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Will the man gone missing in mountains above Seward ever be identified?

Craig Medred

Seventeen years ago, someone died high on a mountain south of the Alaska port city of Seward at the head of Resurrection Bay.

Alaska State Troopers report, however, they cannot say who they believe it was because of Department of Public Safety policies. Consequently, the man's name may never be known.

In September 1997, troopers were called to the upper Tonsina Creek drainage to investigate a report from hikers who said they'd discovered shredded blue jeans and a couple daypacks atop a peak about 4 miles south of town.

At the scene, troopers found splintered pieces of human bones. The bones, they concluded, had been chewed on and scattered by bears. It was impossible to tell, however, whether a bear had killed and eaten someone -- a rare occurrence -- or had stumbled on a body and consumed it as carrion.

Troopers did, however, discover some clues as to the identity of the dead person. A notebook was discovered in the area as well as identification that included a passport and a driver's license.

At the time, troopers said they guessed the bones belonged to the owner of those documents. They described him as a 39-year-old wanderer from out of state who jotted weather reports and personal comments in a small notebook he carried with him, much like a somewhat younger Chris McCandless had done just five years earlier.

McCandless eventually starved to death in a bus along the Stampede Road just north of Mount McKinley. Hunters found his body there.

A son of privilege, he later became the subject of a best-selling book that fueled a myth that has since made McCandless one of Alaska's best-known dead men.

By contrast, nothing is known about a foreigner believed to have died above Tonsina Creek.

Troopers in 1997 reported they were able to track the man back to a rescue mission in North Little Rock, Ark. They discovered he was an immigrant from Vietnam, and said his trail went cold in that Southern state.

And there the story ended in 1997.

For 17 years, the dead man was forgotten. Questions about his death only re-emerged after a partial jawbone was found above Tonsina Creek in almost the same area where the other body parts were discovered. At first, the jawbone-fueled speculation that the body of Seward Mount Marathon runner Michael Lemaitre, perhaps now the most famous missing person in Alaska, might have been found. 

Retired Alaska State Trooper Brandon Anderson of Seward was quick to quash that rumor, noting the similarity between the location of the jawbone and the 1997 discovery of similar human remains. Plus, it’s a long, tough journey from Tonsina Creek  to where LeMaitre disappeared on a mountain directly above the city of Seward.

Because the identification found at the site was never officially linked to the bones, troopers say they were never able to notify next of kin. And since next of kin were never notified, troopers can't talk about who or what they found.

Trooper spokeswoman Beth Ipsen explained it this way in an e-mail:

"While personal effects were found near the remains, the owner of those effects has not been reported as missing, and we have been unable to locate any family for that person.  Since the personal effects and the remains cannot be conclusively linked, and it would not be proper for us to list someone as missing if they have not been reported missing to us or that we have found someone’s remains when we cannot identify those remains with any degree of certainty."

A query to Ipsen asking how the mystery of the missing man has any chance of being solved if no one knows the name on the IDs went unanswered. 

"There was only one catch, and that was Catch 22,'' Joseph Heller wrote in the 1961 best-selling novel "Catch 22.'' 

Catch 22 basically stipulated that you can only know what you don't know, or vice versa, much as in this case. If no one knows who troopers are looking for, how is anyone to know troopers are looking for anyone?

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.