Try as I might, I cannot understand the allure of living in Alaska.
It’s dark for months at a stretch, cold as an igloo’s Frigidaire,
and from what I’ve been able to glean from repeated viewings of Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man
every square inch is infested with rampaging carnivorous beasts and insects the size of Matchbox cars.
More ominously, Alaska is a place where people disappear.
The Alaskan missing persons rate is twice the national average—the huge swaths of wilderness
and picayune police presence
conspiring to consume the unlucky, the unwary, and those seeking to drop off the grid.
As explained in a Los Angeles Times article entitled Alaska, Land of the Lost:
People vanish by accident and by design,
by fluke of nature or quirk of circumstance,
by foul play, misstep and bad luck.
There are so many ways in Alaska to get
lost, and so many reasons why the lost
may not be found.
Since 1988 Alaskan authorities have received over sixty thousand missing person reports;
yet there are barely 300 Alaska State Troopers assigned to patrol the nearly 600,000 square miles
of our nation’s largest state—a geographic breakdown yielding approximately one trooper
for every 2.300 square miles (a land mass roughly the size of Delaware).
Disappearances are so endemic in Alaska
the native Tlingit Indians have incorporated the phenomenon into their folklore;
according to legend a nefarious deity named Kushtaka—half man, half otter, hungry for souls—entraps heedless travelers and whisks them away to his magical realm.
As ridiculous as such aboriginal hokum may sound to more urbane intellects
there may in fact be some truth to Tlingit lore—the circumstances surrounding certain disappearances
in the Land of the Midnight Sun are so bizarre and inexplicable
that abduction by an anthropomorphized, soul-seeking otter god seems as rational an explanation as any.
On June 3rd, 1999 Wasilla resident Michael Palmer, age 15,
informed his parents
he intended to spend the night at the home of a friend.
There the boys bunked down not in the main house
but in a smaller outbuilding,
and in the wee hours of the morning Michael and his friends
surreptitiously slipped out
and bicycled to a series of graduation parties. At the rambunctious final soiree
a scuffle erupted,
and shortly afterwards Michael and his companions
embarked on the nine mile ride home.
During the journey Michael, who had reportedly imbibed several beers but did not appear to be inebriated,
fell behind the other cyclists;
when his absence was noted
his friends assumed he’d biked to the Palmer home instead of spending the evening with his friends as planned.
The next morning Michael’s mother Lisa Palmer called to check on her son
but was mistakenly informed he was asleep in the outbuilding;
it was only after Mrs. Palmer returned from her job at Providence Alaska Medical Center twelve hours later
that the reality of her son’s predicament became clear.
A thorough police investigation of Michael’s ostensible route
revealed only two clues—the bicycle he’d been riding was found submerged in the nearby Little Susitna River,
and his wet Converse-brand sneakers were discovered, placed neatly side-by-side,
on an airstrip approximately 200 yards from the river’s edge.
The Palmer family,
which included sister Hannah and brothers Chris and Chucky,
was devastated by Michael’s disappearance—the clan remained tightknit
despite the elder Palmers’ divorce, and Michael, the couple’s youngest son, was much-loved.
Mrs. Palmer told The Anchorage Daily News her missing child
was “a good boy” who had unfailingly kept his family abreast of his whereabouts;
Michael hadn’t left of his own accord, his father proclaimed, as he was excited
about obtaining his driver’s license in the near future.
Family members were certain something tragic had happened amidst the final party’s fisticuffs or during the lengthy trek home in the the pre-dawn hours.
Detectives too were fairly certain Michael hadn’t disappeared voluntarily;
discarding one’s shoes and only means of transportation before taking off barefoot
into the harsh Alaskan wilderness seemed an unlikely scenario.
Authorities were also fairly confident Michael hadn’t fallen into the Little Susitna river and drowned.
Although submerged bodies in Alaskan waters are notoriously difficult to find—unlike in warmer climes,
corpses in Alaska’s waterways often become weighted down with glacial silt and thus fail to surface during decomposition.
