UPDATE, Friday, 8:30 a.m.: The group was rescued Thursday night by the U.S. Coast Guard and is currently recovering in the hospital in Nome, according to Pilot Station Search and Rescue.
Seven hunters, including a child, from Pilot Station have been stuck at a fish camp for one week. The group was headed upriver after fall seal hunting. They got stuck outside of the Yukon River community of Emmonak on their way home.
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It’s traditional for hunters from lower Yukon River villages to travel down to the coast in the fall to hunt for seal to stock their freezers for the winter. Especially this year, since subsistence fishing for most salmon species was closed after the Yukon River saw a massive chum salmon collapse.
Normally hunters are able to get to the coast and back home this time of year without any problem, but former Pilot Station Mayor Abraham Kelly said that winter weather snuck up on them this year.
“It got cold a lot faster than what we thought,” said Kelly.
As the hunters were making their way upriver, ice began forming across the water. Just past Emmonak, they couldn’t go any further. Four of the seven hunters volunteer with the local search and rescue in Pilot Station, so they knew to contact the nearby Emmonak Search and Rescue from their inReach device. According to Emmonak Search and Rescue, the hunters provided their location and the Emmonak group directed them to the nearest fish camp.
The hunters were forced to pull over their boat on Friday. Between what they brought and what was at the fish camp, they had enough to feed themselves and stay warm for several days. But according to Alaska State Troopers, the weather soon turned foggy and turbulent and it was too risky to land an aircraft. On Sunday — day three — troopers were able to do a fly-by drop-off of food, supplies and medicine needed by one of the hunters in the group.
The group needs to be rescued by air because the river and overland trails aren’t frozen enough yet for snowmachines or other vehicles. The entire area is off the road system.
Back in Pilot Station, the head of the local search and rescue group, Paul Fancyboy, had gotten word that his friends and his second-in-command were stuck near Emmonak. He was concerned that no one had rescued them yet. So on Monday — day four — he said he called Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s office. He reached an aide.
“He said he was taking notes and he’s gonna give it to the governor,” said Fancyboy. “I wouldn’t know why he hasn’t called me back about why it took so long for those guys to get rescued.”
Fancyboy said the governor never called him back. The governor’s office said they provided Fancyboy with another number to call.
The next day, day five, troopers attempted to evacuate the group with a fixed-wing plane. But according to a spokesperson for Emmonak Search and Rescue, the pilot couldn’t land due to a heavy crosswind. The spokesperson said the men were starting to get agitated that it had been five days and no one had picked them up yet.
Emmonak Search and Rescue coordinated another fly-by food drop, this time food was donated by the local AC store and the village store and the flight was donated by Grant Aviation. The drop included a charger for the hunters’ inReach satellite. The group is using it to communicate with Emmonak Search and Rescue. The mood at camp briefly lifted, plus the weather was looking good for the next day.
Emmonak Search and Rescue told the hunters to pack up their gear and get ready. The U.S. Coast Guard’s helicopter in Nome was preparing to pick them up.
But on Wednesday — day six — the chopper never came. The weather turned once more, according to Kelly.
“Finally they were gonna pick them up yesterday morning, and then that fog rolled in again so they canceled the chopper from Nome,” said Kelly.
He said that another fog bank had rolled in on Thursday, and the Coast Guard confirmed that as of yet they have not been able to get the boaters.
As of Thursday, Emmonak Search and Rescue was working on coordinating a third food drop, but Kelly was concerned about the group’s ability to keep warm.
“They’re running out of wood to burn,” said Kelly. “They need wood to stay warm, so we’re kinda worried about them now.”
Fancyboy, the head of Pilot Station Search and Rescue, said that the whole village is getting worried about the hunters. He said the youngest in the group is a grade-school kid who’s missing school this week. Fancyboy said he’s frustrated.
“I don’t know what’s taking them so long,” he said. “It is not acceptable.”
A spokesperson from Emmonak Search and Rescue also demanded to know why it’s taking so long for government rescue agencies to get the hunters.
A chopper didn’t come on Thursday — day seven — either, but it may on Friday.
According to a report from troopers, the Coast Guard helicopter in Nome was unable to launch on Thursday due to mechanical issues, and there were no private helicopters available in the area to help. Troopers say two U.S. Army helicopters from Fort Wainwright are traveling to the area and are planning to pick up the group on Friday.