Killed by cold

In a tragic incident possibly fueled by alcohol, a resident of remote Western Alaska appears to have died of hypothermia only yards from his village home.

State officials are still awaiting an autopsy on 40-year-old Paul Ayunerak of Alakanuk, whose partially clothed body was found near his stuck snowmachine. But “paradoxical disrobing” – the removal of clothing by people freezing to death – is a classic sign of severe hypothermia, and foul play is not suspected in Ayunerak’s death.

Swedish doctors almost four decades ago investigated hypothermia deaths in that country and found 33 cases of paradoxical disrobing.

Undressing, they reported in the 1979 Journal of Forensic Science, is “the last effort of the victim and is followed almost immediately by unconsciousness and death.”

Since then, the behavior has been sadly noted over and over again in Alaska. Many are the people involved in search in rescue in rural Alaska who tell of following discarded bits of clothing along a trail that led to someone dead of hypothermia, or what Alaska State Troopers often call “exposure.”

The 49th state leads the nation in hypothermia deaths.

According to a trooper dispatch, it appeared “Ayunerak got his snowmachine stuck in deep snow approximately 50 yards from his house. Ayunerak took off most of his clothing and laid down in the snow near the machine.”

The dispatch said alcohol “is believed to be a factor.”

In pioneering studies of alcohol and hypothermia at the University of Minnesota-Duluth in the 1980s, Dr. Robert Pozos discovered that the physical danger from drinking in cold weather is minimal, but the mental danger is significant. The alcohol, he concluded, magnifies the influence of alcohol in muddying thinking.

“Alcohol and sedative drugs dull mental awareness of cold and impair the judgement necessary to seek shelter or put on warm clothing,” Jay Biem and associates reported in a follow-up study in 2003. 

A long-struggling village

Ayunerak was the son of Paul Sr., the former president of the Alakanuk tribe. Alakanuk is a community of more than 700 people near the mouth of the Yukon River.  Most residents depend on hunting and fishing and some form of public assistance for survival. Jobs are few.

More than half the population is under the age of 24. Life is not easy. Alcohol is banned in the village, but can still be found. Some of it is homebrew. Some of  it is smuggled. People sometimes self medicate with booze.

The village has struggled for a long time.

“The village of Alakanuk lived on the razor’s edge: a town of 550 with eight suicides, dozens of attempts, two murders and four drownings in 16 months. This was Eskimo Armageddon,” Howard Weaver, then the editor of the now-defunct Anchorage Daily News, wrote in 1988 as part of a series called “People in Peril.”

The series suggested the problems of Alakanuk and other rural Alaska communities could be solved by prohibiting alcohol. The series won the Pulitzer Prize for public service.

Since the series ran, untold numbers of rural Alaskans have gone to jail for trafficking alcohol into what Alaska terms “dry” villages, but little else has changed. Four years ago, troopers reported 46-year-old Brian Williams of Alakanuk shot himself dead after a night of drinking homebrew, Alaska Native News reported.

Three years ago, the death of an 18-year-old man there was attributed to huffing propane, something to which people sometimes resort when alcohol isn’t available. Last year, Alaska Public Media reported, two 25-year-old men in the village “consumed nearly two gallons of homebrew” and then got into an argument that resulted in one brother hitting the other in the head with an ax.

After the Pulitzer for People in Peril, Weaver went on to become one of the stars of U.S. journalism. In 2008, he retired as the vice-president of news for The McClatchy Company, then one of the country’s most influential news organization, to enjoy life in his adopted home state of California.

Alakanuk struggles on. It is not a bad village. It is a village with problems all too common to many Alaska villages.

(Editor’s note: The author played a small role in the People in Peril series.)





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