It’s the first winter in Bethel since a liquor store opened after almost 40 years of illegal sales. Alcohol is easier than ever to get, and Bethel Search and Rescue said the number of calls they receive, almost all alcohol-related, has spiked. Volunteers are getting worn out, resources are depleting, and the organization is asking the community for help.
Two weeks ago, Bethel Search and Rescue (BSAR) got a call. A man had left Bethel sometime after midnight, heading to Akiak on a four-wheeler. He had been drinking, hadn’t arrived in the village that morning and the caller was worried. BSAR went looking and found the man, 29-year-old Charles Williams Jr, dead on Steamboat Slough. He had apparently frozen to death. It was BSAR’s first body recovery of the winter, but the all-volunteer group doesn’t know if it will be the last.
“We ask if you come to Bethel to buy booze, bring it home first, and then start consuming it there for your own safety and the safety of others,” said Mike Riley, Bethel Search and Rescue President.
Since November when the river and overland trails froze, opening the paths to Bethel from the surrounding villages, the organization has seen a spike in calls. Most involve alcohol.
Historically, about 95 percent of the calls BSAR receives involve alcohol. That percentage is still basically true, but instead of getting a few calls a month during the winter, like past years, Search and Rescue is getting about two calls a week. Usually the calls come between midnight and 6 a.m., and responding to such a call can be tough.
John Wassilie has volunteered for BSAR for more than 30 years. When a call comes late in the night, he’s usually the first to grab his gear and go, jumping on his snowmachine to head out in the dark and the cold to look for someone. All he knows is that the person was heading in a general direction and maybe the color of the person’s vehicle or coat, but finding them is just half the work.
“They don’t want to listen to you,” Wassilie said. “They don’t want to reason with you, and they want to try to get home.”
Wassilie said that when people have been drinking, they’re not thinking clearly. He said. they’re verbally aggressive, and they’ll often use whatever they have on them as a weapon: broken sticks, bottles, “even their groceries when they’re drunk, because they don’t know what they’re doing.”
The late nights, the physical danger, the emotional abuse, it all adds up. BSAR has 100 members, but only about 10 regularly respond to calls. At least one has talked about quitting and others are taking indefinite breaks.
President Mike Riley said that the group is funded through donations, and that the current call rate is unsustainable for their budget.
“It’s okay for now,” Riley said, “but if we keep this up, and we keep going out, and we’re out of our own pocket, we’ll be hurting for funding.”
The group is all volunteers, and most have jobs, families, and other commitments. Dozens will come out for big searches, the kind the group was created for, when people get trapped in unforeseen circumstances like a blizzard descending on a snowmachine or a storm stranding a boat. Now, members say it’s become a drunk patrol, and a lot of people aren’t willing to head out looking for another intoxicated person at three in the morning.
But when the group was formed, it made a commitment, a commitment to help anyone who needed them, a commitment it’s kept, and one that President Riley said it will continue.
“We’re going to keep on going for the people’s sake out there,” Riley said, “for their families’ sake. The biggest part of it is keeping everyone safe and bringing them home.”
Anyone can become a member of Bethel Search and Rescue. The next meeting is the group’s annual assembly on February 15 at 7 p.m. at the BSAR building.
CORRECTION: KYUK, Alaska Public Radio Network’s Bethel affiliate, previously stated that a Bethel Search and Rescue member had often hog-tied intoxicated people that he found during searches. The member later clarified that he has never hog-tied anyone he has rescued, but rather he has had to strap intoxicated people to himself to steady them as he transported them via snowmachine. BSAR said that the organization does not hog-tie people.