Seven subsistence hunters from Pilot Station in Southwest Alaska spent seven nights stranded at a fish camp after the lower Yukon River unexpectedly froze, blocking their way home.
On the eighth night, Thursday, the U.S. Coast Guard airlifted them out and flew them north to Nome.
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The group stayed the night at a hotel. The next morning, two of the hunters walked to the lobby. Signs said masks were required, and a hotel worker asked them to put theirs on.
The men said they’d been stranded on the Yukon for a week and didn’t have any masks. They’d left the fish camp with the clothes on their backs and what they could fit in their pockets, which meant their phones and GPS. They were wearing the same clothes they’d worn for a week and a half.
“Same socks, same shorts,” Rex Nick, one of the hunters said, laughing and stretching out his legs, covered in torn, black Carhartt bibs.
“It was really good to take a shower,” Robert Myers, another hunter, said. “I feel clean, but my clothes are dirty.”
The men had left Pilot Station 12 days earlier to boat down to the coast to hunt seal and beluga whale. Nick originally wanted the hunting trip to be over a weekend for students in the village.
“Some of the kids don’t get a chance to go out hunting, or some of their parents might not have a boat or a father-figure type,” Nick said.
The group delayed the trip for weeks waiting for a break in the weather. Finally, it cleared. That was Oct. 25. Because it was a Monday they didn’t take students out of school, but one hunter brought his 14-year-old son. There were two brothers and two father-son pairs in the group. The rest are friends.
“Nobody is starving,” Nick said. “But it’s good to have that extra food for the winter ahead.”
Nick is 43 years old. Myers is 38. They’ve made this trip many times in their lives, often multiple times a year. The seven hunters loaded into two boats and made the three-hour trip to the coast. The plan was to go down Monday, hunt Tuesday and return Wednesday.
And, at first, the plan worked out. They went down and took three seal and two beluga.
But then on Wednesday, Oct. 27, when they were set to return home, they awoke to a frozen river.
“The ice was so thick flowing down the river. It was forming so fast. It was freezing so fast. Just amazing. I’d never seen anything like that,” Nick said.
From all their years on the river, they never expected it to freeze so early or so quickly. There had been no ice when they left home. Using an axe, oars and their body weight, they hacked the boats free and used the weight of the skiffs to push open a path upriver to Alakanuk. A trip that would’ve taken an hour and a half in open water took five hours.
In Alakanuk, they stayed the night.
The next morning, Oct. 28, ice was flowing downriver, but other boats were moving between the sheets. The hunters decided to head home. Everything was fine, until they reached a narrow part of the river near Emmonak. The ice jammed, turned jagged and began crashing into the boats.
“That’s the first time I really got scared,” Nick said, “when I thought the ice was going to either damage my boat and sink my boat or flip my boat over. I’ve never been scared like that by ice before.”
Nick is second-in-command of Pilot Station Search and Rescue. He said he knew that it was too dangerous to keep going. The group decided to stop and found a friend’s nearby fish camp, about 20 miles east of Emmonak. The hunting group would remain there for the next seven nights.
“God bless the family that had that fish camp,” Nick said.
The camp had containers of frozen rain water, a wood stove, firewood and food.
“Oatmeal, coffee, some noodles, dry eggs, things like that,” Nick said.
The group also had their seal and beluga meat and food from their camping trip. Another friend had a fish camp just a five-minute walk away. It had a cell phone booster and a generator. They used it to contact their families.
The group also had a VHF radio and a Garmin inReach satellite device. The first day at the camp, they texted nearby friends about their situation, but no one could come overland or by river to help. The trails were not yet fully frozen. Their friends contacted Alaska State Troopers.
On day three at the camp, Oct. 31, the troopers flew over and dropped food, supplies and medication needed by one of the hunters. And to Nick’s relief: Copenhagen Fine Cut Snuff. With tobacco, he said, he eats less. There was another treat too.
“We got some Halloween candy. They left a note on there [saying], ‘Happy Halloween,’” Nick said.
The group stayed together in one of the fish camps in a single room about 12 feet by 20 feet, sleeping in sleeping bags from their camping trip. Staying together conserved firewood and concentrated heat. Also, Nick said, “There’s safety in numbers.”
Each day they rationed their food, water and firewood, only burning wood before going to sleep and a bit when waking up. During the day, they created their own entertainment.
“We took out our 22s and started killing mice. We probably killed about 50 mice,” Nick said.
One day a hunter killed a beaver, which they boiled into soup. Another day they found a fox in a snare that had been set by the owner of the fish camp and killed it. Once, they set a net in the river but didn’t catch anything. Time moved slowly.
