Missing in Alaska without a trace

(Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News)
(Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News)
The Nabesna Ranger District of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve is an easy place to get lost. Sprawling east from Alaska’s Richardson Highway across big river valleys, brushy hillsides and the desolate Nutzotin Mountains all the way to the U.S. border with Canada, the district covers 5 million acres, an area almost twice the size of Yellowstone National Park.

Along the district’s northeastern border, lonely Alaska Highway 1 runs for 125 miles east from a backwoods gas station and convenience store at Gakona Junction to join the Alaska Highway in the comparative metropolis of Tok, population 1,258. Another 145 miles south from there along the Alaska Highway, the only road connecting the 49th state to the rest of the country crosses the White River, so named for the color of the massive load of sediment it moves north from the heart of the Wrangell-St. Elias Park and Preserve past the northern edge of Canada’s Kluane National Park and Reserve on the way to the Yukon River.

Wrangell-St. Elias and Kluane meet at the U.S.-Canada border, then link with Glacier Bay National Park farther south and a Yukon Territory park to the east to form the largest wilderness preserve in North America. Spread across almost 38,000 square miles of mountaintops, glacier ice, forests and slopes thick with brush, the Kluane/Wrangell-St. Elias/Glacier Bay/Tatshenshini-Alsek World Heritage Site is larger than the state of Maine and far wilder.

Far, far wilder.

Nobody knows for sure how many people have gone into the wild here and never come out.

Lost and never found

Somewhere in the northeastern corner of this vast, unoccupied region are believed to be the bones of Richard Lyman Griffis from Spokane, Washington, by way of Oregon, California, New York and Florida. Griffis was an inventor always on the move across the country. His ramblings ended when he journeyed north to test his invention, a wilderness “survival cocoon,” never to be heard from again.

Former Nabesna District Ranger Mike Thompson has a faint memory of the search for Griffis’s cocoon in the park, or near it, in the fall of 2006.

“He was so unique because of that pod thing,” said Thompson, now a ranger stationed in the isolated Alaska coastal village of Yakutat, population 600, near the southern edge of the 13.2-million-acre park — a park bigger than the nation of Switzerland, but far more rugged.

Searches in this area are always difficult because of the huge glaciers, the jagged mountains, the sheer remoteness, and the limited search-and- rescue assets. But the search for Griffis was especially difficult.

“In all likelihood, he went messing in September 2006, but it was not reported until August 2007,” said Sgt. Ben Sewell of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. “(And) he never told anyone where he was going.”

Sewell is now a mountie in northern Manitoba, but in 2007 he was the official Canadian government presence in Beaver Creek, Yukon Territory, a wide spot along the Alaska Highway just across the U.S. border in Canada, northeast of the Wrangell Mountains.

About 100 people live in Beaver Creek. Some 80 percent of the Yukon’s meager population of 33,900 huddles in Whitehorse, another 285 miles down the highway. Sewell grew up in the territory. He knows what big, empty country looks like. And he led the hunt for Griffis.

“We were go able to go back to that year and track him,” Sewell said. Mounties found where Griffis paid for a bus ticket north. They tracked him to where he’d been dropped off by the bus along the Alaska Highway. He left some of his gear at a lodge near the White River. He told people there he was going upriver to McCarthy, an outpost town in the Wrangell-St. Elias Park in Alaska, to test his orange cocoon.

Then he marched off into nothingness.

Before taking off, he told friends in the southern U.S. that he “might winter over” in Alaska, Sewell said. They didn’t worry about him for months. When a woman in Florida finally called mounties wondering if anyone had seen the then 47-year-old man, she had no idea of where to look for Griffis.

“She didn’t even know where the White River was,” Sewell said.

“Nothing new has ever surfaced,” said Sewell, who still wonders if some part of the orange survival cocoon might pop up somewhere, some day — even though he knows the odds are against that.

Griffis disappeared into country far wilder than that along the Stampede Trail where hunters in August 1992 found the body of another missing man — 24-year-old Chris McCandless. McCandless had starved to death in a deserted bus, but he was destined to become posthumously famous as the subject of a speculative non-fiction book named “Into the Wild.”

Griffis’s disappearance never made the news. He was like a few others who have over the years turned to ghosts in the scabrous vastness of Alaska.

Missing in plain sight

Less than six years after Griffis went missing, 66-year-old Michael LeMaitre of Anchorage left the coastal community of Seward along with hundred of other runners competing in the annual Mount Marathon race. The date was July 4, 2012.

It was raining and chilly that day, but thousands of spectators gathered anyway on the streets of the waterfront city about 125 miles south of Anchorage at the end of a heavily traveled highway. They were there to watch runners trudge 3,022 feet from near sea level on Resurrection Bay to Race Point visible high above the city, before turning and charging back downhill to race past the crowds along Fourth Avenue.

