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Two modern Alaska pioneers: One virtually present, another really missing

Craig Medred
Charles Baird on the beach with a chainsaw and gun, Latouche Island.
Courtesy Charles Baird
Charles Baird on his own Latouche Island.
Courtesy Charles Baird
Starfish on the beach, Latouche Island.
Courtesy Charles Baird
The night sky on Latouche Island.
Courtesy Charles Baird
Charles Baird on the beach, Latouche Island.
Courtesy Charles Baird
Charles Baird's dog Wilson on the beach, Latouche Island.
Courtesy Charles Baird
Charles Baird and his dog Wilson on Latouche Island.
Courtesy Charles Baird
Charles Baird on Latouche Island.
Courtesy Charles Baird
Charles Baird's solar panels on Latouche Island.
Courtesy Charles Baird

Alaskan pioneer Charles Baird, a 40-year-old engineer by way of Florida, and Thomas Seibold, a 31-year-old survival instructor from Wisconsin by way of Germany, share little in common, and yet they both ended up in the 49th state looking for something similar.

Baird came to find and exploit the frontier, albeit in a environmentally friendly way. Seibold came to immerse himself in the wilderness. Baird is now hunkered down in a cabin on semi-remote Latouche Island in Prince William Sound busily posting his daily activities on Facebook and hoping for a future reality TV show. Seibold is lost, possibly dead, in the remote Brooks Range mountains of far Northwest Alaska.

Far from anything resembling society and detached from civilization, Baird is living his life in plain sight of anyone with a computer. And Seibold is now a mystery.

Alaska State Troopers on Wednesday suspended a search for him, although trooper spokesman Megan Peters indicated it could be reopened "if any clues to his whereabouts are found." She added that troopers are keeping a missing person's case active and "have tentative plans to revisit the search area come spring."

Seibold, a back-to-the earther educated at the Teaching Drum Outdoor School in Three Lakes, Wis., was on a spiritual quest into the Alaska wilderness. Baird, a technocrat educated at the U.S. Air Force Academy, has been on a different sort of journey. When Baird went into the wild, he took much with him. For Seibold, it was the opposite.

Before Baird's adventure began, he was working as procurement and supply manager for an Alaska oil company. Seibold left a job as an instructor at a primitive wilderness school that was "created," according to its promotional material, "because the modern way of life has isolated us from the earth, each other, and our intrinsic selves. This has left many of us groping through life with a profound emptiness -- confused and frustrated by our deep unmet yearnings for self-knowing and relevant relationship."

Journey of discovery or impossible test?

Dave Rue, a Bush pilot who flew Seibold from Fairbanks to Ambler where his journey into the wilderness began, noticed the man's boots. It is the sort of thing you notice when you've been flying people around remote Alaska for decades, when you've lived in-country yourself and know how unforgiving the land is.

"He didn't have a lot with him," Rue said. "He had on worn-out leather boots. All the stitching was coming out. The boots didn't look good to me at all."

Friends of Seibold say that wouldn't have mattered. He could have resown the boots. He was of that school. Teaching Drum trains people to live off the land in the style of the American Indians prior to white contact. A Healy, Alaska, woman -- Gitte Stryhn -- who led Seibold more than 40 miles upriver from Ambler to a cabin in the mountains -- teaches skin sewing, among other skills. Stryhn, who could not be reached for this story, once lived in a large, carefully crafted and well-insulated sod hut east of Ambler in one of the last corners of the United States to remain open to homesteading. The area attracted an interesting collection of what could best be described as "Alaska hippies" in the early 1970s. Many of them proved up their homesteads in the rugged foothills of the Brooks Range mountains about 50 miles north of the Arctic Circle and earned title to their land. But over time all slipped away. Most returned to civilization, or at least the Alaska road system far to the south. None live in the area year-round anymore though some summer there or visit. Stryhn led Seibold to a cabin she built with her then-husband after meeting Seibold in the Alaska Interior this summer.

Tamarack Song, the director of the Teaching Drum school, said Seibold had taken a six-month leave of absence to undertake a journey of discovery to Alaska. He reportedly spent some time at a fish camp in the Panhandle, and then joined others for a float trip down the Tanana River, a tributary to to the mighty Yukon River, in the Interior. It was somewhere in the Interior he met Stryhn.

Song described her as a Swedish woman from Fairbanks, but she is actually Danish. On her Facebook page, she describes herself this way: "Born in Greenland, grown in Denmark, bloomed in Norway, ripening in Alaska." Those who know her well say she is intimately familiar with Alaska wilderness survival. She has led an interesting life. She spent a significant part of it raising four boys in the Brooks Range.

She now spends parts of her summer driving a bus in Denali National Park and Preserve. She is also an instructor for Backtracks, a Rexburg, Idaho, business that teaches primitive skills similar to those taught at Teaching Drum.

Stryhn and her 13-year-old son headed up the Ambler River along with Seibold sometime in late August or early September. When exactly is not clear. Alaska authorities have been less than forthcoming with state media about what happened to Seibold. They never identified Seibold's traveling companion. They refused to release writings he left in the sod house. A trooper spokeswoman told Alaska Dispatch the letters were being given only to Seibold's "next of kin," but it would appear they have also been shared with the Teaching Drum School, which at least one American Indian critic has described as a "cult."

