Last August, a solitary man walked 14 miles into a lonely valley on the western side of Hatcher Pass.
He carried almost nothing: A backpack, 5 pounds of oatmeal. No rifle or bear spray.
Vladimir Kostenko planned to stay at a tiny dry cabin for months. He was seeking no less than the meaning of life.
For most of his 42 years, Kostenko had been on a spiritual quest to understand his place in the universe. An immigrant from Russia living in a small town in Washington state, he had pursued an almost monk-life existence, fasting regularly, meditating for hours and reading widely on religion.
“He’s just not like anybody I’ve ever met,” said his sister, Alla Kostenko.
Vladimir had traveled the world looking for his purpose on Earth. The bearded, soft-spoken mechanic had lived in a Russian hippie commune and spent time following a charismatic evangelical preacher in Ukraine.
But the cabin deep in the Purches Creek valley would prove to be his deepest, riskiest journey yet.
Vladimir was born in the town of Zelenokumsk, in the North Caucasus region of southern Russia.
He grew up in a large, conservative Baptist family at a time when Christians were persecuted for their beliefs under the Soviet system, Alla said.
Among the 13 siblings in the Kostenko family, Vladimir “was always the quiet one,” said Alla, who lives on a coffee farm in Hawaii. “He wouldn’t initiate anything. We’d be the ones to say, ‘Let’s go here, let’s play this game.’ He would follow and be quiet.”
In 1999, the Kostenko family moved to the United States through a program that allowed Christians fleeing religious persecution in Russia to immigrate.
They settled in the small town of Walla Walla, Washington, a college and wine country town of about 30,000 people in the rural southeast corner of the state.
Moving to the United States “was a dream for us,” Alla said. “We were all just amazed.”
But some family members had an easier time adapting to American life than others. Alla, one of the youngest, was 15. She quickly learned English at her public high school.
Vladimir was 22 and out of school.
“I blended in a lot better,” Alla said. “For my older siblings, they took some ESL classes, but they still kind of lived and communicated in Russian.”
As they grew older, Vladimir and some of the younger siblings in the family stopped attending the conservative church they’d been raised in.
“We all went on a personal search for answers,” Alla said. “For understanding what spirituality is, what God is, individually.”
None pursued it quite like Vladimir.
In 2011, he went to live in a “Russian hippie community” near Moscow to see if he “could find meaning to the spiritual gifts he was given,” Alla said.
He returned to Walla Walla, and several years later traveled to Ukraine. There he became interested in the teachings of a controversial charismatic Ukrainian evangelist named Vladimir Muntyan.
Vladimir was unusually earnest about his quest to understand the mysteries of God, she said.
He was also a bit of a loner. As he grew older his family wondered whether he wanted a wife or children.
“He always said, I’d absolutely love to do that,” Alla said. “But if I have not figured out what I’m here for and what this is all about, I cannot bring another person into this.”
In recent years, Vladimir had been living quietly on the property of a family friend in Walla Walla, fixing up old cars. He was an uncommonly talented mechanic, Alla said. Money meant little to him and he’d often tell people to pay him “whatever they wanted to pay.” God would provide, he figured.
“He was always talking about how he wants to be useful,” Alla said.
Suddenly, an opportunity to come to Alaska arrived.
‘Truly in the middle of nowhere’
Dmitry Kudryn, a family friend and successful entrepreneur in Wasilla, needed someone to drive a truck full of merchandise from the Lower 48 to Alaska.
Kudryn is a charming self-made millionaire and aspiring YouTube star who has dabbled in cellphone repair stores and who now owns Crave, a business that manufactures phone accessories, as well as a construction company.
Kudryn is the oldest of 12, from a Ukrainian family that also came to the United States as refugees fleeing both religious and political persecution. The decor of his office, in a new construction building just off the Parks Highway, features a framed copy of the U.S. Constitution and an American flag.
The Kudryn and Kostenko families crossed paths in Walla Walla before Kudryn moved to Wasilla in 1999. They shared the experience of being large, Russian-speaking immigrant families in a small town in the rural Pacific Northwest, and they’d stayed in touch over the years.
While Kudryn had not been particularly close with Vladimir himself, he was happy to welcome him to Alaska.
Vladimir knew Kudryn owned a dry cabin in the Purches Creek valley, on the western side of Hatcher Pass near Willow. Getting to the 12-by-20-foot cabin requires a 14-mile hike from Hatcher Pass Road, over mountain passes.
“It’s truly in the middle of nowhere,” Kudryn said. “It’s so quiet, no phones, nothing.”
People mostly use the area for snowmachining in the winter, plus some mining, hunting, trapping and a little hiking in the summer, said Rudy Wittshirk, a longtime Willow resident who has extensively explored the area.
