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Slim chance of finding Seibold alive fades as Alaska's bitter winter descends

Craig Medred
Alaska State Troopers

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Weeks ago, winter locked the Brooks Range mountains of Alaska's far northwest in its long, cold embrace, and it’s clear that out there somewhere near the Arctic edge of the North American continent lies the body of Thomas Seibold. A search by Alaska State Troopers, complicated by no clear idea of where exactly to look for the German-born adventurer, ended in November. Friends and coworkers of Seibold from the Teaching Drum Outdoor School in Three Lakes, Wisc., took up the hunt afterwards, but they have gone home after a last-ditch effort found no trace.

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"Makwa (the 'mate' of Teaching Drum founder and chief Tamarack Song) and I returned from Kotzebue, Alaska, without Thomas, but not empty-handed,'' Lety Seibel posted on the organization's Facebook page Wednesday. "We returned with an intimate understanding of the lay of the land, of what it is like to be up in the air searching, full of ideas of where to look next. We returned enriched by kindred relationships that continue to bloom and that empower our quest for Thomas in that vast and rugged land."

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Friends of Seibold back in Wisconsin still hope to do more. They have asked the National Park Service, which was not involved in the original search, to scour portions of the Noatak National Preserve and the adjoining Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve north of where Seibold went missing. Teaching Drum says materials Seibold left behind at the Ambler River cabin where he was staying indicate he might have gone hiking in that area. Teaching Drum is trying, as well, to raise funds to finance a ground search. Whether anything actually happens on the ground in the cold, dark Arctic a long way north from the Teaching Drum compound in Wisconsin remains to be seen.

Teaching Drum is what might most accurately be called a New-Age collection of those who believe in and practice primitive, American Indian survival skills. Seibold's wife, Maggie Traylor-Seibold, who has taken the name Rose, is a struggling author of science-fiction now immersed in a year-long version of the school's "Wild Moon Immersion'' program. The Wild Moon program usually runs for one to three months. Participants pay $840 to $2,270 to live off the land as the Ojibwe Indians once did.

Traylor-Seibold's father, a Presbyterian minister in Texas, said Maggie temporarily left a year-long version of the immersion camp when the hunt for her husband was at its peak, but has since returned.

"Maggie went back to the group that is participating in the year-long wilderness experience because she needed to be engaged in activities ... (and) interacting with people,'' said the Rev. Charles Traylor when reached on his cell phone. "Sitting by the telephone hoping for something and imaging the worst would not be helpful. She's taking care of herself. She's engaged in a process of owning her emotions and her feelings."

There is limited contact with those in the Wild Moon Immersion, which Maggie Traylor-Seibold described this way in a blog post:

"Twenty-five adults, 17 children, 11 months, in the heat of summer, the dead of winter, living in the woods. We’ll start out in tents and with matches, and graduate to bark and thatch lodges and bow drill fires. Our food will be supplemented with mostly organic fruits of agriculture, and we will have no sugar, no coffee, no processed foods, no media. We’ll be learning how to forage, collect and prepare craft materials, tan hides, make fire, and most importantly how to work as a community.”

Her husband was an instructor for these programs, a man skilled at living off the land in far northern Wisconsin.

Cabin on Ambler River 

"Thomas (pronounced 'tow-moss' in the German style) is a very centered fellow, and does not take undue risks, and really did know how to take care of himself," said the Rev. Traylor, himself a bit of an outdoorsman.

Seibold spent months living in Southeast and Interior Alaska before being guided to the old, Ambler River cabin of homesteader Michael Schieber by Schieber's ex-wife Gitte Styrhn and her son. The cabin is 30 to 40 miles up the Ambler River near the southwestern edge of the 8.4-million-acre Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, but to journey there is by no means an extreme adventure.

The Schiebers, neither of whom wanted to talk for this story, built a comfortable cabin where they lived for almost 20 years, from 1984 to 2003,  and raised four sons. The cabin, which still provides first-class accommodations, was to be Seibold's home base as he explored the surrounding mountains before hiking south to the village of Kobuk to catch a flight home to Wisconsin in November.

Not toughest hike 

The hike to Kobuk is by not particularly arduous. According to those who have traveled the country, it is about 17 miles through rolling hills and sparse spruce from the Scheiber cabin to an old mining road that leads another 20 or so miles into Kobuk. The road was built in the late 1960s when there was a flurry of interest in the mineral deposits of the Cosmos Hills in the Shungnak Mining District, about 300 miles northwest of Fairbanks, the state's second-largest city.

