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Lost in Alaska

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Missing backpacker Nick Larsen/NPS photo

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.

Never found

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.

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Backpackers on the Winner Creek Trail/Craig Medred photo

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.

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16 replies »

  1. I’m not sure we should be looking for people who head off into the wild like this. If somebody wants to walk off the edge of the Earth that’s their business. We shouldn’t risk the lives of the search and rescue people to find somebody who doesn’t want to be found.

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  2. Anyone who heads into the wilderness without informing anyone of their plans is either:
    A. Utterly clueless and not deserving of a search
    or
    B. Willing to take responsibility for themselves while recognizing they might die alone and not expecting a search.
    Either way I have nothing but the utmost respect for the SAR folks who risk their lives trying to save them.

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  3. I never heard the news about Richard Griffis. You mentioned that Griffis invented an inflatable (might be used as a raft) survival pod. I remember 10?-15? years ago talking to a guy at the AK Sportsman’s Show (pretty sure that’s where it was) that was selling such survival pods. Would that have been Griffis? The inflatable pods looked comfortable on the showroom floor. But it seems like the issue with those pods is that they were not breathable. No way for moisture to escape. Before long your clothes would be soggy inside this plastic “series of [inflatable] tubes”. Maybe this issue, and resultant wet clothes and hypothermia, were a factor in this wilderness disappearance?

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    • who knows what killed him, Tim; but the design was clearly flawed. you have to be able to somehow get dry out there, be it with gear or fire – or survival becomes nightmarish as you well know.

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  4. We are not as tough, or as wilderness saavy as our ancestors may have been. Even in town, folks walk around staring at their iPhones oblivious of their surroundings. A wilderness trek in Alaska requires a lot of planning and is hopefully not done alone. Adventure seekers from other states have no conception how large Alaska is and the difficulties of climate and terrane.

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    • I agree, AND we, as a species, don’t do so well alone. We are ‘meant’ to survive in groups. Solo humans don’t have a long life expectancy, even in the city. We need each other, more eyes, ears, brains. So…anything can happen and the young man could walk out of the wilderness tomorrow. Whatever happens, if he perishes, I only pray he doesn’t go down easily, and it’s quick, not a drug out kind of passing. Every soul has its own journey. I hope, for the sake of his family, he is found.

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    • yes, Ricky, exactly. i’ve driven across it many times and paddled by its mouth on the Yukon. i actually see some guides over McCarthy way have now packaged a packraft trip down it from the heart of the Wrangell-St. Elias Park to the bridge. sounds like a great trip and with more people in the river corridor maybe someone will someday find a piece of that orange cocoon. did Griffis make it the 25-30 miles up the river into the park? well, that’s a good question. nobody knows, but the park is where he was headed, and 25 to 30 miles isn’t that far for someone who is committed. it’s not easy to get lost going up a river corridor. once you get into the park, though, getting to McCarthy from the headwaters of the White at Russell Glacier. on the other hand, he could have been trying to hike the gravel bars up that braided river corridor and using the cocoon like a packraft to ferry back and forth across the river from bar to bar as necessary and had an accident.
      http://www.steliasguides.com/trip/white-river-backpack-float-and-fly/

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      • Craig: have you read Alaska Yukon Trophys Won and Lost?
        Tells a story about what it is like in these areas. Best book I have ever read. Hard to find and expensive. But worth it. All my visitors read it and say the same thing. Lots of ways to get dead in the area that Griffins chose to investigate.

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