Seven hunters were safely returned home after a Coast Guard rescue helicopter extracted them from a fishing camp near Emmonak, Alaska, on Thursday, Nov. 5.
The group, all from Pilot Station, were socked in by bad weather on their way home from the coast on Oct. 28 after hunting seals. Hunters from the Lower Yukon River villages regularly make the important subsistence hunting trip to replenish their winter stores in the fall.
According to KYUK Public Media, four of the hunters are volunteers with the Pilot Station search and rescue team. When it was clear they were stuck, the hunters contacted Emmonak Search and Rescue, which is closer, using a Garmin InReach communication device. The hunters provided their location and were directed to the nearest fish camp, where they were able to get shelter for the night, according to Emmonak Search and Rescue. Unfortunately, in the morning, they found their only route home blocked by ice.
“While they were there overnight, the [Yukon River] iced over. So the ice on the river is too thick to run a boat, and it’s not thick enough to run snowmachine there, and there’s no overland route to get to this spot,” said Austin McDaniel, a spokesperson for the Division of Alaska State Troopers.
On Oct. 31, state police delivered a supply drop for the hunters, including food and medication, while rescue workers and the hunting group waited out the weather.
Emmonak is a small city with 850 residents roughly 75 miles northwest of Pilot Station as the crow, or bush plane, flies. The hunting group was stranded about 20 miles east of the Emmonak. Both locations are connected by the Yukon River, which usually makes for clear passage.
State police reported on Nov. 4 that they were working with the Coast Guard and the US Army on rescue efforts, but there were no helicopters available in the area, even privately-owned aircraft.
In a long-shot effort, two army helicopters were called to make their way to the area from Fort Wainwright, over 500 miles away, fly in, and get the group out. The rescue attempt was planned for the morning of Nov. 5.
But good news arrived later in the evening on Nov. 4: a Coast Guard helicopter based in Nome was back online after clearing mechanical issues. The Coasties flew across Norton Sound to the hunters’ location, extracted the group at about 9 p.m., and returned safely to Nome. None of the hunters sustained any serious injuries.
Subsistence hunting occurs throughout Alaska all year long and is central to the customs and traditions of many indigenous groups. Depending on the community and area, moose, caribou, deer, bears, Dall sheep, mountain goats, and beavers are commonly hunted land mammals. On the marine side, the quarry is seals, sea lions, walruses, and whales.