"The Cosmos Hills are approximately 4 miles north of the village of Kobuk,'' notes an Alaska Department of Natural Resources report from that time. "A good gravel road extends from Bornite to Dahl Creek and to the mining companies' Kobuk River Landing. A poorer road extends from Dahl Creek to Kobuk, which is the easternmost point reached by tugboats and barges on the Kobuk River.”

People who once lived in the area say it was a day's hike from Schieber's cabin to the road system, and a pretty straightforward trip from the end of the road into Kobuk. It should have been an easy journey for Seibold -- if he ever began it.

Where to begin search?

From the beginning of the search for Seibold, whose disappearance is one of the most mysterious in Alaska in years, questions have centered on where exactly he was headed when he last left the Schieber cabin on or around Oct. 7. The date has been established by what Alaska troopers have said was the last jotting in what has variously been called a running letter, a journal or a "dream journal." Troopers refused to release a copy to Alaska Dispatch, but apparently gave one to Teaching Drum.

The organization reported it appeared Seibold might have left the cabin to explore the upper Ambler River drainage, or what Teaching Drum called the "highlands." It is there, the organization reported, "where it seems he might have set up camp based on the letters found in the cabin."  The papers in question seem to be an account of Seibold's adventures, recorded for his wife, herself a writer and editor.

"Apparently the letter he was writing was to our daughter,'' said Rev. Traylor. "He wrote about one more little foray to see a few more things before he headed out.''

Seibold also wrote about the possibility of rafting down the Ambler River, up which he'd traveled in an outboard-powered canoe, to catch a flight out of the small village of Ambler itself. Normally, this would be easy to do. Alaska Pacific University wilderness instructor Roman Dial -- who has paddled the Ambler in a small, one-man inflatable boat called a packraft, describes the river this way: "Below the Ulaneak (Creek), the river slows and then braids and really slows on its way to Ambler."

Or at least this is the normal case. October of this year was not normal in Northwest Alaska. The region was bombarded with torrential rains from late August into September. "Thomas had built a raft,'' said the Rev. Traylor, "but because of all that rain ... that proved too treacherous a prospect.''

No 'undue risks' 

Seibold's decision to abandon the idea of floating out because of changing water conditions is illustrative of man thinking rationally and coherently about the realities of travel in the Alaska wilderness. It would appear to strengthen the Traylor's observation that Seibold was not a wild-eyed adventurer, but someone who "does not take undue risks.''

What then might have happened?

The Rev. Traylor wonders about the half a moose found in the food cache at Scheiber's cabin. There has been speculation that Seibold, who apparently did not have an Alaska hunting license, might have poached it. This Traylor seriously doubts.

"He and I had a real conversation about that once,'' Traylor said. Though the Teaching Drum School is all about living off the land, it is dead set against poaching. It believes strongly in conservation-minded wildlife management, Traylor said, and has its own way of gaining access to what would otherwise be wasted meat from wildlife in Wisconsin; the group salvages road-kill.

"Thomas might have claimed a dead moose,'' Traylor said, "but I can't imagine him poaching a moose. I can believe that if he came across a fresh kill, he'd salvage it. If he was to come across a fresh carcass up there, I can see him harvesting that meat if it is still good."

Scavenging is an age-old survival technique. There are those who believe the first people to cross the Bering Sea Land Bridge, not far to the west of where Seibold disappeared, were as much scavengers as hunters. Hugh Glass, a noted  "mountain man" of the American West in the 1800s, was reported to have once driven two wolves off the carcass of a bison calf so he could feast on it himself.

That, theorized Traylor, is the kind of thing Seibold might try to do. It could be risky with wolves. Those animals rarely attack people, but they will attack. And bears are an altogether different matter. They are truly dangerous, known for the deadly defense of their kills.

Traylor thinks it possible that sort of accident might have befallen Seibold. Others have suggested the same. Troopers said they found a circle of stones about 10 miles upriver from Scheiber's cabin near Ulaneak Creek that might have been arranged by Seibold. Troopers thought he might have built a camp there. Teaching Drum thought it might have been Seibold marking where he'd cached food.

