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BSAR has been looking for missing hunters for a week and a half. It’s a test of hope and endurance

Will McCarthy
Bethel Search and Rescue President Mike Riley searches the Kuskokwim River with a drag bar.

Bethel Search and Rescue (BSAR) is continuing to search for a group of moose hunters missing for a week and a half near Bethel, and for another hunter missing for over a week near Kalskag.

On day eight of the search, about a dozen volunteers headed toward their boats after a morning briefing. It was raining, as it has been for much of the time since Justin Crow, Shane McIntyre, and Carl Flynn went missing. Mike Riley, the longtime president of BSAR, drove toward the harbor.

“It being so close to home with three people involved, it’s hard,” Riley said. “We know that is someone's loved one out there. People depend on you to look for them and bring them home for closure.”

At the harbor, Riley checked his gear. BSAR has been working under the assumption that the boat sank in rough waters after the men dropped off equipment at their hunting camp upriver. Search teams are dragging the bottom of the river with weighted hooks to try to locate the boat. The fact that they haven’t found it makes the search unusual. At 18 feet long, it should be hard to miss. Also unusual is that three people went missing at the same time, and then another person further upriver not long after.

Search and rescue is not easy work. Searchers are out in all conditions, often for 10 or 12 hours a day. After 30 years of volunteering, Riley noted that he wasn’t a young man anymore.

After leaving the harbor, Riley headed toward Straight Slough. Six boats were there searching for the missing hunters. Riley pulled up beside one.

“I’m sorry it took so long to come out here, but I was told something that I think will enlighten us,” Riley said.

Riley said he got a tip that two people were coming home to Bethel the day after the hunters were reported missing. Apparently they saw an aluminum pole bobbing upright in the water about 20 feet from shore, a few hundred yards upriver of Straight Slough. They had to swerve to avoid it. Riley thought it could be a clue.

“So that’s that side of the river, coming up,” Riley said. “That side of the river has never really been dragged.”

After hours of scanning sonar and dragging lines, hoping to catch something, even just this little piece of information seemed like a burst of energy.

Searching the river is a test of endurance. A few of the boats scan the search area with sonar, slowly making a grid of each section of the river. The rest use drag bars, which are long ropes attached to a metal bar. Each of the lines have a weighted hook at the end. The idea is that if there’s something underwater, the hooks will catch on it. Hope, Riley said, is the name of the game.

Riley dragged the bottom of a 100 yard portion of the river. The tide was slack, so he kept one hand on the rope and the other on the steering wheel. Nothing. He tried again. Nothing. It started to rain. Riley tried again.

“The majority of the people that are out here have been out here since day one,” Riley said. “It’s a lot of stress and frustration, you know. We’re working in the dark.”

So far, the main clues BSAR have are debris from the missing boat that turned up near the head of Straight Slough, but there’s still so much river to cover. BSAR has never given up on a search, and there are no plans for them to give up on this one.

“That was the question: how long are you going to search,” Riley said. “As long as someone is willing to come out here, we’re going to continue.”

Will McCarthy was a temporary news reporter at KYUK. Previously, he worked as a furniture mover, producer, and freelance journalist. Will's written for the New York Times, National Geographic, and Texas Monthly. He holds a master's degree in journalism from UC Berkeley.