Families were gathered to mourn Sunday in Togiak after the bodies of three men lost in a boating accident had been recovered from beaches near the village.
James Toots, 39, Eric Coopchiak, 31, and Larry Arnariak, 29, died Saturday after their skiff overturned in heavy seas crossing the bay from the Togiak River back to the village. The men were returning from a hunting trip upriver and had three moose onboard, according to family.
When word spread Saturday evening after dark that the men were overdue, a local search effort cobbled together by family and village law enforcement was launched. Alaska State Troopers were notified, but flights from Dillingham were grounded on account of the winds. At 11:00 p.m. a request was made for US Coast Guard assistance. An MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter was launched from Air Station Kodiak at 11:40 p.m., and a HC-130 fixed-wing aircraft joined the search. The Coast Guard assets eventually waived off for the night on account of low visibility and high winds, measured at 40 miles per hour.
The body of Eric Coopchiak was found late Saturday, on the beach by the old school. Word was passed by VHF Sunday morning that the bodies of James Toots and Larry Arnariak had been found as well.
“Everybody is still in shock,” said Darryl Thompson, who, along with other elders, was going house to house of the families of the three men. Thompson said it was a small relief to hear early Sunday that the remains of all three men had been recovered before they were carried out to sea.
“Please keep Togiak in your prayers,” said Francesca Kam. “This is a tragic loss for our community.”
Dangerous return from successful hunt
The area 17A winter moose was scheduled to close at the end of the day Sunday, but on Friday, it was extended out another month on account of poor winter travel conditions. For three consecutive winters, state and federal authorities have allowed extra winter hunting time, each year hopeful that snow will eventually come.
Togiak hunters are skilled at tracking game by snowmachine in the snowy hills to their north. But the tundra lays bare and the mountains nearly so, and creeks and rivers are open and uncrossable. Not hunting is not an option for most, so locals have turned to non-traditional means. “Now we’re going out with four wheelers and boats, and having very hazardous terrain to travel and waves to contest with,” said Thompson.
“Whether it’s our sea wall falling down or trying to do our subsistence winter hunting, this warming weather has caused us a lot of serious problems,” he added.
Hunting the Togiak River and its tributaries by boat is customary in the fall, not the winter months. But since the winter of 2013, hunters have been boating up the open river for a chance to get into the field beyond where ATV trails allow.
While the river may be largely ice free, that doesn’t make the trip necessarily safe or easy. Elder Pete Abraham believes Toots, Arnariak, and Coopchiak came down river and attempted to cross the bay in a boat overloaded for the weather and surf conditions.
“They were too heavy I think,” he said. He described their boat as a homemade welded aluminum skiff with a flat bottom but steep sides, bigger than an 18-foot Lund. “You can’t carry three moose in a Jon boat. That boat can probably carry that much, but it was too rough.”
Abraham said the winds were blowing at least 30 miles an hour, and the waves in the bay between the mouth of the river and the village were probably four feet high.
“That boat can’t handle that, or maybe they couldn’t maneuver with the small motor.”
It’s not normally a tricky crossing, he said, but doing so at night, during the winter, can be hazardous.
“In the dark, you can see the village lights, but you can’t always see where you’re going, or where the ice is at,” said Abraham.
How the boat was swamped, and what happened to the men next, may never be known. Abraham believes this was probably a tragedy that could have been avoided. “We need more elders to talk to the younger generation about being cautious, whether boating, or snow machining, or whatever. We try, but sometimes the young people don’t listen.”
Troopers say none of the men were wearing life preservers.
On Sunday, what was most important in the village of 800 was gathering again to mourn with the families who had lost loved ones, and remembering the lives James Toots, Eric Coopchiak, and Larry Arnariak.
“I believe they left behind 11 children between the three of them,” said Darryl Thompson. “But they died doing something they loved, working to provide for themselves and their families.”