2 snowmachiners drown in open water on the Kuskokwim on New Year’s Day

A group of a half dozen people silhouetted in front of a  sunset look over an overturned sno machine on som esnow/ice
Search and Rescue volunteers pulled snowmachines from an open hole in the Kuskokwim River ice near Tuluksak, where two men, Peter Sallaffie and Joseph Hale, drowned on Jan. 1, 2021. (Mark Leary/Bethel Search and Rescue)

The body of one of two snowmachiners lost in the Kuskokwim River on Jan. 1 has been recovered but not identified.

Peter Sallaffie and Joseph Hale drove into an unmarked open hole in the ice near Tuluksak. The loss marks the first deaths to open water along the Kuskokwim River this winter.

Both men lived in Bethel and had snowmachined to Tuluksak to visit a relative, according to Bethel Search and Rescue President Mike Riley. After leaving Tuluksak, they took the wrong trail — the hovercraft trail instead of the snowmachine trail — and drove into open water.

“They picked up the wrong trail at the mouth of Tuluksak river,” said Mark Leary, with Bethel Search and Rescue. “And you know, it’s not hard to do the first time traveling an area, especially in the dark. They picked up the wrong trail, and they headed into an area of unmarked open water, and they were lost.”

Members of Tuluksak’s COVID-19 team witnessed the accident, but by the time they reached the open water, neither Sallaffie nor Hale could be seen.

The search was initially hampered by the lack of experienced hands. Leary said all experienced search and rescue personnel were hunkered down because of COVID-19 or too closely related to the missing men to participate in the search.

The crew that came from Tuluksak to help were young people. During the day, Leary said they watched and helped as volunteers used a boat to try to find the missing men.

“All we had available at the time was one beat-up, old boat, maybe a 16-footer, no motor,” Leary said. “And the line is run from the boat to a snowmachine. And the snowmachine goes backwards and forward, moving the boat up and down the open hole, while a pair of searchers run hooks in the water.”

The snowmachines were easy to find. Both were pulled from the water on Jan. 2, the day after the accident. During the long weekend effort, Leary said the crew from Tuluksak watched, learned and helped.

“[Sunday] night, just before dark, those young guys recovered the first lost one,” Leary said. “They did it and I’m very proud of them. I know they know now that they can do it.”

The search continues for the second man, and Leary said the crew could use help.

As of this weekend, the large open hole near Tuluksak has been marked with blue reflective tape. Earlier this season, Bethel volunteers marked all known open water upriver from Bethel to below Akiak.

Leary and Riley encourage all communities to mark open water near their villages.

Anna Rose MacArthur is a reporter at KYUK in Bethel.

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