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Swallowed by Alaska

Steve Keel at his North Slope camp/Facebook

Twenty-five years ago, Sheila Nickerson, a woman who was the Alaska poet laureate when that meant something, wrote a book about those lost in Alaska titled “Disappearance: A Map; A Meditation on Death and Loss in the High Latitude.”

NPR book reviewer Maureen Corrigan later described it as a “haunting book,” “a baroque compendium of stories about explorers and hikers who have been whited out in the Alaska wilderness.”

A lot has changed since the book was written. Technology has marched relentlessly and rapidly onward.

Satellite phones now work almost flawlessly from anywhere in the state. Global positioning system (GPS) trackers can follow travelers anywhere, and some allow their owners to text others. FLIR (forward-looking infrared) cameras in some search aircraft have become so sensitive they can detect bears denning beneath insulating layers of snow along the Arctic coast. GPS-equipped watches are now available to tell people wandering the wilds exactly where they are at all times.

And yet people continue to disappear.

Far to the south in Tennessee, Lis Keel is spending the holiday season hoping her husband, Steve, long lost in Alaska, miraculously returns from a caribou hunt turned tragic even as she organizes yet another search to go looking for a man missing since late August on the state’s now long-frozen North Slope.

“I’ve often wondered if there was a cabin or two tucked away somewhere, and even if there wasn’t much sustenance there, Steve’s pretty smart, he could take care of himself, you know, if he had a little bit of shelter and a way to get warm, and there’s no doubt in my mind that he could get food,” she told KUAC Fairbanks reporter Dan Bross at the start of the month as she worked on organizing more searches.

There are no cabins tucked away on the tundra around the oilfield outpost aptly named “Deadhorse,” and even if there were, there is no easy way to get warm. No trees grow in the area to provide firewood for heat. Neither is there much in the way of food available once many of the caribou migrate out of the area for the winter.

“Liz Keel has strong faith and says life is nothing without hope,” reported Bross, who encouraged that hope by adding that until the new searches get underway “Keel asks that anyone traveling the Dalton Highway keep an eye out for Steve who left camp with a pistol and a water bottle.”

This is a largely empty request. About the only people traveling the Dalton in winter are truckers hauling supplies to Prudhoe Bay, and they are already and always on the alert for any sign of life along the desolate 360 miles of gravel from the Yukon River bridge to the end of the road almost 500 miles north of Fairbanks. 

The North Slope Borough, which led the search for Steve in August and early September as the North Slope was just starting to freeze up, has been brutally honest as to its view of spending any more time and money searching.

“There was a ground search, and over $200,000 spent in helicopter equipment and fuel,” North Slope Borough Public Information Officer David Fauske told WSMV-4 in Nashville. “This man never set foot in one of our communities. He didn’t have a permit to hunt in the area. He didn’t have Arctic gear on him or with him, and he wore camouflage clothing which made the helicopter searches extremely difficult.”

Hope springs eternal, but sometimes it is a hopeless emotion.

The many missing

One of the people Nickerson wrote about long ago was Kent Roth, a young state fisheries biologist from Anchorage, who was in a small plane with two brothers and two friends on a flight home from Juneau when it disappeared in May 1992. The Department of Justice’s National Missing and Unidentified Persons Systems still posts an appeal for information on one of those aboard the flight – then 45-year-old Timothy Raymond Thorton.

He’d be 75 now if he was still alive, but it is more likely his body is lost forever. He and the Roths disappeared into a maze of mountains, glaciers and water in the same remote corner of the country’s most remote state where Reps. Hale Boggs, D-La. and  Nick Begich, D-Alaska, vanished 20 years earlier along with two others.

One of the most extensive searches in Alaska history followed the disappearance of the two Congressmen. It went on for 39 days before searchers gave up. No hint of the plane that set off on a flight from Anchorage to Juneau was found then. None has been found in the 50 years since.

Alaska has a way of swallowing people as if they never existed, and not just when their planes crash.

