A search for missing Mount Marathon runner Michael LeMaitre entered its fourth day Saturday with hopes dimming that he remains alive. The 66-year-old Anchorage man was last seen Thursday evening near the 3,022-foot summit of the mountain that looms above the seaside town of Seward, about 125 miles south of Anchorage. The weather at the time was cold and rainy, and LeMaitre was dressed in only shorts and a t-shirt.
He was the last runner on the trial of a now legendary, Fourth of July race that traces its history back to the Alaska's rugged gold miners of the early 1900s. A race timer, who keeps track of how long it takes competitors to reach the top of the mountain, was already heading down when he passed LeMaitre. Their meeting came about 200 feet shy of the turnaround, according to race organizers.
The timer went down, and LeMaitre went up never to be seen again. The top quarter to third of the mountain is barren rock, tundra and snowfields, but lower down, the mountain is swathed in the lush, green, leafy alder brush that makes searching extremely difficult. Some of the snowfields are also riddled with holes and creeks beneath them into which someone could conceivably fall and disappear. And the amount of search terrain to be covered on the flanks of the mountains is vast despite its proximity to a busy port community of 3,000 people.
Paul Potvin, owner of the Long Creek Trading Post along the Steese Highway north of Fairbanks in the state's Interior, is all too familiar with how this kind of country can just swallow a man up.
Potvin's friend Gerald DeBerry last fall disappeared into the White Mountains along with his four-wheeler after helping to search for a missing woman safely found. An exhaustive search for DeBerry followed. No sign of the 53-year-old man or the 600-pound vehicle he was riding has ever been found.
"People looked and looked and looked," Potvin said this week. "People have been looking all spring."
There were expectations that at least DeBerry's all-terrain vehicle might be found in the brief period between when the snows melt in Alaska and the leaves explode into life. Then, the land is gray and open, and a lot can be seen from the air or from the ground. And yet searchers still couldn't find any hint of DeBerry.
"No one's every found anything of him," Potvin said, "but he's out there somewhere. He comes up almost every day. He had a lot of friends (here). It is weird."
Then, the man who runs a lodge along a remote highway 70 miles north of Fairbanks, the only real city in Alaska's Interior, paused on the telephone for a minute to think.
"Alaska is a land of extremes," he said.
Civilization has come to parts of the 49th state, but much of it remains unchanged since its primordial days -- a land of vast expanses, rugged terrain, and unfriendly weather. Searchers looking for LeMaitre are hoping for a better outcome than in the DeBerry case, but chances dim by the day.
Still, there is always hope.
After an eight-day search for former Iditarod musher Melanie Gould along the remote Denali Highway was called off in June of last year, many believed she may have joined the ranks of those never found. But two days later, Gould emerged from the woods. She had spent 11 days alone and marginally equipped in the wilderness, and she had survived.
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com