Stumbling around in the brush of wild Alaska in the bad light of an early November afternoon about to succumb to the blackness of the onrushing night, thoughts of 32-year-old German Thomas Seibold often haunt me.
Seven years have passed since the fall when Seibold disappeared into the foothills of the Brooks Range mountains east of the village of Ambler. No trace of him has ever been found. His last known human contact was weeks before his 2012 disappearance.
Though described as some sort of Lower 48 “survivalist” in the days immediately after he went lost, Seibold was no Chris McCandless wannabe destined to judge himself “trapped in the wild” before settling down somewhere to die of starvation.
Seibold was a guy who’d schooled himself in the skills of the first Americans. Yes, his association with the Teaching Drum Outdoor School – a Whiteman-want-to-be-Indian operation for lack of a better description – raised questions.
School founder Dan Konen (aka Tamarack Song) had been accused of cultural appropriation and worse. But what exactly was going on there – other than to say that Konen had clearly made some enemies – is hard to say.
And it only touched peripherally on Seibold who knew things most of us don’t. It is doubtful many, if anyone, reading this can start a fire with a bow and drill, among the oldest forms of fire-making.
Suffice to say, it ain’t easy. If you doubt, go try.
This was, however, only one of the many skills Seibold had mastered according to those who spent time with him before his death in the Alaska wild.
And yes, it’s possible that this was all just a masterfully staged disappearance and that Seibold is alive out there somewhere monitoring the tubes for a mention of his name and at this very moment reading this story. It is also possible that aliens from other planets have visited earth.
The unknown cannot be ruled out of any equation for the simple reason that it is unknown. But suffice to say, Seibold disappeared a long way from anywhere during the worst time of year for travel.
No one has ever suggested he had a reason to disappear, either. He had a young wife waiting for his return back in Wisconsin. By all indications, he was in love with her. And more than that, a skinny, 6-foot-tall, redhaired, green-eyed German would stand out in rural Alaska like a 70-inch bull moose in the middle of a herd of Holsteins.
No, there is little doubt that Seibold somehow died, and what killed him was Alaska.
It’s the latter that for years now has turned my thoughts to Seibold this time of year, especially in years like this with the weather hugely unstable in its shifting between snow and cold, and rain and wet.
For all his skills, what Seibold lacked was what the U.S. Coast Pilot, a guide for mariners, has long called “local knowledge.” The Pilot for the state’s Inside Passage has 42 references to where “local knowledge” is needed to ensure safety.
The two words are a fancy description for experience or what is sometimes now called Native knowledge or indigenous knowledge, a description of the things learned in a life in-country.
And if there is anything those who frequent the wild in this state learn pretty quick is how much more hostile the north once it has made that leap from the short summer of the Midnight Sun to the long season of the cold and dark.
Once accommodating – if not friendly – terrain can become challenging and ominous, an obstacle course of shadows, bad footing and constant route-finding decisions that wear a man down.
Seibold was thought to have left an old homestead cabin on the Ambler River on a 25- to 30-mile trek to the village of Kobuk where he was to catch an airplane flight back to civilization.
For someone of Seibold’s age and fitness, this would be a day hike in summer, but then the days are long in summer and the light good even if the weather is bad. It doesn’t work like that this time of year.
Even at midday with the sun low on the horizon to the south, there isn’t a lot of light, and foul weather seems to sometimes suck up most of it. When the ground is largely bare and brown as it is in the Anchorage area now after the latest rains, the dimness only gets worse.
A lack of snow, ironically, makes travel in some ways more difficult at the same time it makes it easier. Wallowing through snow can slow a hiker to a crawl, but stumbling around in dark, snowless brush and woods isn’t much better.
Going uphill in deep snow is an exhausting struggle, but post-holing downhill provides a certain security. Without the snow, going up is easier and going down on slippery footing can become treacherous.
When Seibold left the cabin in late October or early November 2012, he walked into a winter of shifting weather. Walter Sampson, the former head of the Civil Air Patrol in the regional hub of Kotzebue, undertook a search for Seibold in mid-November and reported finding a lot of water still open on the Shungak and Ambler rivers.
Flowing water this time of year is always a problem. Even at temperatures above freezing, it is hard for a person to stay warm when wet, and it doesn’t take much in the way of hypothermia to play havoc with judgment and compound the difficulty in getting a fire going.
The margins between life and death simply get a lot smaller in these colder, shorter days.
When you’re near enough to shelter to simply push on to its safety, it’s one thing; when you’re dozens of miles from shelter with no trail to follow, it’s another.
Every year people disappear into the wilderness in Alaska. Texan Brad Broach walked out of the popular Alyeska Resort just east of the state’s largest city in the summer of 2016 to hike the Winner Creek Trail and was never seen again.
Sixty-five-year-old Michael LeMaitre disappeared during the Seward Mount Marathon – the state’s most famous foot race – in 2012. He was last seen only a couple hundred feet below the race turnaround high on the mountain on July 4, 2012.
A massive search was organized when LeMaitre failed to come down. No sign of him was found. The search was called off. His daughter MaryAnne continued the search for more than a month after. Others have occasionally looked ever since.
Nobody has ever found a clue of to where LeMaitre went although most now believe he kept going past the turnaround, reached the end of the Mount Marathon ridge and then took a fall.
Somehow I can understand LeMaitre’s death. He was a lightly dressed older man making his way up the mountain in cold, rainy weather. He was the last man on the trail and traveling at a snail’s pace. It isn’t hard to conclude he had become hypothermic and the sort of bad decisions that follow killed him.
And Broach was a man out of his element. There are plenty of places where a guy from the city could wander off the Winner Creek Trail and get lost. He could easily have fallen into one of the creeks in the area, washed under a boulder and died.
Seibold is somehow different. Maybe it’s just that he looks so young, happy, confident and fit in the missing person’s bulletin Alaska State Troopers still have posted on their web page. Maybe it is that he was trained and prepared.
He’d spent his summer immersed in the Alaska wilderness. He should have been well fed and ready when he left the cabin.
The hike to Kobuk should not have been particularly arduous. Those who have traveled the country says it is 16 to 18 miles through rolling hills and sparse spruce from the cabin to an old mining road that leads another 20 or so miles into Kobuk.
The road isn’t much. It was built in the late 1960s when there was a flurry of interest in the mineral deposits of the Cosmos Hills in the Shungnak Mining District, about 300 miles northwest of Fairbanks, the state’s second-largest city. But it’s always eaiser to follow a route put down by an old road or trail than to bushwhack.
Given the conditions in the area at the time, people familiar with the route figured it was a day’s hike from Schieber’s cabin to the road, and then a pretty straightforward walk from there into Kobuk. It was a hike that should have been easily within Seibold’s skill set.