Last 'dream journal' entry

The Teaching Drum Facebook page says troopers "found some unfinished personal letters and his dream journal which were scanned and e-mailed to us. In them he describes his hiking and camping higher up in the mountains exploring for a camp site. He also talked about cleaning and preparing wood at the cabin for the colder weather ahead, which intimates that he was planning to return to the cabin. Then he wrote about his plans to hike out for further exploration, and that is where the letters ended. The last date on his dream journal was Oct. 7."

That date is more than a month before Seibold was reported missing to troopers on Nov. 11. The agency didn't disclose it was looking for him until five days later, and villagers in communities near Ambler, including Shungnak and Kobuk, say they were never called upon to help search.

Kobuk is a village south of Seibold's last known location. He was to have caught a flight there back to civilization on Nov. 10, according to Teaching Drum. Shugnak is just down the Kobuk River from Kobuk. Both communities are 25 to 30 miles from the cabin, just off the Ambler River where Stryhn and her son left Seibold in later September. Mother and son took a boat back downriver to Ambler from the sod home known locally as "Schieber's place." Stryhn's ex-husband's last name was Schieber.

There was reportedly half a moose stored in the cache at the cabin when authorities later arrived to look for Seibold. Some in Ambler say Stryhn reported Seibold shot the animal. Details are unclear. Ambler is a very small place. Only about 250 people live there. Most of them are Alaska Natives who were born in the area. Many are young. The average age of the population now is under 30. Nobody really wanted to talk, at least publicly, about the disappearance of Seibold, but it was equally clear many were talking about him. Many said to talk to Ingemar Mathiason, who has a home there and is the energy coordinator for the Northwest Arctic Borough and satellite-service provider for the region's Red Dog zinc mine.

Mathiason, reached by telephone at his home, hopped around more than popcorn on a hot plate. He tried to push all questions to the Teaching Drum school, said the local search-and-rescue group hadn't been involved, claimed to "really not know anything," and then said he didn't want his named used in any stories, though he'd said nothing. Mathiason, however, appears to have helped troopers investigate the disappearance of Seibold and clearly knows, according to many, more than he let on.

Lost or running?

Whether Seibold had a license to shoot a moose is unclear. It's pricey. As a German national, Seibold would need both a non-resident, alien hunting license, $300, and a non-resident moose tag, $500. Plus, by law, he would be required to hire a guide. All of that led at least one resident of Northwest Alaska to speculate that maybe he went on the lam after he heard troopers were coming to check on him at the Shieber's place.

The theory, though far-fetched, is not totally so. Troopers take hunting violations in Alaska very seriously, and in at least one other case they have been involved in a high-profile search for a missing person that turned out to be a wild-goose chase. Only a year ago, troopers spent five days engaged in a futile, high-profile search for a woman named Melanie Gould, a former competitor in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Planes combed the air over the woods where she went missing along the Denali Highway. Twenty search dogs were called in. People beat the brush. When troopers finally gave up, they categorized the search effort that had taken place as "immense," and said there was nothing else they could do.

A few days after they quit looking, Gould emerged from the wilderness. As it turned out, she'd been hiding from searchers. She was struggling with emotional issues. Search and rescue professionals later noted the almost impossible task of finding someone in Alaska who doesn't want to be found. It is hard enough, they say, to find those who try to make themselves visible. Alaska is an easy place to go missing. A runner who disappeared last summer during Seward's Mount Marathon foot race, the state's most famous running event, still hasn't been found.

That Seibold might go missing forever is a very real possibility. This was one of the few observations of substance Mathiason did make: "We might never know what happened."

Another bear attack?

Song, the founder and director of Teaching Drum, has speculated -- apparently based on information supplied by Alaska troopers to the school back in Wisconsin -- that a grizzly bear might have killed Seibold. The speculation might have some foundation, especially if Seibold killed a moose and was in the process of hauling meat from a kill site to the cabin.

Grizzly bears killed and partially consumed two people in Alaska this year, and veteran Alaska hunters are familiar with the dangers of returning to the kill of a moose, caribou or deer to find that a bear has claimed it.

The refusal of troopers to release details in the letters and "dream journal" Seibold was keeping before his disappearance has only helped fuel speculation in Northwest Alaska about what have happened to Seibold. Troopers have never even revealed that Seibold had a comfortable supply of moose meat in storage at the Schieber cabin, though this now seems common knowledge in Ambler. Nor has much been revealed of a circle of stones reportedly found about 10 miles upriver from Schieber's place near Ulaneak Creek after the search for Seibold began.

A trooper dispatch said the agency was focusing its "search in an areas near the confluence of the Ambler River and Ulaneak Creek where it is believed Thomas may have built a base camp." But people in Ambler say that about all that was there was a circle of stones.

A circle of stones wouldn't necessarily signify a base camp. Circles of stones are more often parts of medicine wheels that were used by some Native Americans for healing and spiritual rituals. According to Teaching Drum's Facebook page, there was also another "circle" found.

