PALMER — Rachel Mallard dropped a hat and gloves, scarf and tote bag on the banks of the Matanuska River.
Then she vanished.
Mallard, a 39-year-old free spirit friends described as brilliant, beautiful and unique, had moved to Alaska just weeks before that early November day when her belongings turned up along the frigid river a few miles from downtown Palmer.
Palmer police say the investigation remains open.
Her friends and family live anywhere but here, mostly in South Carolina. They still don't know what happened. They don't even know what Palmer looks like.
"It's just so hard not being there," Mallard's sister, Cissy Mallard, said in an interview from her family home in Leesville, South Carolina, on Thursday. "If I were there, I'd be at the police station every day. I'd go look for her but I don't have money to fly to Alaska and do that. I don't know anything."
Closer to home
Their situation is worlds apart from another missing person case that began in Palmer.
Keith Aumavae, 30, was last seen Oct. 19 and was reported missing in late October. Aumavae, one of 13 siblings, became the subject of his Alaska-based family's loud calls for more help from Alaska State Troopers.
Hundreds searched for the missing man and hung green ribbons to remind the public of his disappearance. Authorities held a press conference to talk about the case and their response. Aumavae was found Nov. 11 dead in his car at the base of a 100-foot bluff about an hour from his home.
Mallard, still very much missing, has received little of that kind of attention.
"From afar, it just appears that nothing is being done," said Manon Brown, a friend of Mallard's since their high school days in South Carolina.
No new clues
Police said they continue to work the case but haven't received new leads since the investigation began — unfortunately, as Palmer police chief Lance Ketterling said.
Mallard was last seen Nov. 1 at the Palmer home she shared with a roommate and was reported missing Nov. 2.
People walking local trails found her belongings the afternoon of Nov. 3 on a riverbank about a half-mile north of the Old Glenn Highway bridge across the Matanuska.
Authorities ended a search a few days after she vanished.
Ketterling said in an email he couldn't comment on Mallard's mental state before she disappeared.
"Rachel's state of mind would be mostly speculation at this point," he wrote.
'I have no idea'
Mallard, a woman who didn't even like the cold, disappeared into the unforgiving environment of early winter in Alaska.
Thousands of people go missing in the state every year. Nearly 2,300 people were reported missing last year; many were runaways who eventually came home but some were never seen again.
The Matanuska River is a wild glacial waterway that drains a 2,100-square-mile basin from the Chugach and Talkeetna mountains into the Knik Arm of Cook Inlet.
Mallard's friends and family say it's possible she killed herself, maybe in the river.
In the past, at least, Mallard suffered mood swings that sank into depression, friends and her sister said, and at times she self-medicated with pills.
Police found what her sister described as a suicide note among Mallard's belongings.
But, she says, she still doesn't know what happened.
"I have no idea. That's the million-dollar question, or answer," Cissy Mallard said. "I would think if she had killed herself they would have found something. The police tell me they have to wait for spring for the river to thaw."
A second theory
Mallard apparently moved to Alaska after meeting a man online. The relationship didn't work out but she stayed and seemed to love it here, friends say. Mallard brought thousands of dollars with her to get started.
Brown, Mallard's longtime friend, said from what she heard the "suicide note" might not prove Mallard killed herself.
She said she understood that three items were found among Mallard's documents: a note apologizing to her family; three envelopes with jewelry for three friends; and another note with account and password information for Brown.
While that may seem telling, the documents made some sense if you knew Mallard and her past, Brown said.
"Part of me wonders if this was all part of her master plan to go off the grid," she said. "And where better to do that than Alaska?"
'A real firecracker'
Friends and family say it's possible Mallard forged a new identity for herself and escaped to start over — again.
"She always talked about wanting to travel to India," said Michael Bird, Mallard's estranged husband who lives in Chicago. "It sounds nuts, but for her it wouldn't be that out of character."
The cover photo on Mallard's Facebook page shows a world map with the words "Just go" in black letters.
She posted updates in the days just before she went missing: a link to information about surviving abusive relationships and another implying she'd lost a baby who would be 7 months old now. Another post was about quantum gravity.
Bird met Mallard in Chicago taking courses at The Second City comedy club in 2004. They married in 2007.
He said they had a tempestuous relationship, though not what he considered an abusive one. Both battled addictions, Bird said. He is a recovering alcoholic, he said.
Mallard was involved in theater, loved to sing — she taught a preschool music class at one point — and sold art and clothes in Chicago, he said.
"She was just a real firecracker," Bird said.
Disappeared but not forgotten
Brown said she and Mallard roomed together in college at the University of South Carolina — Mallard studied history — and again after that.
Mallard is "like no one else I will ever meet," Brown said. She complimented Mallard on a bracelet once and was handed the jewelry to keep.
"She stood out. She dressed like nobody else," she said. Mallard carried bags of belongings and would pull out books to share highlighted quotes.
The last text she got from Mallard was just a picture of a baby. Brown didn't think anything of it — Mallard sent pictures like that sometimes.
The questions started when it became clear her friend was missing, Brown said. They remain unanswered.
"The main issue is it feels like there's not attention," she said. "She's my best friend. We just want the attention back on Rachel and to know she's not forgotten because she disappeared."