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Turning every leaf: Daughter's Mt. Marathon search goes on

Craig Medred
Loren Holmes photo

Darkness has returned to the night in the Land of the Midnight Sun, and the Gulf of Alaska storms which each fall batter the rugged northern coast are back early, yet MaryAnne LeMaitre continues the search for her father. It was on Independence Day, now a month back, that he disappeared into the gray rock and clouds high above the festivities taking place in the small, coastal community of Seward.

Michael LeMaitre was expecting to be part of the late afternoon and evening celebrations that marks the end of the city's Seward Mount Marathon. Mount Marathon is an Alaska legend the notoriety of which has spread far beyond the 49th state. The BBC featured the race in its July travel news this year. "Watching the race ... is a Fourth of July tradition," it reported. "Though Seward is home to more than 3,000 residents, the town bloats to more than 40,000 visitors around this date. Every available spot of land is taken by a tent, and the usually quiet single road in and out of town can be backed up for hours before, during and after the holiday."

It is one, massive, Woodstock-style party for most, but 66-year-old fitness buff Michael wasn't there to party down. The grandfather of two was there to race. Though he had yet to retire from his job helping members of the military at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson near Anchorage to fully pursue life's last adventures, he had already started a "bucket list." Mount Marathon was on it. It was his first and last run on the fabled route.

Searchers would spend days after the race looking for him. They would find nothing. Nine days after his disappearance, all hope for his survival gone, Michael's family would hold a memorial service in the hopes of finding some sort of closure. It wouldn't really come. Michael would remain out there somewhere, the questions about his disappearance lingering unresolved.

What could have happened? Where could he have gone? How the hell could he have disappeared on a mountain regularly run and hiked by thousands, if not tens of thousands, every summer?

A needle in a haystack

Inch by inch, foot by foot, yard by yard, MaryAnne -- Michael's 41-year-old daughter -- has spent the past month marking off the areas on the slopes of Mount Marathon where she knows her father will not be found. In the month since he disappeared, she has come to know the terrain well. She is now confident, as are the search professionals, that her father's body is nowhere near the gray, barren rock and green, alpine tundra where he was last seen.

From street level in the small town at the head of Resurrection Bay, you can look up and plainly see that part of the Mount Marathon trail. On race day, someone with a good pair of binoculars can watch the runners emerging from the brush line like an army of ants scurrying across the steep, open ground on the way toward Race Point before circling it and diving down into a snow-filled gully. They have been doing this every Fourth of July for 85 years. The race up the flanks of the 3,022-foot summit is believed to be the second oldest in the country.

Michael was last seen on the course 200 feet below the aforementioned Race Point. If the weather had been good, and someone had been watching with binoculars, it might be known where he went and what he did in the next, few, pivotal moments. But the weather was crap, and the only people who saw him were a team of race timers head down the mountain.

Cold and wet after a chill, rainy day on the mountain, they passed the 66-year-old runner, judged him fit to continue, and kept going on down to join the holiday festivities taking place below. They expected Michael to be close behind. The time was near 5:45 p.m. By around 6 p.m., the timers were back at sea level, where they assured LeMaitre's family he was right behind.

He wasn't. He never showed. At approximately 6:20 p.m., according to race organizers at the Seward Chamber of Commerce, LeMaitre's wife, Peggy, was told that she should notify them if her husband didn't appear by 8 p.m. She waited.

Precious minutes ticked by. Michael did not show. As she'd been instructed, Peggy notified race officials that her husband was missing. Michael -- who'd been wearing only black shorts, a black t-shirt, a black headband, white shoes, black-and-red gloves, and bib No. 548 -- was officially declared missing on the 3.5-mile course.

By 9 p.m., with an evening gray settling over the Kenai Mountains, the first of several searches began. Nothing was found. An Alaska Air National Guard Pavehawk helicopter with sophisticated, down-looking, heat-sensing technology was summoned to the scene the next day. It, too, found nothing, though some now wonder if it might not have arrived too late for the technology to help.

Michael was lightly dressed when he disappeared. Temperatures were dropping into the 40s, and it was raining. The wet as much as the temperature accelerates the loss of heat from the human body if someone falls and is injured, according to experts on hypothermia. And the cooler the body, the harder it is for the heat-sensing technology to differentiate it from the surrounding terrain.

Air Guard personnel -- the best of the best in the Alaska search and rescue business -- figured this out quickly. The helicopter flew back to Anchorage, about 125 miles to the north, after a couple days of futile searching. Foot searches went on, but they were officially called off 72 hours after Michael's disappearance. Volunteer efforts to find his body lasted about a week before the family asked that people not risk searching the mountain to find the body of a man everyone by then considered dead.

MaryAnne, who grew up in Anchorage and shares her father's adventurous spirit, could not stop.

Out there somewhere

The last image anyone has of Michael is a photograph of a smiling, sandy-haired man looking fit and a fraction of his age as he charges up Seward's Main Street in the middle of a pack of runners at the start of the Mount Marathon race. They all left him behind. He was the last man up the mountain. Why it took this seemingly healthy man almost three hours to reach Race Point no one knows.

