin, was to leave the cabin in late October or early November on a hike 30 miles or more southwest to the village of Kobuk, population 148, near the western edge of the 8.5 million acre Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve.

"Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve is a remote wilderness area located above the Arctic Circle and far from any roads,'' the National Park Service warns. "Access to this park requires careful planning."

The same could be said for the hundreds of miles of wilderness stretching from the park boundary back to Kotzebue. It is big, empty country, which is what Seibold sought.

Spiritual journey in Alaska

Seibold was in Alaska on a spiritual journey. He'd spent the summer, said Song, on a float trip down the Tanana River, a tributary to the mighty Yukon, in the vast Interior. It was there he'd met the woman who offered access to the cabin east of Ambler in some of the wildest, most remote country in the most remote state left in the United States. What exactly Seibold was searching for there is hard to say.

There is always the "McCandless factor" to contemplate, said Scott Jones, a pilot in Kotzebue who last week joined the search for Seibold.

Christopher McCandless was a troubled young man who hiked to a bus about 25 miles off the George Parks Highway in the spring of 1992 and stayed there until hunters in the fall of that year found his 67-pound body. He'd starved to death. He would have been just another nameless victim of the Alaska wilderness had not writer Jon Krakauer picked up on his story, decided he saw some of himself in McCandless, and reconstructed the self-proclaimed Alexander Supertramp's wandering journey from a comfortable home in a suburb of the nation's capital to death in the cold, harsh north.

Krakauer eulogized McCandless as a young man on an inspirational search for the meaning of life who fell victim to some poisonous, wild potato seeds. The latter premise was later debunked. And there has been considerable speculation ever since as to exactly what was going on with McCandless, the subject of both a best-selling book and a heavily promoted Hollywood movie. People can debate at length whether he was on a life-changing journey or merely a lost soul.

Seibold, whatever he was seeking, appears far more grounded. Song said he spent six years at the Teaching Drum School learning first how to survive in the wild and then teaching others how to survive in the wild.

Teaching drums talk

Teaching Drum itself is what might be classed as a New Age attempt to return to ancient times. Its website, which is voluminous, has a bounty of photographs of people tanning hides, building American Indian shelters, and starting fires with simple tools. Seibold, said Song, can start a fire with "friction;" so he could conceivably live off the land for a long time and without matches.  In that respect, he appears well trained to hang on in an Alaska survival situation, unlike McCandless.

"We are home to the Wilderness Guide and Wild Moon Immersion Programs, the only wilderness living experiences of their kind," the Teaching Drum website says. "They were created because the modern way of life has isolated us from the Earth, each other, and our intrinsic selves."

Tamarack Song, whose given name was Dan Konen, founded the school in 1987. A northern European, he claims to have been "inspired by the directive he received on his Vision Quest to bring the time-honored ways of living in balance to this time of profound imbalance. The school began as a summer operation, offering classes in edible and medicinal plants and week long wilderness canoe trips, along with birch bark canoe building and Native-style running.

"In 1989 the Teaching Drum incorporated as a 501(c)3 nonprofit school, acquired an 80 acre wilderness parcel on an undeveloped lake for its outdoor classroom, and began operating year-round. New offerings included an annual primitive skills rendezvous called the Old Way Gathering, hide tanning and shelter building courses, and wilderness retreats."

The school has come under some criticism from Native Americans who say it distorts and usurps American Indian teachings. But there is no doubt that much of what is taught at the school -- most especially making fire without matches, making clothing from animal skins and building primitive shelters  -- could prove highly useful to anyone in a survival situation, which is one of the reasons Song still holds out hope for Seibold.

"I just read an account of a young man lost in the Himalayas for 40 days," Song said. "He survived without food and without fire."

Without any sign 

More than 3,000 miles north of Song's Wisconsin home, Alaska State Trooper Sgt. Duane Stone was on Monday weighing how long the search for Seibold should continue in face of the absence of any evidence he might be alive. It was not an easy decision.

"We're not encouraged by anything we've found so far," he said. "It's a little discouraging ... I can't search the whole world for him. Our options are limited."

The resources at Stone's disposal are small. He oversees seven troopers charged with law enforcement in an area the size of many states. They were busy last week with two other search-and-rescue operations in addition to the hunt for Seibold. Both of the those proved successful, but in both cases Stone also had some idea of where to look. He can call on local search-and-rescue volunteers in some cases, but search conditions in the northwest part of the 49th state are at the moment sketchy. There is not enough snow to allow snowmachine travel. The tussocked, frozen ground is in many places too rough for four-wheelers. There are no roads.

The rivers, which will become highways later in the season, have frozen over in the cold snap of recent weeks, but they are not safely frozen. Patches of open water and thin ice remain. Stone knows all too well the dangers of travel in November. Two Ambler men died early in that month last year after trying to skip their snowmachines across open water to get home.

