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Volunteer search underway near Big Lake for missing snowmachiners

  • Author: Madeline McGee
  • Updated: December 20, 2018
  • Published December 19, 2018

Volunteer search parties were combing the Big Lake area Wednesday for a couple who went missing while on snowmachines last week.

LaVerne and Van Pettigen of Anchorage were last seen Friday “on what was supposed to be a quick trail ride” at Big Lake, the organization that maintains the trails there said. Family members of the Pettigens said in a Facebook post Tuesday that the couple hasn’t been heard from since 10:53 a.m. Sunday. The two were riding “a 2000 Black Polaris 500 and a 2014 Yamaha Dark Blue Vector,” the post said.

“Please say a prayer for their safe return,” the couple’s daughter, LaTisha Pettigen, said in an email. “We need more belly laughs, more listening ears, more conversations, more coffee dates, more hugs and more everything from both of them.”

LaVerne and Van Pettigen (Photo courtesy of Pettigen family)

Troopers found the Pettigens' vehicles parked at their Big Lake condo, but the couple’s snowmachines were missing from the garage. A friend told authorities they may have seen the couple on snowmachines on Big Lake at noon Sunday, troopers said.

Cathy Mayfield of Big Lake Trails said about 50 people responded to a call the organization put out on Facebook asking for volunteers to search the area. Mayfield said the search teams will be given maps and will comb the various trails, starting at Big Lake and branching out from there to the surrounding lakes. The organization maintains about 124 miles of trails, she said.

Mayfield said the trail system is well-marked, but can still be confusing for newcomers.

“If you don’t know it very well, it’s easy (to get lost),” she said. “If you know it in the slightest, it’s very difficult.”

Tim DeSpain, a spokesman for the Alaska State Troopers, said troopers are partnering with other agencies to coordinate search teams both on the ground and in the air. He said it’s not difficult to “get turned around” in that region.

“Especially leaving from somewhere like Big Lake, it doesn’t take that long to be in the wilderness," DeSpain said.

Two teenagers fell through the ice while snowmachining at Big Lake over the weekend. Ken Barkley, fire deputy director for the Mat-Su Borough, said Monday there are certain coves around the lake where the ice is too thin to safely venture on.

Mayfield said while the ice isn’t thick enough to drive vehicles on, snowmachines should be fine in most places, except for near a few islands. That’s where the search teams will be directed to look first, she said. Helicopters will be searching there for open water, as well as discoloration and footprints in the snow.

Officials with the Alaska National Guard urged “good Samaritan” pilots searching for the couple to coordinate with the Alaska Rescue Coordination Center first. The Guard is operating a rescue helicopter at low altitudes, and pilots should maintain at least 1,000 feet height to ensure they don’t interfere with it, according to a statement from the Alaska National Guard.

“We appreciate their efforts,” Alaska Air National Guard Master Sgt. Evan Budd said in the statement Wednesday. “We just want to make sure they check in and monitor (Common Traffic Advisory Frequency) 122.8 to maintain appropriate aircraft separation.”

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

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