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Rural Alaska

'That one time that always gets you into trouble': Rescuers share their stories at conference in Bethel

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  • Updated: March 16
  • Published March 16

Elia Epchook, with Kwethluk’s search and rescue group, receives a service award on Wednesday. (Lisa Demer / Alaska Dispatch News)

BETHEL — The rescuers came from around the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta to an old bowling alley turned tribal building in the Southwest Alaska hub of Bethel to learn and to share what they already know.

A few had their own stories, not just of saving others lost or stranded in the wild lands, but of being saved themselves.

The first regional search and rescue conference in decades wraps up Friday in Bethel after three days of presentations and talks. Bethel Search and Rescue, the biggest of the region's volunteer rescue groups, hosted "Saving Lives Together." About 100 people packed into the Orutsararmiut Native Council building for the conference.

In an area the size of Indiana, home to just 25,000 people spread out in 50 villages, where temperatures this winter were minus 50 with wind chill, these volunteers mobilize fast. Often, they are the only ground searchers. Alaska State Troopers, the Alaska National Guard and Bethel police all say they are essential.

More people than ever are going farther into the wilderness and getting themselves into trouble — and more are surviving because of cellphones and other communication devices, said Lt. Steve Adams, who has led Alaska State Troopers' search and rescue program for the last five years.

"People are able to tell us where they are and tell us sooner when they need help," the lieutenant said.

Most rescue missions involve snowmachiners, Adams told the crowd. Last budget year, troopers were involved in 467 search and rescue incidents. This year, the number should top 500.

The conference was filled with tips and safety guidelines for rescue groups and anyone traveling across the tundra, rivers and ice roads.

Don't travel alone. Stay with your snowmachine if you break down. File a trip plan. Wear bright clothing and carry a flare. Carry food, water, first aid kit, extra fuel, warm clothes and a tarp. Consider a Delorme inReach texting device or a personal locator beacon, which both can communicate by satellite.

Norman Japhet, with Bethel Search and Rescue, on Wednesday. (Lisa Demer / Alaska Dispatch News)

Norman Japhet, a volunteer with Bethel Search and Rescue for 20 years, found himself in trouble on a moose hunting trip in winter 2010, before the region had extensive cellphone coverage.

He had left Bethel with a group on snowmachine then noticed that his wooden sled — with most of his food, warm clothing and spare fuel — had broken off from the tow bar. He figured it couldn't be far, so he backtracked to get it.

But he couldn't find the sled. He was using up his gas. Then his snowmachine flipped on rough terrain. He was trapped. Finally, he worked himself loose. But he did not have enough fuel to get to his destination, Pilot Station.

For three days, he was alone. He could hear the faint sounds of an airplane and snowmachines that he figured were looking for him. He fired off three signaling rounds. He made a small fire. But they didn't spot him.

Usually, he carried a couple of gallons of fuel on his snowmachine. Not this time.

"It's that one time that always gets you into trouble," Japhet said.

He decided to move closer toward Pilot Station. In frustration, he hollered to God.

"I turned around and there it was, the biggest, driest tree I ever seen," he said. He used a bit of plastic and his gloves as fire starters, and the tree lit up.

Then a plane in the distance turned around. It was trooper pilot Earl Samuelson, who buzzed the stranded hunter.

Searchers came from all around by snowmachine with water for him and gas for his sno-go, which he drove to Pilot Station. Then he was flown for medical treatment.

He suffered severe frostbite and later lost part of a foot. He gets around, but "it hurts always."

His advice? Carry a bit of extra fuel on the snowmachine itself. Bring a knife, a light and extra batteries, a tarp or space blanket, a lighter and matches, hard candy and something to melt snow or hold water. Stuff things into a small backpack or bag that you carry on the snowmachine.

Adams urged the volunteers to report lost or stranded people right away. Yet it is not always practical if someone is missing in a blizzard or feared lost under the ice, local rescue team members said.

"Life and death is really a big matter out here," Bethel Search and Rescue president Mike Riley said during the presentation.

On Wednesday, searchers from Napaskiak walked into the meeting still dressed in outdoor gear. There had been a search overnight for a man who eventually was spotted by the trooper plane near the village of Akiak. Joe Evon, the Napaskiak search team leader, said they were called off through a text message sent through an inReach. His advice to searchers: Stay motivated.

Searcher essentials, participants said, include deep knowledge of the land, new technologies such as underwater sonar and the refinement of old ones, such as better drag bars to look for bodies in rivers and lakes or under ice.

