Valerie Sifsof went missing on a drizzly July night at the summer-green Glacier Creek Campground on the Kenai Peninsula.
The other day her family friend Gloria Chythlook went back to the campground south of Turnagain Pass. She picked cranberries along a creek near where Sifsof was last seen. The tall grasses had yellowed and wilted. Leaves were starting to fall.
She's been missing for more than two months. Sifsof's family members now measure the time she has been gone in seasons.
They hope she is still alive: abducted, maybe. They fear she is the victim of a homicide.
They feel increasingly sure that she is not in the campground area, which they've scoured dozens of times. But that does not stop them from returning weekend after weekend to float the creek and walk the woods. With little else to go on, they are drawn back to the place where Sifsof was last seen.
They search for any small sign that will lead them out of the void faced by families of the missing: How could a vibrant, 43-year-old woman suddenly cease to exist?
"I can't stop looking until I'm sure," said her father, Victor Sifsof.
Valerie was camping with her boyfriend, Eliot Freeburg, at the campground on the night of July 7. She was last seen leaving the couple's campsite after they had argued sometime around midnight.
In the past two months, Victor, who lives in Dillingham but has been staying in Anchorage, has filled binders with maps and collected details of the day his daughter disappeared.
Alaska State Troopers say their active, on-the-ground search phase is over but they continue to follow up on leads. That includes getting in touch with others in the campground that night. Some have been forthcoming and easy to reach. Others have not.
The physical search has yielded few clues, said trooper Capt. Andrew Greenstreet.
"(The investigation) is active but it's not as active as we'd like it to be," he said.
Troopers plan to fly over the area with a helicopter again just before freeze-up, Greenstreet said. They may also use trained body-sniffing dogs to float the river once more.
Victor Sifsof said he is in touch with troopers every few days.
They are doing the best that they can with what they have, he said. But he thinks they're understaffed.
Family members, including Valerie's five siblings, have compiled a website with the help of a volunteer. On it they post photos of Valerie, updates on the search and links to media reports.
They unfurled a 12-foot-long banner with Valerie's name and story on it at the Alaska State Fair. A network of friends drove the Alaska road system, hanging fliers with Valerie's face on them anyplace that would allow it.
Weekends, they travel to the Peninsula. By now, Victor said, Valerie's brothers have floated the creek near the campground 12 or 13 times.
Once they found clothing that seemed similar to the dark sweatshirt Valerie was last seen wearing. But it didn't match.
The family fears living without an answer years or decades later. They are haunted by cases like that of Erin Gilbert, a tall, striking 25-year-old nanny who went to the Girdwood Forest Fair in 1995 and has never been seen or heard from again.
At the same time, they have found themselves plunged into a strange, Internet-based world of people who cater to or target families of missing people.
They've been in contact with some helpful organizations and some self-proclaimed psychics proffering vague and unsettling visions.
Chythlook drove to Soldotna to check out a tip from one psychic.
"On the off chance this is real, how could I not be responsive?" she said.
The trip amounted to nothing but part of a tank of gas.
"We're pragmatic people," she said. "But it's stunningly disappointing when nothing comes of it."
In some ways, life has gone on.
Bristol Bay commercial fishing season, during which Victor makes most of his income, came and went. He missed most of it.
Valerie's siblings have had to go back to their jobs.
In August, a bright spot in an otherwise dark summer arrived: Valerie's sister Ashley Sifsof gave birth to a 9-pound, 5-ounce baby boy she named Ashton Dwayne-Val Sifsof.
Before she disappeared, Valerie had been in charge of planning the baby shower.
Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4344.
By MICHELLE THERIAULT BOOTS
Anchorage Daily News