One of the last photos taken of 34-year-old Nick Larsen shows him standing on the bridge 238-feet above the raging Kuskulana River 17 miles along the McCarthy Road on the way from the nowhere outpost of Chitina, Alaska into the heart of America’s largest national park.
It is the end of the July, and Alaska is at its warm and friendly best. A merchant seaman from Juneau by way of Portland, he is wearing shorts, a t-shirt and a smile at the start of an adventure into the wilds of the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve.
Five days later, Larsen disappeared. He was last seen on Aug. 5 in the old mining town of McCarthy, now a summer tourists outpost. The park service on Tuesday suspended its search for the 6-foot, 5-inch, 190-pound hiker who looks so fit and healthy in the photo.
Park service officials describe Larsen as an “experienced hiker” who planned to do some solo backpacking in the park. Such adventures are not uncommon.
When Larsen was reporting missing somewhere in the park at mid-month, park rangers were faced with the classic problem of where to look. Days of pretty hopeless searching followed as rangers surveyed dense spruce forest, big glacial rivers that can easily swallow a man, and the craggy Wrangell Mountains.
Ranger Jamie Hart said the obvious hiking routes around McCarthy were checked:
- The popular Root Glacier Trail from the abandoned Kennicott Mine, now the parks biggest tourist attraction, out to the Root, one of Alaska’s many easily accessible glaciers.
- The more primitive, less traveled McCarthy Creek Trail just behind the town of the same name.
- The Nizina River valley upstream and down from the old and broken Nizina Bridge that once allowed access from McCarthy to mining claims around Chititu and Dan creeks to the south long before the area was made a national park.
No sign of Larsen was found. Out of options on where to look, the park service gave up, but an investigation into Larsen’s disappearance is continuing.
Hart said the agency is hoping for help from anyone who might have seen Larsen. They’ve asked people to share Larsen’s photo in the hopes there might be someone out there who saw him in the park and might have more information on where.
They describe Larsen has having brown hair, hazel eyes and a distinctive, brightly colored “sleeve” tattoo covering his right arm from shoulder to wrist.
He was reported to be wearing a dark green, long-sleeved shirt and black pants when last seen. He was known to be carrying a tan, REI, Half Dome, two-person tent in a 30- to 40-liter Osprey backpack or light blue REI Flash day pack.
Any information on Larsen can be phoned in toll-free to the NPS Tip Hotline at 1-800-478-2724.
Park officials are also asking that hikers and backpackers file a backcountry itinerary and leave it with a responsible party before setting off into the wilderness. Forms are available at park contact stations. A description of the trip, the planned route, any anticipated bailout routes in case of problems or bad weather, and an expected return time can help narrow the search area and increase the odds of rescue if anything goes wrong.
Though it is only late August, fall is already fast approaching in the massive park that butts up against the Canadian border in east central Alaska. Night time temperatures have been dropping down around 40 degrees. Fresh snow has already dusted the mountains that tower above the glaciers and the silt-laden rivers that drain south and west out of the rugged mountains to the Gulf of Alaska.
It is possible Larsen is still alive out there somewhere hanging on. Alaska is a land of amazing survival stories, but they are rare.
Few emerge from the wilderness after going missing for weeks, and some are never found.