Some resources can be brought in from Anchorage or Fairbanks, but not for every search, the volunteers were told. Troopers have rescue helicopters in Anchorage and Fairbanks. The Alaska Air National Guard has aircraft that can be deployed through the Alaska Rescue Coordination Center.

Joseph Uisok, search and rescue chief from the Yukon Delta village of Kotlik, described a recent search for two missing teen girls traveling by snowmachine to nearby Alakanuk for a basketball tournament. Among his tools are a cellphone and Bluetooth speakers.

"I raised my cellphone 20 feet in the air, and I got signal," he said. When the girls were found, he was able to relay word.

At this conference, a service award went to Kwethluk's Elia Epchook, a 67-year-old who was described as "very good at finding people in blizzards."

Epchook said he was taught by his grandfather and by leader George Moses of Akiachak, "a good teacher who taught me how to find tracks under the snow."

Find a promising spot with ice clear of snow, then use your shovel like a spatula to flip out more snow nearby. When Moses showed him, "there it was," the tracks they were looking for.

He said he mainly directs searches from the village now, telling younger searchers the best way to go.

His most important tool? Prayer, Epchook said.

Bethel Search and Rescue member Sam Samuelson has a story too of getting lost during a storm years ago. He said he rarely tells it, but gave a preview earlier in the week of the story he planned to share Friday with the whole conference.

Sam Samuelson, with Bethel Search and Rescue, on Wednesday. Bethel Search and Rescue hosted a three-day conference that wraps up Friday for village search teams and its own members. (Lisa Demer / Alaska Dispatch News)

It was in the early 1990s, wintertime. A friend was missing.

"I geared up. I got extra clothes, a thermos, a couple of snacks," Samuelson said.

He tried to get someone to search with him but others said it was too cold.

"In my mind, I am thinking maybe he is colder than I am," Samuelson said.

So he took off on his snowmachine, alone. Bethel Search and Rescue was less formal then, just a group of committed volunteers. He said he hadn't had any training. The group now has firm rules — including, always go with someone.

Tiny snowflakes dusted the ground. That signaled the start of a big storm, though he didn't realize it at the time.

Soon he was in the middle of it, lost in the whiteness, burning up his fuel.

He oriented himself with a surveyor's stake and used it as an anchor, looping out from it until he finally hit a trail.

"I was green. I didn't know the land or which way I was going," Samuelson said.

Unsure of the way, he turned right on the trail. He ended up near the Yukon River, not his home Kuskokwim River. The Yukon has bigger trees, plus the terrain was unfamiliar.

He had burned almost all his fuel, so he hunkered down to stay with his snowmachine. He made shelters in the snow and moved from one to the next over five days as the wind shifted. He later found out that it was minus 82 with wind chill. His Bic lighter shattered in the cold. He covered his mouth with his goggles to warm the air. He had brought warm outdoor clothing in case he found his friend so put it all on. But his Sorels had a small hole.

By day three, he was hallucinating. He picked up a willow stick and was talking to his mother, telling her he was near the Yukon.

"And she heard every word I said," Samuelson said. "I guess they call it telepathic. She went down to the trooper building and said, 'He's right here.' "

On the fourth morning, he awoke to find a porcupine beside him, asleep. He punched it in the face, killing it, then used pliers to rip it open so he could eat a bit of the meat before it froze hard. It tasted like an evergreen.

He remembered elders saying that if you get cold, wrestle a tree to get your body moving.

"I wrestled it too hard, started sweating. So I didn't wrestle it anymore," he said.

He had packed a bacon sandwich and a Butterfinger candy bar.

"I said, 'I will save them for when I really need them.' " He brought both home.

He let bits of snow melt in his mouth for swallows of moisture.

He was in his 30s with six children back at home, the nucleus of his will to survive.

"They were my power," he said.

Some 100 people and six aircraft were searching for him, including family. At the end, his blood relatives were told to go home. There's a belief that the spirit won't show itself to immediate relatives, he said.

Then on his fifth day lost in extreme conditions, a crew from Nunapitchuk found him. He suffered frostbite in three toes but he refused to have any part cut off. He gradually recovered.

Now Bethel Search and Rescue operates with rules to keep searchers safe.

Make a trip plan. Wear good footwear along with a good parka. Bring food and water.

"And always take extra stuff, and always, always have a partner," Samuelson said.

He later learned that his brother, the now-retired trooper pilot Earl Samuelson, found the friend he was searching for all along.

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