7 hunters rescued after being stranded at a fish camp near Emmonak for a week

Emmonak during winter. A group of seven hunters was stranded at a fish camp 20 miles east of Emmonak for a week before being rescued on Thursday night. (Photo from Calista Corporation)

Seven hunters, including a child, from Pilot Station were rescued after being 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.

The group was rescued Thursday night by the U.S. Coast Guard, according to Pilot Station Search and Rescue. A Coast Guard spokesperson said the group was immediately transported to the airport in Nome where they were checked for injuries.

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,” Kelly said.

As the hunters made 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 Oct. 29. 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 needed 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, got 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,” Fancyboy said. “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 prepared 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,” Kelly said.

He said that another fog bank had rolled in on Thursday, and the Coast Guard confirmed that they had not been able to get the boaters. Emmonak Search and Rescue coordinated a third food drop, and Kelly was concerned about the group’s ability to keep warm.

Fancyboy, the head of Pilot Station Search and Rescue, said that the whole village was worried about the hunters. He said the youngest in the group was a grade-school kid who missed 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 had been taking so long for government rescue agencies to get the hunters.

According to a report from troopers, the Coast Guard helicopter in Nome had been unable to launch Thursday due to mechanical issues, and there were no private helicopters available in the area to help. Troopers said two U.S. Army helicopters from Fort Wainwright were traveling to the area and planned to pick up the group on Friday.

The group ended up being picked up Thursday night. Medical personnel met the hunters at the airport checked them for injuries and they were brought to a hotel, according to a troopers spokesperson.

Pilot Station Search and Rescue said the group initially believed they would be paying out-of-pocket for the hotel and travel home, but troopers told KYUK they would be covering the costs of lodging and airfare home to Pilot Station.

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