Volunteer search teams Tuesday scoured the bay near a Southwest Alaska village for a 26-year-old man who never returned from a group snowmachine trip to gather firewood for Easter steambaths.
Friends had asked Jazmin "Duna" James to travel with them on the long-distance trek because the young man is respected for his backcountry skills, said his father, James James, tribal administrator in the village of Tununak.
When Jazmin hadn't returned by Easter Sunday as planned, the family reported him missing, authorities said. On Sunday night, searchers found Jazmin's snowmachine on sea ice, partly submerged in water about a mile east of the nearby village of Toksook Bay.
They also recovered his backpack, said his father, who believes Jazmin did not survive.
"Easter Sunday is the day Jesus was risen from the dead, and that day it was so difficult for me to lose my son," said James. "I believe he's in a better world than I'm currently at."
Jazmin and his friends had traveled across the tundra to the village of Nunapitchuk, about 100 miles east of Tununak. They were buying firewood for people to burn in steam houses in a region where wood is scarce, family said.
The villages are located in the Bethel region, more than 400 miles west of Anchorage.
It was foggy and dark as Jazmin returned to Tununak early Sunday morning, James said. Jazmin was not towing a sled with wood and traveled ahead of the others. He must have taken a route along the bay where the ice was soft and fallen through, his father said.
James said he'd taught Jazmin since he was 5 years old to hunt and fish and be self-sufficient. He said the village of 350 is shocked he didn't return.
"He knew his survival skills," said James, speaking by phone from the family's house where relatives had gathered in grief. "He helped a lot of people and he made me a couch potato because he took over my hunting and fishing, keeping my freezer full with subsistence food."
James said the family nicknamed him Duna as a boy, a spin on the song in the Lion King, Hakuna Matata, that he liked so much.
"He was a loving, reliable, very handsome kid," the father said.
Volunteers from villages are searching the area, said Megan Peters, a spokeswoman with Alaska State Troopers. The effort has included snowmachines, boats and a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service aircraft.
Harry Tulik, coordinating searchers from Toksook Bay, said Tuesday morning that volunteers in boats were preparing to use sonar and drag hooks on the bottom of the bay to search for any sign of Jazmin's body. The shore ice has been thin recently and breaking away from the edge, he said.
Medina James, 28, said she and her dad saved money a couple of years ago to help buy her little brother his Ski-Doo snowmachine. He used it to bring back moose, fish, seal and birds for the family to eat.
Jazmin worked on-call for the Tununak village corporation, making sure musk oxen hunters on corporation land were properly permitted. He also was the main contact in the village for the regional housing authority based in Bethel, she said.
Medina said her 5-year-old son was eager for his uncle to return on Sunday. Jazmin was a role model for him, she said.
"He couldn't wait until he could get older to go out seal hunting with him," she said.