Once more a visitor to the north has gone missing in the Alaska wilds.
This time, according to rangers at Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, it is 34-year-old Nick Larsen from Oregon. His family reported him missing late last week.
Ranger Jamie Hart reported it appears he was last seen in McCarthy, a tiny outpost of civilization just across the Kennecott River from where the McCarthy Road dead-ends in the heart of the country’s largest national park.
The park service bills Wrangell-St. Elias as “larger than Vermont and New Hampshire combined.” It is a park with few roads and many wilderness dangers. Larsen planned to strap on a backpack to go explore it.
He had a tan, REI, Half-Dome, two-person tent and was likely hauling a 30-to-40 liter Osprey backpack or an REI Flash daypack, according to the park service. A big man – Caucasian; 6-feet, 5-inches tall and 190 pounds – Larsen has brown hair, hazel eyes and a distinctive tatoo.
“He has a brightly colored, full right-arm ‘sleeve’ tatoo from his shoulder to his wrist,” the park service added.
On Friday, the agency conducted an aerial search of the Nizina River, McCarthy Creek and Kennicott Glacier valleys around McCarthy. They found no sign of Larsen. A ground search of trails near the historic Kennecott Mine was underway today.
The search area is huge, and with no solid idea of where to begin, searchers are at a huge disadvantage.
A year ago this month, Texan Brad Broach hiked into the seemingly more civilized wilderness near the ski community of Girdwood, only about 40 miles southeast of Alaska’s largest city.
The 46-year-married father of three was last seen walking away from the Alyeska Resort on the gravel and boardwalk Winner Creek Trail, one of the best maintained wildland hiking trails in the 49th state.
An exhaustive search was launched for Broach. He was never found. He joined the many gone missing in Alaska.
More than a few have disappeared into the 1,700-square-mile Wrangell-St. Elias, an almost wholly wilderness preserve six-times the size of Yellowstone National Park, and it is only part of a bigger park.
Positioned against Alaska’s eastern border, the park abuts Canada’s Kluane National Park Preserve and the Tatshenshini-Alsek National Park, along with Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve to form a World Heritage Site that covers 38,000 square miles, an area about the size of Kentucky.
Filled with towering mountain peaks, many of them yet-to-be climbed; filled with glaciers and glacial rivers; battered by Gulf of Alaska storms; home to plenty of grizzly and black bears, this is an easy place to get into trouble.
Already, Hart said, fall is coming to the Wrangell Mountains. Average day temperature are in the mid 40s. Night temperatures have dropped down into the 30s. There have been some days of steady rain that can raise creeks and make them dangerous, or soak a hiker and speed the onset of hypothermia.
Big, wild danger
One of the strangest disappearances in Alaska took place in this park a little over a decade ago. It involved a man named Richard Lyman Griffis from Spokane, Wash., by way of Oregon, California, New York and Florida.
Family members would say later that Griffis had some issues, but there is no indication they were any worse than those of Chris McCandless, a dead hiker deified in Jon Krakauer’s book “Into the Wild.”
As Krakauer told his tale, McCandless came north looking for the meaning of life. Griffis’s goal was more practical. He wanted to test a “survival cocoon” that he had invented.
At this time, all indications are the test was a failure. Griffis took his pod and wandered south from the Alaska Highway near the White River, a waterway named for the load of lightish-colored sediment it moves north from the Wrangell-St. Elias to the Yukon River.
No sign of Grifiss or the pod has ever been found. There are those who still wonder what happened. There was never a real search for Griffis.
“In all likelihood, he went missing in September 2006, but it was not reported until August 2007,” Sgt. Ben Sewell of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police said a couple of years ago. “(And) he never told anyone where he was going.”
The time lag and the lack of information on Griffis’s route made a search difficult, but Sewell, who grew up in the wild, Yukon Territory, Canada, gave it a serious try.
“We were go able to go back to that year and track him,” Sewell said years later. A bus ticket north tagged Griffis’ movements. It showed where he’d been dropped off. A lodge near the White River was discovered to be storing some of his gear. Folks there said he was going upriver with his orange cocoon on the way to McCarthy.
The trail ended there. A brief search of the White River valley found nothing. Searchers gave up. It was hoped that someday someone would stumble on a remnant of that orange survival pod.
It has not happened.
Rangers in McCarthy are hoping the outcome in the Larsen case is better. There are too many who have gone missing in the park.