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Friends of wilderness instructor lost in Alaska persist after troopers abandon search

Craig Medred
Alaska State Troopers

In the bitterly cold and increasingly dark Arctic of Alaska's far northwest, the official search for the lost back-to-the-Earth adventurer Thomas Seibold is over, but the search goes on. Friends of Seibold from the Teaching Drum Outdoor School in Wisconsin are reportedly in the north now, planning to see if they can locate the instructor in Indian survival skills by sensing his aura.

"A friend in Anchorage is flying Makwa and I to Kotzebue (Tuesday) to get up in the air and see and feel if we can detect Thomas via the connection that we have with him," Lety Seibel posted on Teaching Drum's Facebook page Monday.

Seibold, a 31-year-old from Germany, has been missing for close to two months in an area the size of the state of Washington with temperatures sometimes pushing to 30 or 40 degrees below zero with wolves and bears on the prowl. The bears would normally be in hibernation, but sometimes have been straying from their dens because of the cold. Snow would normally provide insulation for their winter sleep, but little has fallen.

The bears are considered a legitimate danger to a lost, unarmed man, especially if he is injured. The wolves are less dangerous, but they did kill a woman in Alaska only two years ago. 

The bigger threats are the terrain -- rugged -- and the climate -- now cold, but earlier very wet. Late fall flooding in Northwest Alaska left dangerous ice in many places. River crossings could have proven dangerous, if Seibold tried to hike south from the Ambler River as planned. Some tundra areas have seen overflow frozen atop flood water.

No lighter or matches

Privately, many of those involved with search and rescue in the 49th state say the hunt for the man who refuses to carry matches or a lighter -- he uses a bow and stick to start fires with friction -- was pretty much a lost cause from the start. They believe the odds are high he was dead before the search started.

Seibold was first reported missing Nov. 11 when he failed to show up as planned in the tiny village of Kobuk, population 148, in the foothills of the Brooks Range, mountains that sweep across the northern portion of Alaska. Alaska State Troopers in the regional hub of Kotzebue, a city of 3,224, not long thereafter figured out that Seibold had been staying in a cabin locally known as "Schieber's place" about 40 miles upriver from the village of Ambler, about 140 miles to the northeast.

They flew there to check on him. A number of sources have told Alaska Dispatch that troopers found the cabin locked and cold with half a moose stored in the nearby food cache to keep it safe from bears. Troopers have provided very little information, but they did say they found a diary in the form of a letter in the cabin detailing Seibold's time at Schieber's.

Early in the search, trooper spokeswoman Megan Peters reported Seibold's last known date at the cabin was Oct. 7 "when the last journal entry was made. At this time it appears that he went out (of the cabin) with the intention of being away for several days. There is no evidence that he ever made it back to the cabin after that. ... There was nothing conclusive on what his plans were."

Trooper Sgt. Duane Stone in Kotzebue later told an Anchorage newspaper the journal entry mentioned Seibold was going out for a two-day trip. Troopers have refused to provide the letter to Alaska Dispatch. Peters said Seibold's papers were going to be given to his family, but Teaching Drum -- a primitive-arts survival school led by a white man who has taken on the Indian name Tamarack Song -- has said it was provided a copy.

Where was he headed? 

All trooper accounts and those of Teaching Drum agree that the last note offered no hint where Seibold was going, making the search for him extremely difficult. The first rule of search and rescue -- or SAR as the people in the business call it -- is that you need some idea of where to look. Trying to comb vast expanses of country without such knowledge is not just a waste of time, energy and resources; it also puts rescuers at risk.

A volunteer involved in a search north of Fairbanks last year went missing and has never been found, although his missing four-wheeler was discovered almost a year later. Gerald DeBerry is not the first to die in SAR efforts, a fact Stone was forced to weigh in trying to determine how and how long to search for Seibold.

Troopers announced Monday they had "completed a 13-day aerial and ground search effort" for the missing man, a statement that has been widely interpreted by the media as 13 days of searching by air and on the ground. The reality is much less. Troopers spent only a matter of days searching, and largely gave up in mid-November.

