Volunteers continue search for boaters near Bethel

Zaz Hollander

Alaska State Troopers have called off their search for two Western Alaska boaters missing since they left Bethel on Oct. 22.

But dozens of community volunteers continued to look for the men Friday, moving from a ground search to the water in as many as two dozen boats.

Jim Lee Napoka, 46, of Tuluksak, and Nick Cooke, 37, of Bethel, were headed for a funeral in the village of Tuntutuliak but never arrived. A family member reported them overdue Oct. 25. Two days later, volunteers found Napoka's 16-foot aluminum jon boat near the mouth of the Kialik River upriver from Tuntutuliak.

Troopers conducted an extensive ground, river and sandbar search before deciding to suspend their efforts Thursday, they said. They are working with the Association of Village Council Presidents to provide village public safety officer support to the community.

More than 70 volunteers combed a ground-based search area for the past six days with no success, said Mike Riley, head of the Bethel search and rescue group. Searchers found tantalizing signs: footprints along banks of sloughs and marshy areas leading away from the river toward Tuntutuliak. Along with the boat, searchers also found a three-quarters-full gas tank a mile inland inside a slough with additional tracks leading away from it.

As of first light Friday, Riley said, the search was moving to the Kialik River, with one boat combing back sloughs at high tide.

"It is very frustrating, but it's a big joint effort. ... All these guys were spending a lot of man-hours walking through a real rigorous area," he said.

The group hoped to get 30 to 40 people in the area and at least 23 or 24 boats, Riley said.

Napoka was last seen wearing a one-piece dark snowsuit, and Cooke dark snow pants and white tennis shoes, according to the Bethel SAR Web site.

The troopers extended their thanks to numerous volunteers from the villages of Napakiak, Napaskiak, Eek, Tuntutuliak and the Bethel SAR group.


Reach Zaz Hollander at zhollander@adn.com or 257-4317.