People lined the race route up and down the mountain. Seward’s Mount Marathon is one of the most watched, single-day sporting events in the 49th state. The crowd cheered when Matt Novakovich won the 3.5-mile race in less than 45 minutes.

As Novakovich crossed the finish line, LeMaitre, a fitness buff and grandfather of two, was still making his way up the mountain. He would still be laboring toward the top almost three hours after the race began. Race officials saw him an estimated 200 feet below Race Point.

He was lightly dressed and moving slowly, but they judged him to be doing fine. They told him to go to the top of the mountain, make the turn and follow them down.

Lemaitre was never seen again. By 6:30 that evening, more than four hours after the start of a race that takes most people less than two hours to complete, LeMaitre’s wife, Peggy, was worried. Race officials told her to be patient, but to notify them if Michael hadn’t shown by 8 p.m.

By 9 p.m. the first of several searches were being organized. A hasty search found nothing. Alaska State Troopers were notified. They took over the search, but did not call in an Alaska Air National Guard Pavehawk helicopter with sophisticated, heat-sensing technology until the next day.

By then, LeMaitre, who had disappeared wearing only black shorts, a black T-shirt, a black headband, white shoes, black-and-red gloves, and bib No. 548 had been out overnight in cold, rainy weather.

The Guard detected no warm bodies on the mountain. The search was expanded. It went on for three days. People on foot scoured all likely routes down the east side of Mount Marathon.

They found no sign of LeMaitre. No scrap of clothing. No piece of headband. After three days of futile searching, the hunt was called off. LeMaitre’s 41-year-old daughter, MaryAnne, flew north from her home in Utah to continue the search for another month with the help of others.

For a long time, there was hope they might find at least a hint to explain the disappearance. They found nothing. There is speculation now that he went past Race Point, climbing toward the true summit of Mount Marathon far back in the Kenai Mountains and fell off a cliff somewhere.

Noting that Race Point, commonly called the “top” of Mount Marathon, is 2 miles east and 1,800 feet lower than the actual summit, Alaska adventurer Tim Kelley has theorized that misinformation might have contributed to Michael’s death.

“It would be easy for LeMaitre to think: ‘I turn around when I reach the ‘top,'” Kelley has written on his blog. ” But when he gets to Race Point rock in thick clouds and … no one is there, and he sees a defined trail going UP and continuing west, he says to himself: ‘I’m not at the top yet, I’ve got to keep going up.'”

Kelley is one of the many to have gone looking for Michael’s body. He believes the tired, likely hypothermic grandfather went at least a mile beyond Race Point and then, realizing something was wrong, tried to descend the mountain to the north to find a trail that wasn’t there.

“As I searched the gullies on the north side of this ridge,” Kelley wrote, “I hoped that my logic would lead me to solve the LeMaitre disappearance mystery. But it didn’t. I, along with many others, would like to see this mystery solved one day.”

That may never happen. Consider LeMaitre and Griffis the bookends of disappearance in Alaska. The latter left no one with any idea of where to look. The former was headed to an obvious destination before crowds of spectators — and still disappeared.

Alaska, it’s ‘big country’

“We all know it’s big country,” said Jim Hannah, a retired Wrangell Park ranger who came to Alaska from Texas in 1981, grew addicted to the wilderness and never left. He lives today on the edge of the park in eastern Alaska. He was already out of the Park Service when Griffis went missing and can’t remember that search, but the memory is easily lost amid the memories of so many others.

There have been so many searches for people gone missing in just this one small corner of the state. Searches that found people and saved them. Searches that ended with bodies found. And searches that just sort of faded away with searchers unable to find anything.

Sixty-year-old John Wipert was the caretaker for the Ptarmigan Lake Lodge on the northern edge of the park when he disappeared in June of 2009. He posted a note at the seasonal hunting operation, saying he’d gone to check on an unnamed cabin.

“He left bacon in the sink thawing out,” Striker Overly, a hunting guide from Tok, told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. “It was like he was planning on coming back.”

He also left a corral at the lodge open. A couple horses were missing. When he wasn’t found in the immediate area of the lodge, searchers speculated that he might have tried to ride west 35 miles to Chisana, a deserted cluster of old mining cabins around an airstrip in the park, or Beaver Creek in Canada’s Yukon, about an equal distance to the east.

Routes connecting the lodge to both places were searched. No sign of Wipert, or the horses, were ever found. In July of 2009, the search was called off.

“Once the foliage and the leaves fall off the trees and clear the way, we’ll probably put some planes back up in the air and see if we can see anything that way,” Megan Peters, spokeswoman for the Alaska State Troopers, told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on July 13, and that was the end of it.