On Nov. 21, Peters messaged Alaska Dispatch that "troopers are not planning on sending out further planes or other assets as no signs of Seibold have been discovered. If any clues to his whereabouts are found, troopers will evaluate the new information and plan accordingly. However, troopers have tentative plans to revisit the search area come spring. A missing persons case, of course, will remain open for Seibold until he is accounted for."

Appealing to Parnell, Murkowski 

What followed was an effort by Teaching Drum to lobby the state to continue the search. On Nov. 22, the organization posted a form letter on its Facebook page and urged  supporters to send one to Gov. Sean Parnell and Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Mark Begich, D-Alaska. Some 4,657 people -- more than the combined populations of Kotzebue, Kobuk and Ambler -- liked the post, which was signed by Seibel.

"Dear Friends," it began. "The search group yesterday found no sign of Thomas. They are trying to call off the search. Through studying the search map, Google Earth, Thomas’ (sic) letters and becoming Thomas, Tamarack found some areas that haven’t been searched. We are requesting the troopers to fly those areas. We understand that they have already done much more than they usually do and yet we can’t leave these areas unsearched since there is still a chance that Thomas is hunkered down in there."

Troopers were back in the air three days later. On Saturday afternoon they flew what was described as "a final sortie in the steep, mountainous region between the Ambler River and Shungnak River valleys...This flight completed a 13-day aerial and ground search effort by local volunteers, the Northwest Arctic Borough Search and Rescue, and troopers in a search area of approximately 3,500 square miles."

The statement was disingenuous. Troopers and volunteers did do a lot of flying in the Ambler area, including searching the Shungnak valley that Seibold would have needed to cross to get to from Schieber's to Kobuk. But, according to some people directly involved with the search, it is doubtful ground searchers covered 10 square miles, and finding people from the air in Alaska is extremely difficult. It sounds easy to spot people from an airplane in a snowy landscape with sparse trees and open vegetation, but it's not. Even missing airplanes sometimes go missing for days, weeks or years.

The airplane piloted by a Susitna Valley man who went missing in October on a flight from Soldotna on the Kenai Peninsula to Palmer north of Anchorage has still not been found. It appears on its way to joining a long list of planes that have never been located. People often disappear the same way. Ground searches are more thorough than aerial searches, but they don't always produce results either.

Mount Marathon racer still missing 

The body of Michael LeMaitre still has not been found. He disappeared July 4 during the Seward Mount Marathon, a race up and down a mountain adjacent to the city. The search area was small, almost tiny by Alaska standards. The search was exhaustive. Planes scoured the air over the mountain. The Alaska Air National Guard -- which has helicopters with sophisticated, infrared technology that can detect the heat of a person's body -- was called in. Ground teams combed Mount Marathon's slopes.

The Guard was never summoned to hunt for Seibold, but it might not have mattered. Even the Guard's 210th Rescue Squadron -- the crème de la crème of SAR operators -- couldn't find LeMaitre. No one could. No one found anything. It was far from the first time in Alaska. Japanese climbers for years scoured windblown and snowy slopes on the West Buttress of Mount McKinley, the traditional trail up the mountain, for the body of missing national hero Naomi Uemura. He was never found. His body remains somewhere on the mountain.

Despite the history, Teaching Drum remains hopeful. Seibel posted that the organization was lining up private pilots to help in the search for Seibold and had set up a relief fund account through the First National Bank of Eagle River to help cover costs. Makwa reported she plans to be in Alaska through Sunday, and “is taking her computer, so perhaps we'll be able to post from AK."

Daylight just 3 hours a day 

The search window in the North is narrowing. Daylight in the Ambler area is down to about three hours a day, headed to the seasonal low of an hour and a half at the winter solstice. The temperature Tuesday night was only about 10 degrees below zero -- warm for recent weeks. It has dipped as low as 40 degrees below zero. Exposed human flesh will freeze in 30 minutes at that temperature, and if the wind is blowing even 5 mph skin can freeze in 10 minutes.

It is unknown how well equipped Seibold might have been when he left Schieber's place, but if he was dressed for the zero to 40-degree temperatures common for the month of October, he would be unprepared for conditions now. If he is still alive.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com