Once more high, fast water appears to have killed in Alaska.
Searchers looking for a pair of missing backpackers in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park on Saturday reported they found gear scattered along a seven-mile stretch of the Sanford River and were scaling back the search.
The park service has refused to name the couple or provide any information on their ages or experience in travel in wild Alaska. Wrangell-St. Elias is the nation’s largest national park and abuts other parks in both Canada and Alaska to form the largest chunk of protected wilderness in North America.
Over the years, it has been the site of numerous deaths and disappearances.
No bodies were found in or along the Sanford, but “as river levels dropped on Friday and Saturday, search crews discovered the backpacks and other gear in dry river channels that were previously full of silty, glacial meltwater,” a park service statement said.
The backpacks contained identification matching that of the missing pair.
“Ground searchers did see footprints near the (Sanford) glacier that matched the tread of a boot that was found about a mile down river,” the statement said. It did not say how rescuers believe the boot got washed downriver.
There are two likely possibilities. Someone took their boots off and tied them to their backpack while crossing the river barefoot – not a recommended practice in Alaska where it is better to suffer wet boots in exchange for foot protection and the traction boots provide when crossing the opaque waters of turbid glacier rivers – or someone was swept away, and in the blender of a swollen glacier river one of their boots came off.
High waters on streams and rivers in Southcentral Alaska have proven unusually dangerous this year. In May, an angler on Lake Creek not far north of the state’s largest city was swept away and drowned. In June a woman and her son were swept away and drowned in the Matanuska River northeast of Anchorage.
The boot and the scattered gear found along the Sanford makes it highly unlikely the missing couple survived. They had planned a six-day adventure on what the park calls the “volcanic traverse,” a trail less,unmarked route across the nearly mile-high Sanford-Dadina plateau nestled in a valley between the towering, glacier covered Sanford, Drum and Wrangell volcanoes.
The 15-mile hike starts with a crossing of either the Sanford River or the gravel terraces at the snout of the Sanford glacier. It appears the couple got into trouble almost as soon as they left the airstrip where they were dropped off by a local air taxi.
They missed two planned check-in calls by satellite phone during the six days they were supposed to be on the route, and when their pilot showed up to get them on Thursday, they were nowhere to be found.
“…Teams searching on the Dadina Plateau and along the Dadina River did not find any evidence of recent hikers,” the park service reported, “and by Friday the search was focused on the Sanford River.”
Heavy rains have caused high waters in the area in past weeks, and it wasn’t until the water started dropping that the first real sign of the pair was found. The search then focused on that area.
“An intensive aerial and ground search on Saturday yielded a few more items but no additional sign of survivors,” the park said. “After two intensive search days, the weather deteriorated on Saturday afternoon and ground crews were moved out of the field and the search was scaled back. The park pilot will continue to search the Sanford River area over the next few days as weather conditions allow.”