Wipert’s body is still out there somewhere along with that of Griffis. Amazingly enough, a few are found eventually. In September 2007, Paul Schoch, a 68 year-old adventurer from Brule, Wisconsin, was dropped off by airplane at 4,500-foot Skolai Pass in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park for a few days in the wilderness.

The pilot returned to find Schoch’s camp, his medicine and other gear, but no sign of the retired Greyhound bus driver.

A search was soon underway. Volunteers were flown in to comb the area on foot. They found tracks, but no sign of Schoch. By then, winter was coming fast and the search had to be abandoned after a futile week.

A rare find

“Park officials believe Schoch left his campsite for a day hike, possibly to take pictures of . . . crevasses at Russell Glacier, a favorite spot for amateur photographers like Schoch,” Beth Bragg wrote in the Daily News when the search ended. “Left behind were his tent, sleeping bag, cook stove, food — and medicine he had been taking daily for diabetes, high blood pressure and a thyroid condition…His wife, Carol, said she doesn’t expect to see her husband of 44 years again.”

Schoch’s body did, however, eventually make it home. Two years after he disappeared, hikers stumbled on human remains about 12 miles from Schoch’s old campsite. Park officials later confirmed they were those of the missing man. It appeared, they said, that he sat down on a rock, possibly to rest, and died from a heart attack or some other natural cause.

The discovery of his body was pure luck. But it was aided by the fact Schoch died in one of the few areas of Wrangell-St. Elias accessible enough to attract people. Much of the park — like much of wild Alaska — is seldom, if ever, visited. Fewer than 70,000 people traveled to Wrangell-St. Elias in 2013. Most of them went to the historic Kennecott Mine near the community of McCarthy at the end of a road that snakes into the southern portion of the park.

Think of it: 35,000 people, if that, scattered across 10 million acres of rugged terrain. Great Smoky Mountains National Park in South Carolina and Tennessee is about a 20th the size, yet it attracts 134 times as many people every year. And still there are those who go lost never to be found by searchers.

Simply disappeared

Only a decade ago, mountaineer Jason Harper went so far missing in Wrangell-St. Elias Park that Alaska State Troopers don’t even list him on their “active list” of missing people. The list now contains the names of 89 missing since the 1970s, but it is far from complete.

Any number of climbers are missing from the missing list, though they have never officially been declared dead. Michael LeMaitre remains on the list even though has officially been ruled to have died on Mount Marathon.

Some on the list are thought to be victims of foul play. Others, like Griffis, just vanished. Harper was in an area so remote that it is believed no one will ever stumble on his remains.

A 27-year-old climber from Salt Lake City, he was attempting a solo ascent of 16,237-foot Mount Sanford when he disappeared. Bush pilot Harley McMahan dropped Harper off near 7,000 feet on the mountain on May 4, 2004. He would never be seen again. Searchers in aircraft repeatedly combed the route from his drop off to the summit. They never saw anything. A ground team put on the mountain to try and track Harper also came up empty.

His body is believed to be entombed in a glacial crevasse in a remote corner of the 49th state that once came close to claiming one of the most storied mountaineers in Alaska history.

The late Bradford Washburn — the famed director of the Museum of Science in Boston who died at the ripe, old age of 96 at his home in Lexington, Mass. — in 1937 came within spitting distance of joining those who disappeared without a trace in Alaska. Washburn would survive become famous as a photographer and cartographer, and to pioneer the popular West Buttress route to the summit of Mount McKinley, North America’s tallest peak, but his story could easily have turned out different.

Nearly 80 years ago, a young Washburn was trying to climb 17,150-foot Mount Luciana along with Harvard Mountaineering Club classmate Bob Bates. At the time, Luciana was the highest unclimbed summit in North America. The two men made the summit, but they almost didn’t make it back to civilization. Author Dave Roberts would later write one of the north’s greatest mountaineering tales with the 2007 publication of the book “Escape from Lucania: An Epic Story of Survival.”

After descending that mountain, the duo was forced to make a 140-mile hike to Burwash Landing, an outpost community on Kluane Lake in Canada, to survive.

“They arrived at the Donjek River to find it uncrossable, a raging torrent rushing with glacial meltwater from upstream. Their only hope of crossing the 300-yard wide river was walking upstream 25 miles to the Donjek Glacier, hoping it was the source of the river, and they could walk across it without crampons or ice axes, which they had left behind,” Brendan Leonard wrote in an Adventure Journal tribute to Washburn after his death.

“But at the Donjek Glacier, they discovered they’d have to cross the glacier, and the river — more than 50 braided channels — to the opposite shore. They built a makeshift 75-foot “rope” out of pack cord knotted together and fought the current, half-slipping, half-swimming, falling into the icy waters past their heads.”

