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Rural Alaska

Search continues for 7 boaters that went missing more than a week ago in Western Alaska

The village of Quinhagak is seen from the air on Sept. 14, 2016. (Lisa Demer / ADN archive)

More than a week after seven boaters in Western Alaska disappeared on a seal hunting trip, search crews are still trying to piece together what may have happened to them.

According to Quinhagak Tribal Police Chief John Peter, on Oct. 17 Alexie Nose Jr., Michael Sharp and Willie Wassillie left Quinhagak in a boat that troopers described as a “22 foot welded aluminum boat with a Yamaha outboard motor.” The group headed to Bethel, where they picked up Chad Chadwick Sr., Neal Gutleben, Bernice Waska and Elizabeth Wassillie, Peter said.

The group had told their families they were going seal hunting, and Peter said officials believe they didn’t have any survival or camping gear with them.

Group members were last seen on Eek Island on Oct. 20, Peter said. Eek is the closest community to Quinhagak, located about 30 miles northwest along the coast.

Peter said the weather was calm and sunny when the boaters left to go hunting, but poor weather over the past weekend hampered search efforts. High winds and choppy waters paused boat searches during the weekend, but once the weather calmed, Peter said crews were back scouring the water for debris, clothing or any sign of the missing boaters.

The pandemic has also complicated the search, Peter said, because volunteers need to remain distanced from one another and it’s challenging to talk and plan as a group while maintaining a 6-foot distance. Western Alaska has experienced a dramatic increase in COVID-19 cases over the past week, and Peter said officials are being cautious not to spread the infection between communities.

By Tuesday, crews had searched by boat, plane and land with no luck, Peter said. Searchers were hopeful this week when they found a glove and a 5-gallon gas tank upriver from Quinhagak, but Peter said the items were determined to be unrelated to the missing boaters.

He said the boaters had about 10 gallons of gas when they left Eek Island and said the fuel may not have been enough to get the boat back to Quinhagak because it was weighed down by the seven people and possibly other objects. Peter said he believes it’s also possible the boat had capsized at some point.

Peter said the disappearances have hit the community hard and many families are worried. He said Yup’ik tradition calls for family members not to search when a loved one goes missing, which has been difficult for some to accept.

“We’re just trying to find those seven people so that either the families can have closure or that we find them if they’re still alive drifting down somewhere," Peter said.

Although it’s been more than a week since the boaters left Quinhagak, Peter said the search is far from over. On Tuesday, four boats were still searching and another set of people searched by plane. Peter said troopers, the Coast Guard and searchers from nearby communities — including Bethel and Eek — have all assisted in the efforts to bring home the missing boaters.

Peter said crews are taking things day by day, trying to work with the weather as they continue searching. Much of the search effort has been funded by donations from other communities and nearby businesses, Peter said. Anyone wanting to contribute can contact Quinhagak police at 907-556-2202, he said.

“I know these families are worried, they’re scared, but we’re doing our best to find them and make sure that the family knows where they’re at,” Peter said.

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