MaryAnne said her father did have poor eyesight and his peripheral vision was limited, especially so in bad light. It is possible, she said, that on a wet and overcast day he was having a little trouble finding the trail.

"I think that might have been why he was going slowly," she said, but she is the first to admit nobody knows for sure what happened on the way up or, especially, after. She does, however, doubt that her father had a heart attack or stroke. He was, she said, very healthy. It is more likely, she said, that he simply lost the trail after Race Point.

"Maybe he went off in the wrong direction," she said. "I think something happened after that, a critical fall, a deadly fall, maybe?"

Early speculation focused on the possibility Michael fell through one of the many snow bridges over water running beneath snow-filled gullies high on the mountain. It was thought he might then have been trapped beneath the snow and died of hypothermia. But most of the snow chutes have now melted out, and Michael's body has not emerged.

The same has proven to be the case beneath the cliff bands from which some thought he might have taken a critical or deadly fall. All of the predictable places for such a fall have now been searched. No sign of Michael has been found.

"We've looked in all of the obvious places," MaryAnne said.

What are left are the difficult places. Alaska, though most people don't know it, is a jungle in the summer. The alder brush, the willow brush and an assortment of chest-to-head-high grasses grow almost impenetrably thick. A hiker can put down a backpack in this sort of terrain, walk 10 feet away, and then spend hours methodically searching to find it. Walk much farther than 10 feet away, and you run the risk of never finding the pack.

Veteran searchers agree it is no surprise that Michael has not been found, and yet MaryAnne cannot stop searching.

A ONE-WOMAN TEAM

MaryAnne cannot abandon the search for a father she knows is out there. She took time off from her job in Moab, Utah -- where she is a mountain-bike buff -- and flew north to join the search shortly after Michael went missing. When everyone else gave it up, she kept going. Every day the weather has permitted since, she has been on the mountain. Always, she said, thankfully, she has had someone with her, sometimes several people. Seward residents have rallied round. In the depths of her darkest moments, she said, there has always been someone there to help.

"Me, on my own, it was a little bit intimidating," she said by phone from the community on Wednesday, "But I've had a lot of support. I have a lot of support. That helps a lot."

She's kept a running log of search efforts on her Facebook page. There is a lot of detail there about the mountain, the weather and the strangeness of the small town that is Alaska.

"When we were standing in the laundry room (at the Sea Treasures Inn), as (the owner) was showing me where the bedding was, I complemented her on her washer," MaryAnne wrote on July 22. "I used to have the same one when I owned my house in Anchorage a year ago. As were talking, it turns out that she bought the washer off Craigslist from Anchorage from the person I sold my house to. Here I am at Rissie's B&B in Seward looking at my old washer! Pretty bizarre!"

There are many in Seward who would like to see Michael found. It was a bad year for the Mount Marathon race, which has regularly seen accidents, but never the sort of tragedy that came this year. Even before Michael disappeared, racer Matt Kenney from Anchorage was on life-support and headed for the intensive care unit of an Anchorage hospital after cart wheeling off a cliff and suffering a traumatic brain injury. Now, a month later, Kinney's future remains unknown. His family continues to hope for the best, but the road to recovery will be a long one.

Kenney was at the end of July transferred from Anchorage to the Craig Hospital in Denver, Colo. The facility specializes in the long term care and rehabilitation of patients suffering traumatic brain injury. Kenney's friends in Anchorage have rallied round to help support his family as he begins this journey. The Matt Kenney Donation Fund is about a third of the way toward a goal of raising $25,000 to help.

The Mount Marathon race, a normally joyous affair, "the Olympics of Alaska" as women's winner Holly Brooks called it this summer, has left a lot of tragedy to spread around. It has been difficult for many, possibly the LeMaitre family most of all. Peggy is suffering, according to friends. MaryAnne rides a roller-coaster of emotions.

She admitted she almost quit the search last week and went home to her dogs and job in Utah. Then she changed her mind.

"Yesterday," she said, "it was other people who kept me going. Some people have said it will probably be easier to find him him in the fall after the leaves fall. (But) my time for searching is now. I've considered going home several times. It's super discouraging. My gung-ho has tapered off, I admit. Now, I'm definitely taking time off in between.

Every day is different. Every day has its own character. It's like chapters in a book. The most recent things I'm interested in is some bear activity."

Some believe that the highly tuned nose of a scavenging bear could lead the way to a decomposing human body. It is not a pleasant thought, but it is a reality. And it is a hope for the friends and family of Michael who would like to find something, anything, to bring this all to a close.

"There are just so many different scenarios as to what could have happened, and nothing to go on," MaryAnne said. "I think I'm compartmentalizing some things. I'm not really dealing with the loss yet."

It is the sad difficulty of disappearance too many in Alaska have known.

Contact Craig Medred at craig@alaskadispatch.com