Had the men succumbed to that river, they would have joined the likes of Harper, or 28-year-old Peter Kysar, who tried to float out of the area via the White River only to drown, or Griffis, who started a hike up the White only to disappear. Kysar’s body was the only one eventually found.

Into the wild

Vast wilderness is what attracted Griffis to Alaska in the same way it did McCandless before him. McCandless was a confused young man searching for himself. He ended up dead in an old school bus along an abandoned and overgrown road just north of Denali National Park and Preserve.

In the book “Into the Wild,” author Jon Krakauer speculated the 24-year-old wanderer had fallen victim to mysterious wilderness poisons. Over the years, the poisons that might have killed him have changed, but the myth of the search for the meaning of life in the wilds of Alaska has endured, though life in the wilderness comes with some simple precepts.

You provide yourself food and shelter, or you die. And weakness, be it physical or mental, is given no quarter. Like McCandless, Griffis, too, wrestled with some personal demons.

“He always had an imaginative mind, somewhat sociopathic-charismatic,” his sister Teddi Narkowich said by email from her home in Boca Raton, Florida. Griffis grew up there, dreaming of the far north.

“Rich (was) always creative, wrote, created and invented,” said Narkowich. “The cocoon was (invented) in Boca, but the hope for large-scale manufacturing and marketing directed him to the Northwest. The family lost track of him after an illness.

“Richard disconnected from us after his struggle with cancer,” she said. “He contacted my sister regarding his expedition fall ’06 … It is surmised his cancer, which had been in remission, had returned and this walk in the woods and down river was to defy the odds.

“Today, it remains a mystery.”

The official version of events, according to a still active missing person’s bulletin from the Alaska State Troopers is that Griffis went into the wild “to test out a survival ‘cocoon’ that he had invented. Griffis was last seen in the area of the White River on the Alaska Highway.”

Griffis was a big man at 6-foot, 220-pounds. He was clean-shaven with light-brown hair and glasses. Alaska authorities never paid him much notice.

“Mr. Griffis was added to the Missing Person’s Clearinghouse in 2009,” Beth Ipsen, a spokeswoman for Alaska State Troopers said earlier this month.

The Alaska missing person’s bulletin refers questions on Griffis’s “Sept. 20, 2006” disappearance to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Beaver Creek. The officer there now knew nothing of the case. Sewell, when tracked down, confessed he didn’t remember a whole lot. But he was able to find a file on it, provide a few details, and help Alaska Dispatch News get in contact with Narokowich. Like her, Sewell would like to know what really happened to Griffis.

The mountie still harbors a hope that somebody, somewhere might stumble upon an orange remnant of the survival cocoon, lending at least a hint of exactly where Griffis might have disappeared. But that is unlikely given how few people venture into the White River country.

Not much has changed there since 1907 when Robert Service, the bard of the north, wrote these words in a poem titled “The Spell of the Yukon”:

There’s a land where the mountains are nameless,

And the rivers all run God knows where;

There are lives that are erring and nameless,

And deaths that just hang by a hair.

Most recent disappearances

The June before Griffis faded away into the wilderness, Sue Nott, 36, and Karen McNeill, 37, went missing on 17,400-foot Mount Foraker in the Alaska Range. No sign of the well-known mountaineers has ever been found. There are cases like this all over the state.

Good Samaritan Gerald DeBerry disappeared in the foothills of the White Mountains while helping for a search for a missing woman in the fall of 2011. She was found safe. Almost exactly a year later, the four-wheeler the 53-year-old DeBerry was riding when he went missing was discovered, but there were no remains or trace of the rider.

And not even a hint has been found to indicate where 31-year-old Thomas Seibold may have gone. He faded into the Brooks Range of northern Alaska just about the time DeBerry’s four-wheeler was discovered along the White Mountains in the Interior. Seibold, like Griffis and a host of others gone missing, was an adventurer — and a competent one.

He’d spent years schooling himself in ancient ways of living off the land. He was, by all accounts, good at it. The hike of roughly 30 miles he planned from a cabin where he was staying along the upper Ambler River to the village of Kobuk, where he planned to catch an airplane flight back to join his wife in Wisconsin, should not have been a problem.

And yet, something happened, and he disappeared without a trace into a land that sometimes leaves few traces. Consider that it has been 30 years since Japanese national hero Naomi Uemera went missing after the first successful winter ascent of Mount McKinley.

Even most of those in the steadily shrinking pool of people who remember Uemura have pretty much given up hope that any sign of him will ever be found.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: U.S. tourists missing in Nunavut, Canada presumed dead, CBC News

Sweden:  Search launched for missing Norwegian, Dane in North Sweden, Radio Sweden

United States:  In Alaska bear encounters, could old advice be completely wrong?, Alaska Dispatch

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