Search continues for 2 men missing in Kuskokwim River area

Casey Grove

Two Western Alaska men are still missing after an apparent mishap during their boating trip from Bethel to a funeral last week in the village of Tuntutuliak, near the mouth of the Kuskokwim River.

Volunteer searchers found their sunken boat Sunday, Alaska State Troopers said.

Tuluksak resident Jim Lee Napoka, 46, and Nick Cooke, 37, of Bethel never arrived for the funeral. A family member of one of the men reported them overdue on Friday, according to troopers.

Troopers searched by air, and volunteers scoured rivers by boat. It was Sunday afternoon when the volunteers found Napoka's 16-foot aluminum jon boat, with its 88-horsepower Evinrude outboard motor, near the mouth of the Kialik River, upriver from Tuntutuliak, trooper Sgt. Gregory Lavin said. (Bethel radio station KYUK reported the river's name as Killigak, possibly an alternate spelling, Lavin said.)

"It was submerged and there was quite a bit of sand that kept it submerged. There was a pretty significant storm system that came through," Lavin said. "That river gets really unfriendly in those circumstances. Pretty tumultuous water during that time."

Prior to finding the boat, the searchers had been looking for the men over more than 100 river miles, said trooper Michael Wilson, the lead investigator on the case.

"The boat was our first break, kind of cluing us in to give us an area to look, so we could concentrate our resources," Wilson said Monday. "One of the searchers did find footprints. They were looking more into that today, following those tracks to see if they led anywhere."

Many things about the men's trip are unknown, including what route they took, what gear they carried or if the rough weather contributed to their disappearance, Lavin said. The men were reportedly carrying firewood to Tuntutuliak but they left the wood at Cooke's family fish camp along the way, the trooper sergeant said.

"This is one of those things where there was really limited information," Lavin said. "There wasn't a lot of communication on what these guys were doing or where they were."

The storm that ripped through the area churned up all sorts of debris, Lavin said. The searchers found other abandoned boats and garbage. At one point, someone discovered a boot stuffed with grass, "maybe (from) somebody trying to keep their feet warm," Lavin said.

Due to the lack of information about the gear or provisions Cooke and Napoka carried, though, Lavin said troopers could not be sure if the lost boot or the footprints were from the missing men.

The search continued by air and water Monday, Lavin said. Troopers were flying in a plane, and volunteer boaters were still looking for the men, he said. Some villagers in the area had donated gas -- much more expensive there than in urban Alaska -- to keep the boats running, Wilson said.

"That's how important it was to them," Wilson said. "It's reassuring to see that out of the community, to know they care about each other that much. For people they don't even necessarily know."

Reach Casey Grove at 257-4343.