Rural Alaska

Seal hunters rescued from shifting sea ice near Barrow

Seal hunters in several skiffs were rescued by helicopter in Barrow Friday and Saturday after winds shifted unexpectedly and trapped them in sea ice, residents and a rescue official said.

Vernon Rexford, a scrimshaw artist, said his 7-year-old son went hunting with experienced uncles and was among those rescued.

Rexford said one boat sunk in the moving ice, but the hunters in that skiff managed to jump onto flat ice in time.

Helicopter pilot Hugh Patkotak, reached briefly Saturday night as the emergency work continued, said he hadn't heard of any injuries.

Rexford understands that hunters in more than 20 skiffs were working off the coast northwest of Barrow on a sunny Friday evening when warm southerly winds suddenly changed direction and cold Arctic air began flowing over the town.

Off the coast, a large ice sheet that had broken up about a week and a half earlier reformed as the remnants temporarily came together again.

Many in the community of 4,200, including Rexford, followed the boats' reports on the radio and the scanner, listening as captains tried to motor back to shore.

But shore was too far away. The wind picked up and the hunters were suddenly trapped in a stretch of icy water.

Hunters scrambled to drive their skiffs out of the water onto solid ice. Others were able to maneuver in the water temporarily, but couldn't find their way out of the shifting maze.

On land, as many as 500 people crowded onto the beach Friday night, as spring whaling festivities for Nalukataq, known for its skin-blanket toss, were wrapping up, Rexford said. At times the crowd could see some of the hunters about a mile and a half out.

"Everyone was watching to see who was out there, and they were talking with each other to see what family didn't call. It was a huge gathering at the beach to make sure all their families were accounted for," he said.

Mary Sage said she watched from land and saw the North Slope Borough Search and Rescue helicopter swing toward the hunters.

"We could see it land on the ice and then we went to the hangar and saw what was going on," she said. "We saw them drop off people. No one was really scared because they knew what to do."

Rexford said he worried for his son, Kamron. Rexford's father and grandfather once got lost in similar conditions with especially thick fog, for up to 20 hours.

"It is an absolutely dangerous situation," he said.

The three men in the skiff that sank returned on the helicopter with his son about midnight Friday.

His son was bashful when he got out of the aircraft.

"He had a funny smirk on his face, as if to say that was fun," said Rexford.

"I gave him a big hug and enjoyed the moment."

All day Saturday, Kamron has talked non-stop about the seals and walrus he saw playing on the ice. He also enjoyed the hunt - the men took four seals.

The boy's 28-year-old uncle, Charles, and his great uncle, Brenton, were rescued early Saturday. Friday night, they must have kept Kamron occupied so he wasn't aware of the serious situation, Rexford said.

Here's two Facebook posts by Charles Tunik Rexford:

Saturday night, Kamron told a reporter he wasn't worried.

"We drived (the boat) onto the ice and waited until all the ice moved by," he said.

The helicopter arrived about two hours later.

"They landed on flat ice," he said. "They brought me back to the rescue shop."

Rexford said his son is smart and has a strong faith in God, so that helped too.

"He's very established as far as knowing there's a force out there that takes care of him," he said.

Pilot Patkotak, reached Saturday night at search and rescue headquarters, said he was still busy and could not talk long.

"We rescued quite a few people," he said.

This story is posted with permission from Alaska Newspapers Inc., which publishes six weekly community newspapers, a statewide shopper, a statewide magazine and slate of special publications that supplement its products year-round.