Could it have marked the remains of a moose? Could there have been a confrontation with a bear over that food? Nobody knows. It's all speculation.

Could Seibold be alive?

The same can be said for the belief Seibold might still be alive somewhere in the Arctic despite brutal winter temperatures already dropping to 40 degrees below zero.

Most of those who know the Alaska wilderness in winter agree that would be a miracle, but the deeply spiritual Teaching Drum collective -- as well as Seibold's family -- continue to hold to a slim hope he is alive somewhere in the Washington-state size chunk of wilderness between Kotzebue and the lone road that cuts north through the Alaska Interior near the trans-Alaska oil pipeline far to the east.

"Hope is waning,'' said the Rev. Traylor, "but I believe in miracles. I'm enough of a person of faith.

"If he's not hurt, I believe he would survive. If he was hurt, either he succumbed to the injury or the elements finally caught up to him. It's just one of those things where we as a family, a part of us want to be realistic, but we maintain some type of hope.''

That view appears to be shared by those at Teaching Drum, who have been buoyed by a blogger who operates under the pen name "Wickersham's Conscience." The late James Wickersham was the U.S. District Court judge for Alaska in the early 1900s and later the then-territory's delegate to Congress. He was one of the most influential people in territorial history.

"Wickersham's Conscience" noted the amazing tale of Ralph Flores who virtually came back from the dead after crashing his small plane near Fort Nelson, British Columbia, in 1963 on a flight south from Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. That area was then as wild as Alaska is today. Searchers couldn't find Flores's plane and gave up after almost a month of searching, thinking he and passenger Helen Klaben had perished in the near 50-degrees-below-zero cold gripping the area that February.

They hadn't, though they were seriously injured. Klaben later wrote about coming to after the crash and wondering if Flores had even survived. "There was blood all over his face from deep cuts on head, lips, and chin. Blood was pouring out of his mouth,'' she wrote.

Over the course of days, though, Flores recovered. He eventually recovered enough to start moving about. He fashioned some crude snowshoes, hiked to a nearby lake and stomped out an SOS. Forty-nine days after the crash, he and Klaben were rescued, frostbitten and emaciated but alive. The Associated Press reported at the time they'd gone without food for most of their ordeal, but they did have plenty of extra clothes. Klaben wore five pair of wool slacks for warmth, and they were able to keep a fire going to melt snow for water, which is far more important than food in a survival situation.

Klaben later wrote a book about her ordeal titled "Hey, I'm Alive.'' It was made into a 1975 TV moving starting Ed Asner and Sally Struthers. Klaben and Flores were, for a time, famous. 

Miracles -- or at least those things humans call miracles -- do happen, but it is the lack of any sign of fire in the sparsely treed area in which Seibold went lost that has most Alaska wilderness experts doubting that the miracle of Flores and Klaben will be repeated. Seibold's story is a likely to end, most fear, like that of Chris McCandless, whose 67-pound body was found in an abandoned bus not far off the George Parks Highway in 1992.

Another McCandless? 

Since Siebold's November disappearance, there have been repeated comparisons made between the German immigrant and McCandless, a young man from a well-off East Coast family who starved to death on the edge of the Alaska wilderness only to be later made famous by author Jon Krakauer's 1996 book "Into the Wild'', and again by movie director Sean Penn's movie of the same name in 2007.

But Seibold was no McCandless.

There are significant differences between those who are in their own way somewhat eccentric and those struggling with mental illness. A back-to-Earth believer in the inherent values of the primitive lifestyles of the American Indians, Seibold and his wife, Maggie, lived a life decidedly different from that of most people living in the United States today, but Seibold never rejected his family, never abandoned everyone to wander the nation alone and disconnected, never ditched a car in the desert and burned his money.

Seibold was not a young man who went on the run from his own demons only to end up in Alaska in facing "a battle to kill the false being within," as McCandless put it in his jottings as alter-ego "Alexander Supertramp."  Seibold was a man who came north, like hundreds if not thousands of others each summer, in pursuit of the myth of the nation's last great wilderness. Seibold's father in law, a newspaper editor before he became a minister, described the 31-year-old man's journey as a "pilgrimage.''

"I've seen some blog posts by others who were kind of disparaging Thomas,'' said the Rev. Traylor. "Obviously they are ignorant people who know not of what they're speaking. People are saying, 'Why was he out there by himself?' But if you're an outdoor person, sometimes that's what you do.''