One of several updates on the Seibold search on that page said troopers "found a circle drawn on a gravel bar far up the Ambler River, 8 miles north of Ulaneak Creek. They landed and checked out whether it could be the “O” from an S.O.S., yet found no indication that the circle was connected to sending an alarm sign. Thomas could have made the sign for himself to mark a place where he left provisions. Because the circle has such strong meaning to Thomas we think there's a high likelihood that he etched the sign. The plane returned to the site a day later to explore the surrounding area for more clues and to take photos to send us for inspection and wider perspective."

Burning convictions

Subsequent posts reveal no more about what those photos might have revealed, or not, in the search for the fit, bearded man from Wisconsin, who was apparently undertaking at least his second Alaska adventure. One Ambler resident revealed Seibold apparently had been in the 49th state before and went on a hike from the Dalton Highway across the Brooks Range mountains for about 55 miles to the village of Anaktuvuk Pass. Seibold was described as a memorable character in that he didn't carry matches or a lighter, preferring instead to start fires by friction with a bow and drill in the ancient way.

"He didn't believe in matches," said one veteran of long winters on the trail in Alaska familiar with Seibold's story. The man could not help but wonder what it would be like to try and start a fire in a blizzard with a bow and drill. Two lifelong, Alaska Native residents of the village of Grayling in the Alaska Interior, who saved themselves after a nearly drowning in the Yukon River this fall, were in October singing the praises of the cheap, butane lighters that enabled them to get a fire going when they crawled out of the water onto an island, each wet and hypothermic. Edgar Rock, 52, wonders if he would be alive today if not for that bit of technology.

Temperatures have been dropping to 20 or 30 degrees below zero in the Ambler area in recent weeks, and the winds have been blowing.

Seibold's beliefs and training apparently led him to shun some modern technology. Teaching Drum, where he was first a student and then an instructor, describes itself as "a community dedicated to preserving and sharing the skills and ways of our tribal ancestors, honoring the Old Ways of clan living in balance with our relations. We use the vital tools of truth-speaking, awareness and attunement exercises, threaded through with the basics like honor, respect. The talking circle is our forum. The wild herbs are our healers. The Earth is our Mother. All the creatures of the land are our guides."

Though Song, the Teaching Drum founder, is caucasian, he says all humans are of one tribe, and he has simply adopted the better ways of the first Americans. The avoidance of technology apparently extends only so far, however. Seibold brought a .22-caliber rifle with him to Alaska to use to kill small game. The .22 is a good survival tool in Bush Alaska. Seibold did not, however, carry a high-powered rifle although some suggested it would be useful if he encountered a dangerous bear.

He is said to have told others he encountered bears on the hike to Anaktuvuk and was able to avoid them. He was confident he could do the same elsewhere. A high-powered rifle -- a .30-06-caliber -- was found in the Schieber cabin along with Seibold's .22, according to troopers. The former would be the sort of weapon used to hunt moose.

It is possible Seibold might have shot a moose, packed part of it back to the cabin, gone back to get the rest unarmed, and been killed by a bear that had found the carcass. But then again, in the Seibold case just about anything appears possible. It is just as likely he left the cabin permanently, despite what troopers said was a note that indicated he'd be back in a few days.

The Teaching Drum Facebook page would lead a reasonable person to believe troopers drew their conclusion from Seibold, noting he planned to gather more firewood, which Teaching Drum concluded "intimates that he was planning to return to the cabin."

People in Ambler say Seibold had locked the cabin behind him when he went, and they are confident he'd been gone quite some time when searchers finally arrived. The cabin was surrounded by untracked snow two weeks old. Troopers later said there was inside the cabin the diary in the form of a letter.

The anti-Seibold

A wanderer and a spiritual seeker, there are no indications that Seibold ever sought publicity, but like the late Chris McCandless before him -- the now famous subject of the book and the movie "Into the Wild" -- Seibold today appears on the verge of becoming more famous than Baird, who has solicited publicity and who is daily documenting his wilderness sojourn. In both this and the approach to wilderness survival, Baird might be considered the anti-Seibold.

Where Seibold showed no concern about bears, Baird sometimes seems at times near paranoid about them, although grizzlies are rare on Latouche and the native black bears no more a threat there than anywhere else in North America.

Where Seibold tried to live largely off the land, Baird went well equipped with food, shelter and the means to generate electricity. Seibold, according to various people who met him, didn't even pack a tent on his adventures, preferring to make do with a tarp. Baird went to Latouche with all the materials necessary to build a cabin. He brought food for a year and a dog for companionship. Not to mention a Kindle (a computer that can store many books) and other gadgetry with which to entertain himself.

Baird's Facebook page shows that he has recently taken to occupying his time by staying up late to capture photographs of the night sky with a fancy camera in a place free from the infiltration of man-made light. Baird's life is in this regard almost a world away from that of Seibold, although they are both sort of in the same place -- if Seibold is alive.

His friends hold out hope, though his chances fade by the day. Still, were he to emerge from the wilderness at this time, his story would no doubt prove a global sensation whether he sought the fame or not.

Contact Craig Medred at craig@alaskadispatch.com