Anchorage’s 66-year-old Michael LeMaitre, a fitness buff, was last seen on July 4, 2012 near the turnaround point for the Seward Mount Marathon, the state’s oldest and most famous foot race. Down in the normally small community of about 3,000 people at the base of the peak, an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 people had gathered to watch the race and celebrate Independence Day.

No one but LeMaitre’s wife, Peggy, noticed that Michael had failed to come down from the mountain, and it took her hours to convince race organizers her husband was missing. It wasn’t until the early morning hours of July 5 that a search for Michael began.

A FLIR-equipped helicopter that hovered around the mountaintop during the night found no hint of a warm human body.  Neither did ground searchers who combed the mountain in the days that followed. When they quit searching, Michael’s then-41-year-old daughter MaryAnne took time off from her job in Moab, Utah and flew north to spend weeks in a fruitless hunt for her father.  She was sometimes alone, sometimes aided by friends and acquaintances who hoped to help her find closure.

She never found any sign of her father, and no sign of him has been found since despite the heavy use of the area in and around Mount Marathon. It is every summer popular with both hikers and mountain runners in training. It remains hard for some to understand Michael’s disappearance there, given the popularity of the area.

But disappearances on the edge of the “civilized” part of Alaska are no less uncommon than those in the remotest parts of the state.

Texan Brad Broach took off on an evening hike outside the popular Alyeska Resort in Girdwood, a summer-busy tourist destination just east of Anchorage, six years ago and disappeared. As with Michael, no trace of him has ever been found. The last sign of Broach was recorded at the start of the popular, boardwalked, Winner Creek Trail just outside the ski resort.

The 46-year-old father of three signed into the logbook at the head of the trail at 9:45 p.m. but never signed out.

When he failed to arrive home on a scheduled flight out of Fairbanks two days later, his family notified Alaska authorities. Alaska State Troopers discovered he’s never made a planned drive from Anchorage to Fairbanks to catch the plane, and then found his rental car and personal belonging still at the resort. They organized the search that followed. 

More than 100 searchers were eventually involved in combing the area in and around the Winner Creek Trial. The exhaustive search found nothing.

Searching and searching

The hunt for  41-year-old Russian immigrant Vladimir Kostenko, who disappeared into the Talkeetna Mountains adjacent to Wasilla, was less extensive but equally fruitless. He left the state’s biggest bedroom community in August 2018 to hike to a cabin near Hatcher Pass, another popular recreation area not far from Anchorage.

He is believed to have made it safely to the cabin 14 trail miles from the Hatcher Pass Road.

Kostenko, or someone believed to have been him, was reported to have been last seen in October by Vitaly and Dmitry Kudryn, a man with a checkered past.

The Kudryns claimed they flew over the cabin in October and dropped him two plastic, five-gallon buckets filled with food to Kostenko. They also shot some video from the airplane at the time. It showed a man who could be Vladimir on the cabin deck. In a telephone interview with craigmedrednews.com a year later, Vitaly said he saw the man retrieve the buckets and is confident it was Kostenko at the cabin. Dmitry was by then in jail serving out a sentence for wire fraud and could not be reached.

The Kudryns reported Kostenko missing in December 2018 after they saw no sign of him an another overflight. When Vitaly and a trooper subsequently visited the area on snowmachines, they found no sign of Kostenko. Vitaly speculated that Kostenko must have tried to walk out and died along the way.

That assertion is logical enough. Two five-gallon buckets of food would not keep anyone adequately supplied for three months. And troopers did find an indication Kostenko might have left the cabin to hike back to the road in early December. His cell phone had at that time pinged a nearby tower, and the signal appeared to put him about six miles from the cabin.

Unfortunately, it was impossible for troopers to triangulate that signal to get an exact position, and they gave up on the search without finding Kostkenko or any sign of him. His sister Alla, insists that in the wake of this troopers told her that her brother was on a plane to Portland with a reservation to Hawaii.

