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Hunter recounts experience of rescue after being stranded on Yukon River for over a week

Published: Nov. 5, 2021 at 2:09 PM AKDT|Updated: Nov. 5, 2021 at 8:51 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - After more than a week of being trapped by frozen ice at a fish camp on the Yukon River, a group of seven are in Nome following a U.S. Coast Guard rescue operation.

The hunters from Pilot Station found themselves trapped after the river froze over last week about 20 miles east of Emmonak in southwest Alaska. The group had set out on a whale hunting trip on Monday, Oct. 25 to procure food for others in Pilot Station and another village.

Rex Nick was one of the hunters, and expressed frustration with what he called a delay in emergency services. He said the group was trapped for a total of nine days.

After leaving on Oct. 25, the group initially reached out for help to a friend via text messaging on an InReach device. Trina Paul, the wife of one of the hunters, told Alaska’s News Source they reached out for help on Oct. 28. According to their online dispatch report, the Alaska State Troopers were notified on Oct. 29.

“It’s like, the plane will be there, the chopper will be there, and it never showed up,” Nick said Friday in an interview with Alaska’s News Source. “We got to the point where we didn’t really care if they showed up, because it’s not exciting anymore.

“We hear planes fly, we hear them coming close by, and we didn’t even bother to go and look at the sky to see if they were coming or not.”

Nick there was dry food at the camp, along with water that had frozen, which the group melted for drinking water. He said troopers also delivered two dropped supplies of food and medical equipment.

He said he was told by troopers that the supplies could last close to a month when shared between seven people, but Nick said they went through the supplies in less than two days.

“(The food drops) wasn’t the point, we wanted to get out of there,” he said.

Troopers dropped a supply of food rations and medication on Oct. 31, but according to a trooper dispatch, were unable to rescue the group due to “weather conditions.”

On Wednesday, troopers spokesperson Tim Despain said that the mission to rescue them had been transferred to the Coast Guard, which subsequently experienced mechanical issues with their helicopter.

By Thursday, two U.S. Army helicopters were dispatched from Fort Wainwright to assist in the rescue, but ultimately were not used. The Coast Guard dropped into the hunters’ location Thursday night, and plucked them from the fish camp around 8:40 p.m., according to the troopers dispatch.

Nick said he has experience with search and rescue operations around Pilot Station. He said he doesn’t understand why it took the Coast Guard a week to rescue the group from the time they were notified.

“Whether it’s an emergency or not, they shouldn’t have to wait until it becomes an emergency,” he said. “We try to get the people home on the very first day.

“Why did they wait for five or six days to finally get somebody out there?” he said.

Reports from both the Coast Guard and troopers indicated that it was poor weather conditions that hampered rescue efforts for several days.

Carl Donohue is with Expeditions Alaska, which takes people on tours of Alaska’s wilderness. He urged those who travel to those regions to pack something besides a few days of supplies with them — patience.

“It’s effectively out of my hands,” Donohue said. “It’s up to whoever is coming to get me to assess when it’s OK to come and get me.”

Donohue said good supplies to bring include food, tools and communication devices, such as the hunting group had with them.

He also encouraged people to prepare for possible problems before they leave. More than likely, he said things will not always go as planned.

“All the best planning in the world probably is not going to lead to things going the way you expect them or plan out for them to be,” Donohue said.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated with additional information.

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