A father’s body has been recovered from the Kuskokwim River after he and his family fell through a marked, open hole the night of New Year’s Eve. Bethel Search and Rescue says that the five survivors are okay and urges everyone to use overland trails to travel upriver.
Search and Rescue pulled Mark Kasayulie’s body from the Kuskokwim around 2 p.m. on Monday.
“Then we all gathered around and we had a couple people say a prayer,” Bethel Search and Rescue President Mike Riley said, who was there. “After the prayer was over, we thanked each other and everybody for all the good work everybody was doing, for this quick recovery of Mark, and then we loaded him in a body bag and brought him back to Bethel.”
Near Hangar Lake, Search and Rescue released the body to the Alaska State Troopers.
The night before, on New Year’s Eve, Mark Kasayulie and his family had fallen through an open hole. The night was calm and the hole marked with blue reflective tape, signaling open water, but open water can look indistinguishable from the surrounding glare ice, especially at night.
There were six travelers: Kasayulie, his sister-in-law, his wife, and their three young children. Mike Riley says that the children appear to be between nine and 14 years old.
“I do believe they were on one snowmobile, towing a sled,” Riley said.
The family lives in Bethel and was heading to Akiachak, where they are originally from. The survivors were able to pull themselves onto the ice and call for help. Troopers report that the family saw Kasayulie go “into the water and did not see him get out.”
Bethel Search and Rescue heard about the accident from Bethel Police just before 10 p.m. Riley says that searchers reached the family within 45 minutes.
“They were very hypothermic; they were all wet,” Riley described.
The responders used their own clothes to warm the family.
“They gave them their jackets, their coats,” Riley said. “One of our members actually took his shoes off and gave it to one of the boys.”
The searchers transported the survivors to Bethel, where two ambulances were waiting to carry them to the hospital. On Monday morning, volunteers from Bethel Search and Rescue returned to the site with hooks and drag bars. They handed the equipment to volunteers from Akiachak and Kwethluk to recover Kasayulie. Riley says that more than 60 people helped.
“Three hooks grabbed him after about an hour and a half of dragging, and that’s how we brought him up,” Riley explained.
The crews then blocked the trail with the open hole, about eight miles upriver of Bethel.
“The trail by the bluff is completely cut off for everybody’s safety,” Riley said. “The glare ice is very hard to read on open water, and that’s the reason probably why this happened.”
Riley urges everyone traveling upriver from Bethel to use the overland trail from Hangar Lake to Akiachak. It’s for everyone’s safety; sticking to the marked trail prevents other travelers from following wandering tracks.
The Alaska State Troopers reported that alcohol was involved in the accident, but Riley says that he does not have any indication that that was the case, pointing out that hypothermia can look similar to intoxication. Troopers have not responded to questions regarding evidence of alcohol.
Mark Kasayulie is the second person lost to the river this winter. In early December, Christopher Gregory from Sleetmute fell through open water as he attempted to water skip his snowmachine across the Kuskokwim. Searchers continue to drag hooks along the riverbed, hoping to recover his body.
In December, Bethel Search and Rescue called the number of open holes on the Kuskokwim River and sloughs “uncountable.” Its members say that there are more and bigger open holes than they ever remember seeing.
The all-volunteer group has reported a spike in emergency calls this winter, about 95 percent involving alcohol. Almost every night since trails began freezing, Bethel Search and Rescue has responded to people needing help.