“They told me he flew out of Alaska to Oregon,” she said. “I asked several times if for sure that was him. I asked repeatedly. They said our ‘analytical team’ is sure it’s him.”

Vladimir never showed in Hawaii, however, and after months of demanding an explanation from troopers, she says she was told that a check of a surveillance camera at the Portland airport indicated that the Vladimir Kostenko who got off the plane there was an older man traveling with a wife and two kids.

Vladimir Kostenko ‘is a pretty popular name in Russia,” Vitaly said at the time, “like Jeff Smith.”

Alaska’s Vladimir today remains among the 149 people listed in the “Active Missing Persons Bulletins” maintained by troopers.  The bulletin says Vladimir “was last seen in late October by a friend in the area. A search of the cabin and surrounding area revealed no clues of Kostenko’s whereabouts. Anyone having contact or information regarding Vladimir Kostenko is asked to contact the Alaska State Troopers in Palmer at 907-745-2131 and reference incident AK18090660.”

Unsolved mysteries

The long list of the missing in the bulletin is itself something of an outline of unsolved Alaska mysteries.

Among those there are 32-year-old German Thomas Seibold, a hugely experienced German outdoorsman who disappeared into the Arctic wilderness in 2012 much like Keel has disappeared this year; 25-year-old Erin Gilbert, who was last seen at the popular and crowded Girdwood Forest Fair in 1995; 43-year-old Valerie Sifsof, who walked out of the Granite Creek Campground along the Seward Highway south of Anchorage in 2012 only to vanish, and Kristin Snyder, a 35-year-old environmental consultant who worked for the Executive Services Program in Anchorage and was connected to a national scandal.

Troopers believe Snyder died after paddling a kayak into Resurrection Bay in 2003,  but Frank Parlato, who publishes the Frank Report and bills himself as an investigative journalist, suggested that she might have been murdered to cover up the fact that she was pregnant with the child of NXIVM guru Keith Raniere.

NXIVM was a self-help group, primarily for women, that Frank outed as a sex cult only to see the New York Times later get the credit for inspiring “a Justice Department investigation that took down an American multi-level marketing scheme turned ‘sex cult’ known as NXIVM.” 

Raniere was in June 2019 convicted of racketeering, sex trafficking, forced labor conspiracy, and wire fraud conspiracy and in 2021 began serving out a sentence of 120 years in prison, according to Esquire. The Justice investigation also led to prison terms for Rainere accomplices Allison Mack, a one-time star in the TV show “Smallville,” and Clare Bronfman, the heir to the Seagram’s liquor fortune.

The Insider in February reported Bronfman is appealing her 6-year, 9-month sentence on the basis she shouldn’t be serving more time than Mack. The attorney said Bronfman had no idea the sexual misbehavior going on at NXIVM. a claim similar to that made by some in Anchorage who were associated with the group.

Mack, meanwhile, admitted being part of a sex “slave-master group in which some members were branded like cattle with Raniere’s initials and blackmailed into having sex with him and others,” Page Six reported last year. Bronfman’s attorneys claim her only role was as NXIVM’s chief financier.

Friends of Snyder called Parlato’s murder theory farfetched, but suggested it likely Raniere and NXIVM played some role in a mental breakdown that might have led Snyder to commit suicide. Troopers concluded that Snyder, an experienced kayaker, drove to Seward, stole a kayak, padded out into Resurrection Bay, overturned the boat and died.

‘….Snyder was reported to be suicidal,” troopers reported at the time. “Snyder’s vehicle was located by AST on Lowell Point near the Miller’s Landing at 2120 hours on Feb. 7, 2003. There was a note inside the vehicle indicating that Snyder was planning to commit suicide, ending with ‘no need to search for my body’.