"It's frozen up now," said Ambler resident John Kelly, "but it's dangerous ice conditions."

Nearest road Dalton Highway

Stone could put men on the ground near where Seibold was last known to be, but it has been weeks now since he was there. The area around the cabin has been searched. And no one has a clue as to what direction he might have been headed when he left. One of Seibold's friends, Stone said, thinks the man could have gone east for the Dalton Highway, about 200 miles away. It's the nearest road. It slices north through the middle of the state from Fairbanks to the oil fields at Prudhoe Bay.

"It was one of his alternatives," Stone said. "I'd be really glad if he made it."

Seibold's first alternative, however, according to everyone he talked to, was to head east about 30 miles across the Shugnak River valley toward Bornite, a copper prospect in the hills above Kobuk, then follow an old tractor trail into the village. There is a caretaker spending the winter in Bornite. He has not seen Seibold.

Not optimistic 

Walter Sampson, the former head of the Civil Air Patrol post in Kotzebue and an executive with NANA, the regional Native corporation there, said he and a pilot friend talked to the caretaker while flying over Bornite on the weekend on their own search for Seibold. The CAP posts in Kotzebue was disbanded several years ago, but Sampson couldn't walk away from the sense of obligation to those missing.

"I know how it feels," he said. "I was lost once."

He was not optimistic about Seibold's fate. "I was hoping at least we would find some sort of a fire going or light (from a fire) somewhere," he said. "Every camp we spotted or cabin we spotted, we made sure to make low passes."

They found no sign of life. No smoke. No tracks in the thin snow. No one waving for help. "Nothing," Sampson said.

"We went out and flew around just north of Bornite out on the (Shugnak River) flats ... We didn't see anything. We didn't find anything. There wasn't anything we saw," he said. "You could see good. Snow conditions are good" for tracking, if not for travel.

Sampson was hoping that at least he might spot birds scavenging the remains of an animal Seibold had killed to eat or, worse, Seibold's body. It is the way of life in the north. But he found neither.

"Maybe he went through the ice," Sampson said. "There was a lot of open water on both the Shugnak and the Ambler" rivers.

Many ways to die 

Or maybe something else happened.

"Everything's speculation," said Jones, the Kotzebue pilot who'd been helping with the search.

He noted the last time anyone had contact with Seibold was near the end of September. Stone said he talked to a guide who was in the Ambler area through the month who said he never saw the man. Seibold was first reported missing last week after failing to make a planned Nov. 11 flight out of Kobuk. When troopers flew to the cabin at Ulaneak Creek, they found several letters and something of a diary in letter-form, Song said.

The latter ended on Oct. 7, according to trooper spokeswoman Megan Peters, who reported. that "was when the last journal entry was made. At this time it appears that he went out (of the cabin) with the intentions of being away for several days. There is no evidence that he ever made it back to the cabin after that.... There was nothing conclusive on what his plans were."

Troopers are not releasing the letters. It is not totally clear if Seibold left the camp for a short exploration in the area or for the start of the hike to Kobuk, but there are indications in addition to his jottings that it might have been the former.

No rifle, hungry bears

The .22-caliber rifle he took to Alaska with him from Wisconsin was left in the cabin, as was a .30-06-caliber rifle. The former would have been a useful survival tool for shooting game on a long hike. The latter would have been useful in case of an encounter with a grizzly bear. The bears in the area were still out in October, and they can be a little more dangerous than usual that time of year because of what is called "hyperphagia''-- a pre-hibernation feeding frenzy.

The two most famous bear deaths in recent Alaska history -- that of wannabe actor Timothy Treadwell and girlfriend Amie Huguenard in October 2003 -- have been blamed in part by some on a hyperphagic old bear. "There is something wrong,'' Song admitted. "Maybe he had an accident. Maybe a grizzly bear got him.''

It is out of character, Song added, for Seibold to deviate from a plan without telling someone. It is possible the man would do so, Song said, but highly doubtful he would do so without leaving a note at the cabin outlining the new plan. In an interview, Song seemed a man clearly oscillating between fear and hope, on the one hand wishing for Seibold to be alive and on the other cognizant of the realities.

"He is our primary focus here,'' Song said. "We all love him. (But) your troopers are up there, and they know what they are doing. It's hard to get a plane up, up there. It's 30 degrees below zero.

"(But) he can make a fire. There's every possibility he can stay alive.''

There is always hope, but the cold, hard facts in this case are simple, too. As one Ambler resident observed:

"The last he was anywhere that anyone knows of was a month ago. He's overdue by a moth. The reality is with the conditions out there now, it's not feasible to do anything. We may never know what happened to him.''

It would not be the first time. Alaska poet laureate Sheila Nickerson wrote a book about this Alaska phenomenon in 1995 -- Disappearance: A Map, A Meditation on Death and Loss in the High Latitudes. "I live in a place,'' it began, "where people disappear.''

Sometimes, they still do.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com