Searchers work to recover Napaskiak man who drowned in Kuskokwim River

BSAR volunteer Steve Alexie holds up a hook attached to his drag bar. (Photo by Greg Kim / KYUK)

Friday marked day 13 of the search for the body of a Napaskiak man who drowned near Bethel. Paul Kaganak fell into the Kuskokwim River two Saturdays ago. Since then, dozens of men and women from Scammon Bay to Akiachak have volunteered to drag the river to find him.

Steve Alexie from Napaskiak pulls a sandbag onto his boat. It’s the fifth one this hour. The recent river breakup has dropped massive amounts of debris into the river near Bethel, which includes leftovers from construction sites. It has slowed down the search for Kaganak’s body.

“They’re making me work harder,” Alexie said, his breathing labored as he heaves the wet sandbag on board.

Alexie’s job is to drop a large metal bar, called a drag bar, into the river from his boat. Four fishing lines are attached to the bar, and attached to the end of each line is a large industrial-strength metal hook. Those hooks are what catch the body by attaching onto the clothing.

“It’s just like fishing, except looking for a loved one,” Alexie said. 

When asked if he wants to be the one to find Kaganak, Alexie replied, “No, you know, I don’t know. Elders say that people that are lost like this are like game animals, and they say they wait for the right person to find them. So if I’m chosen to find them, I’ll be honored. To bring closure to the family.”

Closure is what all the volunteers are here for. Nobody wanted to talk about who Kaganak was, at least not yet. They said it was inappropriate to talk about Kaganak before they found him.  

On the river, things are quiet, like they would be if you were hunting.

“You don’t have to talk about it. Just be silent. Just wait. Wait,” Paul Clark said. Clark has been part of Bethel Search and Rescue for over 20 years. He says that the searchers on the water are communicating, but not always with their mouths.

“All these guys pray before they go out, try to have one mind, in mind together,” Clark explained. The goal for these searchers is to tune into the same frequency with each other and the missing. 

The searchers pulled up a body from the river last week, not Kaganak’s.

“[A search leader] had told us to stop our cooking, turn it off, and told everyone to come down to the boat,” said Clara Williams, who cooks at the base camp. “And we got in to the boat, and we were going over, all the boats were gathering together, and they went all the way on shore, and that’s where they all gathered.”

With all the the volunteers together, the leaders of the search party guided everyone through the mental and emotional journey of receiving a body.

“I was… it was mixed like scared and excited at the same time, but didn’t really wana see what was being brought up,” Williams said.

The recovered body’s identity has not been released. Last year two people, who remain unrecovered, were lost in the river near Bethel: Stacey Hoalgand, who was last seen on September 13, 2018, and Daniel Smith, who was last seen on October 21, 2018.

Back at the search camp, the mood is not always somber. On shore, volunteers eat snacks, play music and laugh. They say that keeping their spirits high will help the search efforts.

Searchers hope their beliefs, tradition, and attitude will help them find the body of Paul Kaganak so that his family can begin healing.

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