“Due to information that Snyder had previously been kayaking out of Seward, a search of the immediate area and shoreline was begun that night. A full-scale search began to be organized for the following morning. On the morning of Feb. 7, 2003, the Milters (sic) of Meiers (sic) Landing resort discovered a storage shed containing kayaks and gear had been broken into and an old kayak was missing. The storage shed was close to where Snyder’s vehicle was located.”

The kayak, however, was not found, and Snyder’s body has never been found. But as with Keel, who some speculate could have been eaten by a grizzly bear, Alaska has a way of making bodies disappear as it clearly did with that of Seibold, who hiked away from a cabin in the Brooks Range mountains never to be seen again, and Nathan Campbell, an experienced Alaska outdoorsman who went looking for a mythical pyramid in 2020.

Into the Wild

The last time anyone saw Campbell was in June 2020 when a floatplane pilot dropped him at Carey Lake just north of Denali National Park and Preserve. Campbell confessed to the pilot that he was on a mission to find Alaska’s lost pyramid.

“His ‘Indiana Jones adventure’ is what he called it,” pilot Jason Sturgis said.

The lost pyramid had been dreamed up by New Earth Media which in 2017 headlined: “World’s oldest pyramids found in Alaska shocks scientific community.”

New Earth Media appears to be the work of Hanna Kirkpatrick, who claims to be a former presenter for Sky Sports News/Sky Sports in the United Kingdom. On a New Earth Media Facebook page, she raves about “how you can’t hide from the truth much longer motherf*ckers (sic). We (the people of the world) are coming for ya.”

There is no reason to consider New Earth Media or Kirkpatrick credible, but the pyramid story got picked up the only slightly more reputable UK’s Daily Star, a gossip tabloid which describes itself as the “Home of Fun Stuff.” 

Its “Weird News” section in 2019 asked “Is there a pyramid BELOW Alaska? Shock claims US government ‘covering up’ structure.”

The story below tied back to the History Channels “documentary Ancient Aliens,” another less than reliable source, and claims of a “top secret source” who revealed a discovery that would “rewrite the science of human origins.”

How Campbell stumbled on this Egyptian-size conspiracy theory is unclear, but he was obviously smitten by it and decided to investigate for himself. Thus he flew into Carey Lake with a couple of totes of food and a big backpack. He arranged no pickup date, instead telling Sturgis that he had a Garmin InReach satellite communication and GPS tracking device with which he would stay in contact with his wife.

She was to notify the air taxi when it was time to pick him up. Campbell stayed in touch with her through mid-June and then went dark. She at that time called Sturgis, who pulled up the location of Campbell’s GPS transmitter, and told his wife it was now about five miles from the lake.

Since there was nowhere near the signal he could land his airplane, he told her to call an air taxi company that flies helicopters and get them to land at the site of the GPS signal to check on her husband. He assumed she’d done that and forgot about Campbell until September when his wife again called to ask for a pickup.

It was then he learned that both troopers and the National Park Service had been notified that Campbell was missing.

Park Service rangers who flew into Carey Lake found supplies that Campbell had cached there and several miles off toward the mountain that was supposed to house the pyramid,  they located a collapsed tent with a rodent-chewed diary inside.

The diary generally recorded Campbell’s life in camp and ended with a note that he had left to “get water.” Like Keel, he never returned to his camp.

A search of the surrounding area, as with Keel, revealed nothing. No sign of Campbell has ever been found, and that’s probably not surprising. The area in which he disappeared south of Lake Minchuminia is in a part of the state even less visited than the area within walking distance of the Dalton Highway.

Campbell joined the many the remains of which may never be found.

For decades after Japanese national hero Naimo Uemera disappeared on Mount McKinley in 1984 after becoming the first soloist to summit in winter, Japanese climbers organized expeditions to the peak now known as Mount Denali to search for his body or any sign of what might have happened to him, but they never found a trace.

He is now long gone, but not forgotten.

