The days die fast in Alaska in December. The death of the light is no big deal when the moon is full and the skies are clear as they were earlier in the month, but it is a different matter when the brief daylight slides into the pitch-black abyss of a moonless night.
On the trail then, if you have forgotten to bring light, there comes an immediate understanding of what an inhospitable place the far north. After almost 40 years in-country, thankfully, it is not so bad.
With experience comes some knowledge of how to cope. If you know the country and you know the trails, it is just a matter of sticking to them. It will take time. You will have to slow down and shift your priorities to safety over progress, but you can muddle through.
If you are lucky.
On a couple of occasions of late, having found myself inching home through the blackness after foolishly forgetting to bring a headlamp, the disappearance of Thomas Seibold has come to mind.
A German adventurer by way of Wisconsin, Seibold went lost in the Brook Range in 2012. He was thought to have been on a 25- to 30-mile trek from a cabin on the Ambler River to the village of Kobuk.
Young, fit and experienced, he should not have found a hike of that distance particularly difficult. But something went wrong. He never showed in Kobuk, and no sign of him has ever been found.
Twenty-twelve was a snow-short winter like this one. The lack of snow makes travel in many ways easier at the same time it makes it in other ways more dangerous. Grassy slopes that are not hard to cross in two feet of snow can become dangerously slippery in two inches of snow.
Troublesome overflow ices forms anywhere water runs in the warm season. Ice shelves grow along the banks of creeks and rivers. Ever building ice terraces muskegs and seeping hillsides.
Some of it is greased-pig slippery. Some of it is dangerously thin.
Even at minus-20 or minus-30 degrees below zero, water can flow over the ice or deepen into an unseen pool on the uphill side where the flow is ice-dammed on the downhill side. In the dark, it is easy to wade into overflow and soak yourself to the calf, the ankle or the thigh.
Wet feet in extreme cold are life threatening. Unless you can get them dry, they will freeze, and then you will be hobbled by frostbite.
A delayed search
Seibold was first reported missing on Nov. 11, 2012 when he failed to show for a flight from Kobuk back to Wisconsin to join his young wife. It was days later a search for the 31-year-old man finally began.
He was at first described as missing survivalist with all the baggage that accompanied that term. The early search efforts were cursory. Alaska State Troopers flew to the cabin where he’d been staying and looked around. They found some notes that indicated he’d left the cabin in October.
That left him missing for almost a month. No one in authority at the time admitted to having already written him off for dead, but it was easy to get that feeling.
Walter Sampson, the former head of the Civil Air Patrol in the regional hub of Kotzebue to the west of Ambler, undertook his own search in mid-November, saying he thought too little was being done.
“I know how it feels; I was lost once,” he said at the time.
He found nothing but animal tracks and lots of open water on the Shungak and Ambler rivers.
“Maybe he went through the ice,” Sampson said.
The possibility seemed likely at the time. It seems less likely now. Rivers are the highways of the Alaska wilderness. They attract more travelers than any other part of the little-peopled state.
Usually, if someones dies in or along a river their body is found, eventually, by someone at some time. Four summers with no reports of human remains found along the Shungnak or Ambler tend to undermine the idea Seibold went through the ice and into the river.
By the time the search for Seibold seriously geared up in December four years ago – driven and financed by his friends at the Teaching Drum Outdoor School in Three Lakes, Wisc.- the temperatures in the Brooks Range were pushing 40 degrees below zero and the days were but a few hours long.
The search seemed futile by then, and it was.
Seibold had joined the ranks of the many gone missing in the 49th state. But it is hard not to wonder about him still.
As the portrait of his life came into focus in the months after his disappearance, the idea that he was some sort of “survivalist” retreating to the remotest corners of Alaska gave way to a better vision of what he was, a pretty competent outdoorsman looking for wilderness adventure.
“Thomas is a very centered fellow, and does not take undue risks, and really did know how to take care of himself,” said his father-in-law, the Rev. Charles Traylor, a Texas minister.
“If he’s not hurt, I believe he would survive. If he was hurt, either he succumbed to the injury or the elements finally caught up to him. It’s just one of those things where we as a family, a part of us want to be realistic, but we maintain some type of hope.”
The hope ran out a long time ago, but on a cold trail in the dark now one who knows the story still can’t help wondering what happened.