Rural Alaska

Yukon River hunters rescued after being stranded at Western Alaska fish camp for a week

A seven-person hunting party stranded at a fish camp along the lower Yukon River for a week has been rescued and transported to Nome in a Coast Guard helicopter.

On Thursday at around 8:40 p.m., a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter was able to make it to the stranded hunters, according to the Alaska Department of Public Safety.

“They just did their standard procedure and were able to extract all seven at the same time,” said Coast Guard Petty Officer Ali Blackburn. “There were no injuries reported.”

The hunting party became stranded last week as they were boating back up the river toward Pilot Station after a seal hunting trip to the Bering Sea coast. Bethel public radio station KYUK reported that four of the seven were members of their community’s search and rescue team, and the group quickly established contact with the rescue crew in Emmonak as an unexpectedly fast freeze-up along portions of the Yukon slowed their travel to a halt.

Since then, river conditions have been too icy to boat, but not firm enough for snowmachine travel to reach the group.

Their ordeal lasted seven days, a long delay even by the standards of rugged rural rescues in the most remote parts of Alaska. Among the challenges: interagency coordination, poor weather and mechanical issues. A Coast Guard helicopter staged in Nome was grounded for several days, and by Thursday the U.S. Army was preparing to fly two aircraft from Fort Wainwright in the Interior to the Yukon fish camp, about 20 miles east of the community of Emmonak.

“We’d been there a couple days,” Blackburn said of the Coast Guard’s rescue crew in Nome, which is about 140 air miles from where the hunters were stranded. “The wintery weather wasn’t safe to fly, and then we had a bit of a mechanical issue.”

A U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak aircrew rescued seven hunters Thursday evening, who initially became stranded...

Posted by U.S. Coast Guard Alaska on Friday, November 5, 2021

Though well-prepared, the hunters were stuck so long that multiple supply drops were required to get food, medication and other goods to the group. On Thursday, the Coast Guard used a C-130 plane to drop supplies and a radio. A video of the operation shows a tiny cabin with a few small outbuildings by the banks of a half-frozen Yukon tributary.

According to KYUK, search and rescue coordinators in Emmonak and Pilot Station were frustrated by the extended delays from state and federal agencies.

Blackburn said the rescue speaks to the difficulty conducting recovery missions in such adverse conditions.

“We really were successful working with our partner agencies to coordinate all these efforts,” she said.

As of Friday, the group, which includes one child and six adults, remained in Nome.