“Few explorers radiate the unassuming, endearing, and gentle image of Naomi Uemura,” the Legend Series at the Explorers Web observed just last year. “His beaming smile is recognizable globally. First, as an outstanding achiever who made the first solo ascent of Denali, the first solo rafting journey down the Amazon, and the first solo to the North Pole. Later, when he disappeared on winter Denali, he reminded us that even the best are not invulnerable.”

Not only are they not invulnerable. Alaska can sometimes make them disappear as if they never existed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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10 replies »

  1. I drove the Dalton Highway to Deadhorse and back to Fairbanks and points south at the time Steve Keel was there. I saw many hunters walking and camping along the road while there. Later, upon returning south, when I began to hear about his disappearance did the story begin to haunt me. And it still does. I spent days traveling that highway and that country and as a resident of the lower 48 I can easily attest as to how scary that world is. Even the relatively flat area north of the Brooks Range where he was is intimidating to a non-native. There’s wildlife everywhere and very few people. All I can say is I hope he didn’t suffer because that place is scary.

  2. Why am I not amazed anymore that everyone, including this Craig Medred article, says:
    “NO TRACE of Steve Keel…”
    …🤔
    👉I found boot prints that were undoubtedly from Steven Keel.
    👉They were in the area Arthur Dyer (NSB SAR member), wanted me to search.
    👉Arthur had spent 9 days searching, and had GPS maps of where the Dover team searched, of which I was with them on their third and final ground sesrch day.
    👉Exactly where he said to search, which had not been searched, was where I found the boot prints, which practically pointed me to the place I found the Antlers placed in an 🏹.

    All this was known 3 days after the Dover team left.
    However, no one wanted to cover it, and still don’t want to.

    That’s what’s “strange” about this whole deal, not Steve’s “disappearance”, because he didn’t “dissappear without a trace…”

    1.
    Boot prints

    https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=5821408184535801&id=100000000325368&mibextid=Nif5oz

    2.
    Antler 🏹 with boot prints

    https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=5821845961158690&id=100000000325368&mibextid=Nif5oz

  3. A colleague of mine went out in his small boat off Anchor Point many years ago. He was never seen or heard from again. Let’s be careful out there.

  4. Thank You For your story my Uncle Steve Keel is amongst the Missing in Alaska Prayers for ALL who are missing a family member or friend Praying For Closure ❤️

  5. Gone but not Forgotten, a familiar phrase but one that could easily have been the title of this fine piece. Thank you for writing this Craig. There are the missing, the families of the missing, which you mention, but also the many first responders who spent many days, often as risk themselves, searching. One of those responders was a friend and associate of mine, Larry Nicholson who, as an Air Force pararescue member looked long and hard for Begich and Boggs then, years later, flew a Super Cub in search of the Roth family. I sat in the backseat of Larry’s Cub for many hours searching that area between Yakutat and Cordova. Larry passed away in 2020. Merry Christmas Craig, keep up the good work.

  6. Craig.
    Your knowledge of the great land as an experienced,diversified outdoorsman, along with your years of experience as a journalist enable you to compose articles like this that no one else can. Please- more articles like this. A very interesting and enjoyable read.

  7. I talked to an old prospector over 50 years ago. He said during the gold rush and since, many prospectors and would be prospectors disappeared. Some he knew. They were mostly single men far from home and relatives. Most were from the Lower 48 and Canada, but some were from Europe. When I mentioned it was likely a few got it from bears, he just laughed. He was certain the two-legged predators were to blame.

  8. This time of year I think of everyone who has died in avalanches around the state. Be cautious skiing & riding until spring snow pack consolidates…mid winter seems most dangerous to me…cold snaps cause depth hoar which becomes weak layer in snow pack. Stay Frosty out there!

  9. Mary Wilson, 69, was last seen in Healy, Alaska on July 12 after staying the night with friends. Police found her car on the Stampede Trail and clothes were discovered around a mile from the vehicle, according to Alaska State Troopers.Jul 21, 2022

    Another one, that makes ya go…hmmmm

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