ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) – After 13 days of searching by air and on the ground, Alaska State Troopers on Tuesday suspended their search for a Wisconsin survival instructor missing in a remote area of the Northwest Arctic.
Thomas Seibold, 31, of Three Lakes, Wis., first was reported missing Nov. 11 after he failed to make a planned contact ahead of a flight out of Kobuk.
The German-born traveler had been in Alaska since June, first spending time at a Southeast fish camp and then along the Tanana River near Fairbanks. In September, Seibold headed to the Northwest Arctic village of Ambler. He hiked 30 miles north to a cabin owned by a travel companion with plans, according to his colleagues from Wisconsin’s Teaching Drum Outdoor School, to spend October exploring the area alone and then to hike 25 miles to Kobuk by Nov. 11.
What happened to Seibold next so far is a mystery.
“We believe things may have gone awry for him,” said Sgt. Duane Stone, a supervisor for the trooper post in Kotzebue.
Seibold’s last known communication came in the form of a letter or journal entry dated Oct. 7 and found in the cabin, Stone said. It mentioned that he was going out for a two-day trip.
“He wrote about his plans to hike out for further exploration, and that is where the letters ended,” wrote Lety Seibel, a colleague from the outdoor school, in a post on the school’s Facebook page.
Seibel said other writings found at the cabin contained vague hints of possible plans: a description of hiking and camping at higher elevations, notes about preparing wood at the cabin for upcoming weather.
“The cabin search also revealed that Thomas does not have a gun with him,” Seibel wrote.
Also left in the cabin, said Stone: caribou hides and a heavy winter parka.
None of it has led searchers to Seibold, who friends describe as a thoughtful seeker on a quest to answer some of life’s big questions in the Alaska wilderness.
Troopers, along with the Kotzebue Police Department, Northwest Arctic Borough Search and Rescue, local hunters, homesteaders and pilots, conducted aerial and ground searches for 13 days over a 3,500-square-mile area of mountains, canyons and river drainages.
A few days in, a pilot found a circle marking on a gravel bar about eight miles north of the confluence of the Ambler River and Ulaneak Creek, Seibel said. Colleagues think it may have been a sign denoting a place to drop provisions.
“Because the circle has such strong meaning to Thomas, we think there’s a high likelihood he etched the sign,” she wrote in a Facebook post.
The circle is the only sign of a human traveler in the area, Stone said.
“We’ve flown low enough to see wolverine, wolf and bear tracks,” he said. “We haven’t found any sign of a human moving around at all in the area.”
With little information to go on and conditions becoming hazardous for searchers, troopers decided to suspend their efforts after a final flight between the Ambler River and Shungnak River valleys on Sunday, Stone said.
Temperatures have been as low as minus 20 or minus 30 since October, dipping to minus 40 in recent days, he said.
Seibold has extensive experience with winter wilderness travel and survival, according to Teaching Drum colleague Tamarack Song. He had completed a year-long “wilderness immersion” in northern Wisconsin and taken courses in the Arctic.
“If he’s not injured and has adequate calories to keep himself going, he’s going to be all right,” Song said.
But the area near the Ambler River that Seibold is thought to have been exploring is harsh even for Northwest Alaska, Stone said. Some local hunters and trappers avoid it because of overflow and difficult traveling conditions.
“It is remote and it is hazardous even on Alaska standards,” he said. “If trappers aren’t going up there, it should give you kind of an idea.”