Wisconsin survivalist missing after 2 months in Northwest Alaska

Casey Grove
Gitte Stryhn

State troopers are searching for a missing survivalist who set out alone in the Northwest Alaska wilderness in late September.

The missing man is Thomas Seibold, a Wisconsin resident and an instructor at the Talking Drum Outdoor School, said troopers, who were still looking for Seibold, 31, as of nightfall Saturday.

A traveling companion on the Ambler River last saw Seibold, described as an experienced outdoorsman, in late September. He had planned to stay in the backcountry through October and had booked a flight home to Wisconsin on Nov. 15, according to troopers spokeswoman Beth Ipsen.

"He didn't make that flight," Ipsen said.

The German-born Seibold left home in Three Lakes, Wis., and traveled to Alaska in June, staying first at an Alaska Native fish camp in Southeast, later traveling north to live in the outdoors along the Tanana River near Fairbanks, said Tamarack Song, Talking Drum Outdoor School director. Seibold traveled to the Northwest Alaska village of Ambler in September and hiked to a cabin about 30 miles to the north, up the Ambler River, where a woman and her 13-year-old son lived, Song said.

The trio canoed down the river to the woman's fish camp sometime in September. Seibold decided to part ways with the woman and her son on Sept. 27 and said he was heading back to the cabin, said Song, who has spoken to the woman and the troopers searching for Seibold.

Seibold's plan was to hike out about 25 miles to Kobuk in October, said Ipsen. He was supposed to contact someone by Nov. 11, and when he failed to do so, the person reported him missing, she said.

Aerial searches of the area in the past week have turned up no sign of Seibold, Ipsen said.

An Alaska Wildlife Trooper flying a Piper PA-18 Super Cub located the Ambler River cabin and landed there Tuesday but did not see any sign of Seibold or where he went, Ipsen said.

"It didn't look like he'd been there for weeks," Ipsen said.

High wind in the region stalled the search until later in the week, and partially open waterways and a lack of snow have made ground searching with snowmachines or four-wheelers impossible, Ipsen said.

Troopers in Kotzebue chartered a Cessna 206 airplane Friday and flew with two spotters and Seibold's friend, searching his likely route out of the mountainous area, Ipsen said. The troopers and spotters stayed the night in Ambler so as to get an earlier start on the search again Saturday, she said.

There was still no sign of Seibold by the time night fell Saturday, Ipsen said.

"Here's where the mystery begins," Song said. "Thomas is a wanderer. He has visions of the wilderness in his mind. ... My hunch is he was lured into going farther north."

Seibold indicated in a letter to the school that he was thinking about trekking farther out from the cabin to build a shelter deeper in the wilderness, Song said. But it's unclear if Seibold ever made it back to the cabin. A swift change from rainy fall weather to winter's cold may have forced Seibold to change his plans, Song said.

Several years prior to coming to Alaska, Seibold successfully completed a year-long wilderness guide program, a "wilderness immersion" in the Nicolet National Forest in northern Wisconsin, Song said. He's also taken survival courses in Norway and elsewhere in the Arctic, Song said. Seibold is capable of living off the land for extended periods, having learned skills such as shelter-building, animal tracking, ways to forage for food and how to avoid hypothermia and frostbite, Song said.

Seibold returned to the school following the immersion course and has worked as an assistant instructor for about two years, Song said.

"I'm confident that, if he's not injured and has adequate calories to keep himself going, he's going to be alright," he said.

Seibold was on a "personal quest" when he traveled in the outdoors, including his time in Alaska, Song said.

"He's had some questions about his life, where he was going, how he wanted to fulfill his life's dream. Part of it was the mystique and allure of Alaska, of course," Song said. "It's the same thing most young people are after in their lives. You know, 'Who am I? Where am I going in my life? What gives life its meaning?' Just the big questions."

"He's a lover of the farther places, and he has no qualms about going alone."

Reach Casey Grove at casey.grove@adn.com or 257-4589.