No 'foolish adventure' 

Traylor admitted to himself going on solo backpacking trips in south Georgia and the Rocky Mountains of the American West over the years. He confessed to seeing some of himself in Seibold.

"I got lost for a couple days one time,'' Traylor said. "I envied his desire to explore as fully as possible the natural creation. Part of me is angry that he went off by himself and potentially left our daughter without a husband," but Seibold wasn't on some foolish adventure for which he was unprepared.

"He'd hunted reindeer in Norway,'' Traylor said. "He had lots of experience in Northern Europe, and northern Wisconsin in winter isn't a picnic time."

Everyone at Teaching Drum fully expected Seibold would come home in November to return to work. He had a steady job, something McCandless never had, as an instructor at the school, which is where he met Maggie Traylor when she took a job as Song's editor. Song is himself a back-to-earther of some note. He was one of the keynote speakers for the 8th Annual Conference of "Bioneers in Alaska'' at the University of Alaska-Anchorage in 2011. Bioneers -- an organization supported by Anchorage's "Green Star" non-profit recycling promoter, described Song as "a seeker of truth who works to bridge ancestral ways with our modern times. ... He helps participants rediscover what it is to be human, to live both natural and modern worlds, and respect the Earth, themselves, and each other."

Song, Seibold's mentor, would consider death in the Alaska wilderness a huge failure, unlike many of those who worship McCandless and celebrate his death as some sort of Pyrrhic victory in the search for the meaning of life. Traylor can't envision Seibold retreating to an abandoned bus to await death; instead, he said, Seibold would be the one trying to the end to find some way to survive.

That is what Seibold had spent much of his adult life training himself to do, unlike McCandless, who had trained for nothing in the wilderness. It is Seibold's training, too, that makes Traylor wonder -- as have others -- about the minimal search authorities undertook after finding his writings at the Scheiber cabin.

"I was really disturbed ... that there had not been more on-the-ground searching,'' he said. "The sense I kind of had is that once they found that journal dated Oct. 7 and he didn't show up Nov. 11 (in Kobuk), I think they kind of wrote him off. There apparently was a lot of resistance. (Teaching Drum) everything but begged them to fly."

Troopers have said they did everything they could given the circumstances -- extreme cold, the remoteness and most especially no firm idea of where to begin looking for Seibold. Many in Northwest Alaska defend the decisions the agency made as do many others familiar with search and rescue in Alaska.

Troopers should have asked locals

Ricko DeWilde, an interesting young Alaskan entrepeneur who grew up in the Athabascan village of Huslia, south of the search area, now runs a his own Fairbanks-based clothing business. DeWilde noted that "from what I talked to people, they didn't even know there was someone missing out there." Some village search-and-rescue volunteers in the area told Alaska Dispatch they were never asked to help in the search, although they did hear about it through the grapevine. Respected Native elder Walter Sampson, once the head of the now-closed Civil Air Patrol unit in Kotzebue, admitted he and a friend flew their own search because they thought too little was being done.

DeWilde said he shared some of the Rev. Traylor's views on the search.

"Just flying through the air isn't going to do shit," he said. "You gotta get some foot soldiers in there. ... But troopers, they've got so much pride. They never want to work with Natives." That is sad, he added, because "those guys living there, they've got ways to find people, and even if the guy was not from out there, I think the Natives would want to get his body out of there."

A reward?

A body brings closure for everyone, DeWilde said, and Traylor agreed. DeWilde suggested Teaching Drum post a reward for information. Even $1,000, he said, is a lot of money to someone in Kobuk, population 148; Shungnak, population 261, or Ambler, population 276. They are the only communities in the area. Residents survive largely by subsistence hunting and fishing. A reward, DeWilde said, would certainly encourage them all to keep eyes open for any trace of Seibold when hunting this winter.

Traylor said he was thinking about suggesting the reward idea to Teaching Drum.

"I know people in Rocky Mountain National Park that have disappeared and bodies have never been found,'' he said. "I have friends whose loved ones' bodies were never found in Vietnam. I'm praying for closure for my daughter. ... To find Thomas's body, as horrible as that would be" would be better than the never knowing, the always wondering:

What happened to Thomas Seibold?  

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com