But it is an especially remote corner of Hatcher Pass where few venture.
“It’s a cliche, so I hate to say it, but that is a pretty rugged area,” Wittshirk said.
Kudryn was open to letting his friend use the cabin. But a few things worried him.
First, Vladimir only wanted to bring 5 pounds of oatmeal and no other food. Though the cabin was well-stocked with canned foods, Kudryn worried that the already-thin Vladimir — 6′1 and 145 pounds — might not have enough to eat. Why not bring a few vegetables, he wondered.
Vladimir also wouldn’t take a gun — or even bear spray.
“That bothered me a little bit, I’ve lived here for 20 years so I kind of know what you probably should and shouldn’t do in the wilderness,” Kudryn said.
But Vladimir was an adult, Kudryn figured.
And he seemed to really want to go to the cabin.
On Aug. 18, Vladimir took a taxi from Kudryn’s office in Wasilla to Hatcher Pass Road, to set out for the long hike.
He wasn’t completely cut off: Vladimir carried an iPhone and external power bank with solar recharging function. At first, he stayed in touch by climbing high enough on a peak near the cabin to send text messages and photos.
The first message Kudryn received showed Vladimir on the hike in, taking a timer self-portrait on the late-August tundra.
“Ascended the first mountain,” Vladimir wrote in Russian.
He sent another: “Crossed the creek.”
Purches Creek threaded the narrow valley, the mountain walls already turning gold and green. The cabin was barely visible, a dot.
In late August and early September, Kudryn would receive intermittent text messages from the cabin, detailing Vladimir’s travails with a marauding ground squirrel that he eventually killed.
Vladimir seemed to love being there.
“This place is amazing, especially without the squirrel,” he texted.
Kudryn asked if he had enough food.
“There is enough food for three years,” Vladimir replied. “I’m on day six of fasting.”
In September, some hunter friends stopped at the cabin. They left Vladimir with fresh provisions: olives, apples, honey, smoked salmon and fresh-baked bread and kvass, a Russian fermented drink.
In text messages, Vladimir spoke of the cranberries and blueberries he was picking. He had boiled some down into jam.
“I have no plans to leave,” he wrote.
October came. Then November. No more text messages arrived from Vladimir.
Kudryn began to worry about the cold, and Vladimir’s food supply. On Nov. 3, he and his brother, both pilots, decided to fly out to check on him.
Kudryn decided to affix cameras to his plane and make a video for his YouTube channel Crave Life, which features Alaska outdoor adventures as well as Kudryn’s life as a traveling businessman.
The video chronicles Kudryn shopping for and packing Home Depot buckets of carrots and bread for Vladimir. He called it “Alaska Rescue Mission by Air.”
“I’ve got a friend who went to a very remote cabin ... on foot ... literally in the middle of nowhere in the mountains,” Kudryn said, narrating the video in YouTuber-style high drama. “I’m really, really concerned for him."
The Purches Creek valley was dusted with snow. The brothers flew low enough to see Vladimir emerge from the cabin. His arms are at his hips, standing on the porch. He looks like he’s wearing black sweatpants and a light jacket.
Kudryn and his brother dropped the two buckets of food. From the porch, Vladimir gestured at them. He seemed to be saying that he was going to be heading out soon, Kudryn thought.
After that, Kudryn traveled to Asia for business. Still no Vladimir. When he got back, a 7.1 earthquake rocked Southcentral Alaska. He heard nothing from the cabin.
Worry mounting, Kudryn and his brother decided to fly out again on Dec. 23. They knew Vladimir had no experience with Alaska winter. There was only six hours of daylight now, the pink low-horizon solstice light barely creeping over the high mountain walls.
It was cold in Wasilla, in the single digits. It was even more frigid in Hatcher Pass. Kudryn filmed again for another video.
The valley was frosted in snow, the creek partly iced over. They looked for smoke from the cabin’s wood stove, any sign that Vladimir was inside.
“There’s snow on the smokestack,” Kudryn said as they flew over. “That should be melted, if he was having a fire.”
The porch was clean. There were tracks all around the house — but it wasn’t clear whether they were from a human or an animal. This time, no one emerged from the cabin. The place looked locked up.
Maybe Vladimir was trying to walk out. They dropped more supply buckets, just in case.
Afterward, Kudryn’s bravado fell away. He seemed shaken.
“My next phone call is going to be to the Alaska State Troopers,” he said at the end of the video.
A few days later, on Dec. 26, Kudryn decided he needed to go back to the cabin to see for himself if Vladimir was inside.
He chartered a helicopter, landed and found the cabin had been meticulously sealed shut with a sheet of brown metal nailed over the door.
