One of the last posts Roger Hannon put on his Facebook page was a meme featuring a tail-walking snowmachine.
“Jobs fill our pockets, But adventure fills our souls,” it said.
Less than a month after it went up, the 22-year-old veteran of the Nome-Golovin snowmachine race, the most prestigious winter competition in the Nome area, took off from his Koyuk home on a snowmachine run along the Bering Sea coast to Elim.
He has not been seen since.
Koyuk is a village of approximately 350 people at the northern edge of Norton Sound, Elim a community of about the same size only 50 miles southwest along the fabled Iditarod Trail, a winter travel route that fades away into open water and tundra every summer.
In good weather for a snowmachine rider of Hannon’s skill, the trip would take an hour or less on fairly good trail out along the sea ice south of Koyuk before jumping inland over an unnamed peninsula and then across the mouth of the frozen Kwik River.
On a clear day, it is beautiful there with the the Darby Mountain’s gracing the sky to north, and winter-deserted cabins spilling out along a narrow spit to the south that forms the edge of Kwiniuk Inlet. The cabins are a reminder of the area’s history. This was old Elim, now used mainly as a summer fishing camp.
The main village was moved to high ground some 15 miles to the west decades ago.
“It is possible to use these (old) cabins for shelter if the wind comes up, but remember they are private property and be considerate,” the late musher Don Bowers wrote long ago in an Iditarod Trial guide for mushers destined to provide the definitive descriptions of the trail.
When Hannon passed the cabins at the end of March, it was storming, but he and his riding companion did not stop. Alaska State Troopers described “blizzard conditions,” the kind of weather that blows snow sideways along the Norton Bay coast making it hard to see.
Hannon was on familiar trail, however, and so close to safety.
At the head of the Inlet is an old FAA station and a road that hugs the beach for a few miles before climbing up into a spruce forest, the biggest patch of trees on the Seward Peninsula. The road through the forest is a blessing in a coastal blizzard as it clearly defines the route forward.
Somehow Hannon never made the forest. He and his traveling companion became “separated due to poor visibility,” according to troopers. Instead of taking the road into the village, Hannon followed an alternative trail that edges along the shore on sea ice.
He never made Elim.
A search began the next day. A day after that, Hannon’s snowmachine was found in open water off the edge of the ice only about 2.5 miles east of the village, troopers reported. Hannon remains missing. A remotely operated underwater vehicle was used to search for his body over the weekend, but found nothing.
The chances that he crashed the snowmachine and wandered off dazed as it headed off into open water are very slim. Troopers and villagers have largely resigned themselves to a body search.
This is how people disappear in rural Alaska. The state is particularly unkind to adventurous young men. Experience is built on a history of near misses. The lucky survive to old age. The young all too often perish.
A messed up young man from the Lower 48 long ago became famous for dying in a bus not far off the Alaska Highway near Denali National Park after falling victim to his own inexperience and foolishness. A lot of people want to believe he was searching for something.
Hannon is a young Alaska Native man whose passing will be noted only by family and friends. But he was searching for something. He wanted to be a snowmachine racer. A lot of young men in rural Alaska do. Sometimes it seems like they’re in a race just to survive.
The trail between Koyuk and Elim in regularly traveled, but it is not well marked. In a blizzard with visibility down to a matter of feet, you can find yourself in places resigned to trying to find the skeg gouges of the skis of snowmachines that have gone before left in the ice and hard-packed snow.
Nothing here is like travel as Americans know it on highways or roads or even the well-marked snowmobile trails of other states. And yet the snowmachine of today is such a seductive piece of machinery, a high-revving, smooth-running machine that it can makes you feel safe at the controls in almost any conditions.
Anyone whose spent much time on a sled on the trails in Alaska has powered through a storm, small or big, at some time or another. Many riders, if there is even a hint of a trail, think nothing of it. A sled like Hannon’s puts massive power in your hands. For a really good rider, there is a sense of invincibility, a sense of being able to power out of anything.
You can go online and watch a snowmobiler in Iceland run miles of flowing whitewater. Every snowmachine rider in Alaska will run some open water sooner or later, too. Run a bit of it and it becomes almost to easy to think that if trouble arises, all you ever need do is mash the throttle, hang on, keep the sled level, and everything will work out.
Only sometimes it doesn’t. An Alaska backcountry traveler from another era, Archdeacon Hudson Stuck who spent 10,000 miles on a dogsled criss-crossing the territory in the early 1900s, once observed of travel in the north that everything “is all right as long as it’s all right.”
But sometimes it isn’t all right. Sometimes the north rises up to devour people. The young are especially vulnerable. Too many are lost every winter.