On the fifth day at the camp, Nov. 2, a pilot attempted to land twice. In a video Nick took on his phone, the small red and white plane swoops close to the beach. Nick urges it on.
“Come on. You can do it. Land. Come on,” he said in the recording.
When the wheels look a few feet above the snowy riverbank, it veers back up and flies away. A trooper spokesperson said that 20 knot crosswinds prevented a landing.
Emmonak Search and Rescue coordinated another food drop for that day. This one contained ground beef and other hearty food.
By now, the hunters had become frustrated with the rescue response. State troopers were coordinating the effort, but Nick said that they would not hear from them for entire days at a time.
Trooper spokesperson Austin McDaniel said troopers “maintained consistent and frequent contact with the group directly via a satellite communications device and through their communication with third parties that the group was communicating directly with.”
McDaniel also said, “We had our search and rescue coordinator, who was a lieutenant here in Anchorage, working on this day in and day out. We had a trooper out in Emmonak working on trying to find solutions to get these folks out of there every single day.”
The hunters said they had heard planes flying every day they were at the camp. Flight logs show planes landing each day in nearby Emmonak except for one day that the hunters were stranded.
Nick said he expected a quicker rescue. The longer someone is stranded, he said, the more likely that person will be in danger. He’s helped look for many people with his village’s search and rescue group.
“The very first day we find out somebody is missing, we’re working on trying to get him home. We’re out there looking day or night, storm or clear skies,” he said.
He questioned whether the response was slowed because the group had supplies to survive the elements. McDaniel, the troopers spokesman, said no.
“The amount or quantity of supplies played no role in the efforts made by troopers to respond to extract the group,” McDaniel said.
Nick also questioned if because the group was all Alaska Native that slowed the response.
“Well, that’s absolutely not the case,” McDaniel said. “We perform search and rescue missions across the state, and there’s never any consideration given to the race, gender, any of those. None of those questions ever come up when we’re planning a response to a search and rescue operation.”
Regardless, Nick said, being stranded for a week took a toll on the hunters, as well as their wives, children, friends and community.
“All these years you help people so much, and when it comes down to needing help, it’s like it’s not there. Just beat you up inside. It just hurts,” Nick said, his voice cracking.
One of the hunters missed his cousin’s funeral. Nick missed his daughter’s 12th birthday. He said that the worst part of the ordeal was the worry it placed on his wife.
On the eighth day at the camp, Nov. 4, the hunters were about to burn the last of the firewood when they saw a U.S. Coast Guard plane overhead. It dropped food, and a handwritten note that said to bring the radio with them when the H60 picked them up and to enjoy the pizza. The bag contained seven slices. The note ended with a big smiley face.
They turned on the VFW. The pilot told them to stay on channel 16. A helicopter was coming. Hours later, past 8 p.m. on the eighth night at the camp, they heard the chopper.
“It was getting louder and louder, and we’re like, ‘Where is it? Where is it?’ Then all of a sudden, we see lights,” Myers said.
The helicopter circled and landed. The hunters climbed aboard. They left behind their boats, supplies and seal and beluga meat. They said that everything is well stored, and they’ll return in spring to gather their belongings. The Coast Guard flew them north to Nome.
The hunters said that everyone in the group was healthy, but the Coast Guard told them they’d be taken to the hospital to be checked out. A Coast Guard spokesperson said that it’s not required for paramedics to accompany rescue missions.
When they landed in Nome, Nick said that a trooper picked them up and then asked them where they wanted to go. They never went to the hospital.
“We were freaked out when they asked us where we wanted to go. We thought they had a place for us. We didn’t know what to say. They asked if we had family or friends. We don’t know nobody here,” Nick said.
A trooper spokesperson didn’t respond to a question by publication of this story about why the officer didn’t have a plan to house the men.
The trooper took them to a hotel, where the hunters paid $450 plus tax for two rooms for the night. The next day, a trooper spokesperson told KYUK that the troopers would cover the hunters’ lodging and airfare home.
Troopers and the Coast Guard said that they rescued the hunters as soon as their resources and the weather allowed. The helicopter had to fly from the Coast Guard base in Kodiak.
On Nov. 6, after spending two nights in Nome, a plane flew the group to Pilot Station. They landed around 1:15 p.m. It had been 13 days since they left home.
The hunters thank everyone who helped them, especially the owners of the fish camps where they stayed.
KYUK reporter Olivia Ebertz contributed reporting to this story.