He pried the nails off and entered, not knowing what he’d find inside. The cabin was in perfect order: Spices neatly stacked on the shelf. Plenty of firewood, a water container, bunk beds covered in blankets. Canned food. Hunting coats, outdoor gear. Empty buckets. A propane tank.
Vladimir left no notes — just a Russian phrase written on a piece of wood. Alla thinks it says something like “frankincense aroma — do not burn." Maybe he was using it as the old preachers did, to ward off bad spirits, she said.
There was no sign of Vladimir.
Kudryn tromped through the snow and spotted one of the orange buckets he had dropped by air days earlier. “MERRY CHRISTMAS,” he had written on the side. Now Christmas had come and gone. It sat in the snow untouched.
The tracks seen from the air on the last flight turned out to be from a moose.
It seemed Vladimir had made a planned departure. But how long ago? And where was he now?
Kudryn asked the helicopter pilot to fly the trail Vladimir would have taken to get back to the Hatcher Pass Road. From the air, it was a thin ribbon of white in a monochrome expanse of winter spruce trees and snow. It twisted and turned. It would be easy to get lost.
Kudryn went back once more, this time with two Alaska State Troopers, by snowmachine. Again he filmed the expedition for his YouTube channel.
They found a trap line and snowmachine trails. They posted MISSING signs on spruce trees. They found no trace of Vladimir.
Kostenko was quietly listed as missing by the Alaska State Troopers, his wild-eyed photo added to a grid of more than 100 people who have disappeared in Alaska over decades.
Troopers launched no large-scale organized search for Vladimir.
“In cases where a person or persons has been reported overdue from, say, a hike, troopers normally have a timeline and direction of travel to follow up on,” said Ken Marsh, a spokesman for the Alaska State Troopers. “Scope of the search may depend upon how long the individual has been overdue; what trail, river, or general route of travel that person is likely to have taken; geography of the location, and weather conditions.”
In Vladimir’s case, weeks had gone by since he’d last been seen, Marsh said. Snow had fallen, obscuring tracks or other clues.
In short: Searchers had no idea where to look for him, Marsh said.
Then came a confusing twist.
The Alaska State Troopers initially told the Kostenko family that a search of airline records showed a person named Vladimir Kostenko flew out of Alaska, and later on to Hawaii, on Dec. 17, according to Alla.
That seemed a bizarre twist — “strange and inconsiderate” that her brother might leave the Alaska wilderness without advising anyone of his plans. Even stranger that he would travel to her own state and not try to see her.
But it was also a kernel of hope that Vladimir was alive somewhere. For months Alla looked at homeless people on the streets of Hawaii and tried to spot her brother among them. She wondered if he would wander up her driveway some morning.
“We were under the impression that that’s what happened to him so we weren’t looking for him, for half a year,” she said.
It wasn’t until May that Alla, in another conversation with the troopers, learned that there had been a miscommunication.
Nobody named Vladimir Kostenko had flown out of Alaska, they said.
But in early May, police in Oregon stopped a Vladimir Kostenko boarding a flight at Portland International Airport to see if he was the missing person. He was not.
The family is now reckoning with the idea that Vladimir never left Alaska and may not have made it out of the valley.
It has now been nearly a year since Vladimir Kostenko was seen alive. Certainty, even of his death, would be a balm for their grief, Alla said. The hardest thing is not knowing.
Waiting for answers
Vladimir’s cellphone last pinged on Dec. 3. Perhaps that’s the day he decided to hike out. There are so many things that could have gone wrong.
“Maybe he was not too strong,” Alla said. “He was fasting. It was a long hike and a short day and he did not have winter clothing.”
Kudryn says he wonders if Vladimir was lulled into a false sense of security by his easy journey to get to the cabin, in the still-full blush of summer.
“Never underestimate nature,” he said. “It has absolutely no mercy.”
Wittshirk, the longtime Willow resident, said an “endless” list of misfortunes could have derailed a 14-mile dead-of-winter hike in limited daylight, especially for someone without much Alaska wilderness travel experience.
“I go out very often into that kind of country — backpack, camp — and you gotta be lucky or know what you’re doing or both,” he said. “You gotta be really careful, oh my God — there’s a thousand ways you can buy it out there.”
No one knows what Vladimir went through in his later days at the cabin. Was he happy, lost in a reverie of prayer? Was he scared? Was he weak from fasting? What did the 7.1 earthquake feel like in the valley? Did it seem like a sign from God?
His sister can only imagine that those months in the Purches Creek valley may have felt like the answer to the questions her brother had devoted his life to.
“If that was how his life was supposed to end — I think he was deeply peaceful,” she said. “I am sure of that.”
The Kostenko family wants to hear from anyone with information on Vladimir or who has spent time in the Purches Creek area. They’ve set up an email address, firstname.lastname@example.org, for people to contact them.