Lincoln “Mike” Simon of White Mountain disappeared from the Golovin Bay on November 4 after his four-wheeler broke through the ice. Since then, a search and rescue mission has grown to include communities throughout the region who are set on bringing Mike back home to his family.
KNOM’s Emily Hofstaedter reports on the details of the search and how the community supports itself in times of uncertainty.
I fly into Golovin, and the cargo on my plane includes several boxes of donated food. They come for the search and rescue crew from villages as far as Kotzebue and Bethel. The Alaska State Troopers pulled out of the search for Mike last week, and the operation is now entirely fueled by volunteers and donations. Still, more communities have joined. The search now includes members from Golovin, White Mountain, Elim, Shaktoolik, Mountain Village, Bethel, Shishmaref, Noatak, and Kotzebue.
Most of the search team has departed with the rising sun by the time I arrive at the Chinik Eskimo Community. The center has served as a sort of “home base,” but I am lucky enough to talk with Bruce Francisco of Bethel Search and Rescue, who is still gearing up when I arrive. Bruce operates the ROV: remote underwater vehicle.
“It is an underwater submarine run on a game controller. We got a hundred-foot tether, and we have sonar and camera and a pincher that will help us grab, and we have screws lobbed into the pincher.”
Bruce uses a joystick operating system which is then attached to the ROV by the heavy tether. The camera and sonar from the ROV can take pictures up to 300 feet in front of it. While someone like Bruce must be operating the joystick to control the submarine, another must be looking at a dual screen laptop that shows sonar images on one screen, and pictures from the underwater camera on the other.
Still getting ready was Joyce Lee of Mountain Village, who joined the search with her husband, Doglass. Doglass operates the camera. Joyce explained that her husband had to take several classes in order to be certified to use the equipment.
“This morning, he told me this year’s, like, his 22nd year. He’s supposed to retire, but he keeps getting called in because he knows this ROV stuff, so he’s just basically dropping what he’s doing at home to come and do his work.”
But when I arrive, it is probably the chainsaws arriving from Noatak that get the most attention. Using GPS, the search team is mapping out a grid on the Bay, about 600 yards from the mouth of the Fish River, and then drilling lines through the ice. The team drags hooks through those grids to see if it can bring anything up. Here is Bruce again:
“We got a drag bar. We’ve got links welded to a piece of pipe, and we’ve got lines running crate and a line running off the top, chains that are welded on, and hooks that are tied on to the end of the links, same as snagging hooks, same process.”
I spoke with Ricky Takak of Shaktoolik, who said that the bar needs two people on each side to drag it and another to pull the line in case it catches anything. He said the work is difficult and hard on his feet and back, but that he is glad to be helping. He told me he cancelled a trip to Nashville but that coming to Golovin was the right choice for him.
The search has changed as the weather becomes colder. Dennis Davis of Shishmaref had to stop using his aerial drone, because the thickening ice made it too difficult to detect anything below the ice surface. He has been able to focus his efforts instead on the ROV and mapping coordinates for dragging.
While the searchers are on the ice, Maggie Moses and Sharon Lock of Golovin process food donations from all over Western Alaska. Community members come in and out of the Chinik Eskimo Community kitchen with food or to help, including Maggie’s brother Peter and niece Brenda.
Maggie estimates that they feed about 15 people a day. She has been helping since November 5th. For her and others that I talked to, helping the search was their way to relieve suffering and to help the family in whatever way they can.
“If I could take her pain away and give it to me, I would. As long as they’re looking for Mike, I am going to be up here. I’m not going to go, no matter what. Somebody told me to take a rest, and I said, ‘no.’ I have to be up here.”
Spirits can be low as the community waits for answers. Joyce Lee worked as a counselor for years, specifically with search and rescue missions. She shared her advice for working through grief and getting through difficult situations.
“You make sure you eat, sleep, rest, take care of you, do stuff that will occupy your mind. You take care of you. The wrong way is alcohol and marijuana. You go out only when you are ready. It’s a process; it’s time-consuming.”
Maggie was open about how she gets through:
“Mostly prayer, I’ve been praying. We all hurt, even from another village. All the villages are close.”
Multiple people described Mike as kind, devoted to subsistence, and always sharing what he had.
The searchers all stressed that they have no intention of stopping. Ultimately, the search seems to be about supporting a community. They help each other and are getting to know each other. They sit down to caribou soup with meat donated from Kotzebue. As I leave, there is laughter and chatter. Wednesday night bingo is about to begin, and despite a long day and incoming storm, there is still time for fellowship.
Images at top, above, and below: aerial views, captured via drone, of recent search efforts on the sea ice near Golovin. Photos courtesy of Dennis Davis of Shishmaref.