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Search continues for 2 men missing in Western Alaska

Suzanna Caldwell

Communities in the lower Kuskokwim River Delta are banding together in a search for two men reported missing Friday.

Nick Cooke, 37, of Bethel and Jim Lee Napoka, 46, of Tuluksak were reported missing after leaving Bethel and never arriving for a funeral in the village of Tuntutuliak last week.

Cooke is the son of Chris Cooke, a prominent Anchorage attorney who represented many Alaskans in a lawsuit against Jesuit priests who sexually abused children under their care in rural Alaska. Nick Cooke's sister, Ana Hoffman, is the CEO of the Bethel Native Corporation and was elected co-chair of the Alaska Federation of Natives Saturday. 

Bethel search-and-rescue teams spent the weekend searching for the men, a search that found the missing mens' boat upriver from Tuntutuliak near the mouth of the Kialik River Sunday afternoon, according to Alaska state trooper Michael Wilson.

He said the boat was partially submerged in mud. It's hard to say exactly what might have caused the two men to become separated from their boat, Wilson said, but that the region was hammered by intense storms recently.

“With the way the wind has been blowing, a high tide and rain in the mountains, it's been a nasty mix, creating surges in the river,” he said.

Wilson said both Cooke and Napoka are lifelong residents of the region and well accustomed to how the river works.

“These guys have lived here all their lives. They know the river and respect it. The weather can change pretty quick out here, and the river can change, too,” he said. “They might have been surprised.”

Wilson said most of the villages in the area -- including Eek, Napaskiak and Napakiak -- have sent out boats or resources to aid in the search. Troopers have sent out provisions for the search parties to set up overnight camp near the area where the boat was found.

Wilson said search-and-rescue teams dealt with a mix of rain and snow Monday, as well as cloud cover that limited flights. 

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com. Follow her on Twitter @suzannacaldwell