The Little Su was still and clear, however,
and a logjam a mile from Michael’s discarded bicycle would have impeded his body’s progress downstream.
Moreover, tracker dogs were unable to discern Michael’s scent at the riverbank;
the slender, 110-pound youth had seemingly vanished into the nippy Alaskan air.
Police theorized that something dire may have transpired during the brawl at the final party the boys attended,
and this conjecture was buttressed when a partygoer came forward claiming to have seen Michael savagely beaten during the melee.
The tipster soon recanted, however,
and detectives were unable to develop any
corroborating evidence—Michael’s companions were successfully polygraphed and confirmed
the missing teen had begun his journey home unmolested. Tragically, to this day the police possess
only the same paltry evidence obtained in the hours after Michael’s disappearance—a once-submerged bicycle and a pair of Chuck Taylors, the shoelaces of one sneaker unbound.
United in their grief, Michael’s parents and siblings remained as close-knit as ever.
On April 10th, 2010 the two remaining Palmer brothers and a group of friends and relatives
planned a snowmobiling expedition in the Talkeetna Mountains—snowy, forbidding crags
located approximately an hour’s drive from the family homestead in Wasilla.
At the last minute, however, the oldest Palmer brother was unable
to join the excursion—the handlebar of his snowmachine snapped, forcing Chris to stay behind and make repairs.
Whilst in the mountains, in an eerie twist of fate,
Michael’s brother Chucky fell behind the assemblage;
the middle Palmer brother was an inexperienced snowmobiler and relatively unfamiliar with his recently-purchased snowmachine.
When the flock of vehicles in the lead noticed Chucky’s absence they began to scour the trails,
but no trace of the waylaid thirty-one year old father of three
could be found—it was, as they say, déjà vu all over again.
More than 40 trackers from Alaska Mountain Rescue canvassed the rugged terrain near Bald Mountain
where Chucky had last been seen. Although the investigation was hampered by foul weather
searchers eventually discovered Chucky’s snowmobile
abandoned off the main trail,
mired in waist-high drifts. Bizarrely, no footprints surrounded the the marooned craft,
leading one member of the search party,
the fire chief of a neighboring town,
to speculate Chucky had been shanghaied by a passing UFO—there was, he claimed, no worldly explanation for the dearth of tracks or other evidence at the scene.
Chucky’s disappearance left his brother Chris profoundly distraught.
“My brother’s out there fucking starving,” he told a journalist from The Alaska Dispatch . “How am I going to eat?”
Consumed by guilt, Chris was positive the tragedy would have been averted
had he been present to helm the ill-fated jaunt. Since Michael’s disappearance eleven years earlier
Chris remained painfully aware of the dreadful fate which oft befell stragglers in the unforgiving Alaskan tundra;
he told reporters he always kept a vigilant eye
on the slowest members of the pack.
Searchers continued to fly over the Bald Mountain vicinity until June,
hopeful the spring thaw would reveal the location of Chucky’s remains;
but the Alaskan wilderness, ever merciless, continued to cling tightly to its prey.
Authorities eventually came to the conclusion Chucky’s body had been ravaged by an occurrence known
as “the critter element”—so scattered and devoured by scavenging woodland creatures
that the remains had been rendered virtually impossible to locate.
Although Alaska’s plentiful wildlife may explain the searchers’ ultimate failure to discover Chucky’s body
troubling questions linger—aforementioned fire chief aside,
no one to my knowledge
has proffered a viable explanation
for Chucky’s divergence from the main path and the inexplicable absence of footprints near his abandoned sled.
Did the vengeful god Kushtaka covet a matching pair of Palmer brothers to populate his otherworldly domain?
Or did the Palmer family simply roll double snake-eyes against the statistically grim odds of going missing in Alaska?
In this mysterious tale of familial woe and bewildering vanishments I am certain of only one thing—if I were the last remaining Palmer brother
I’d refuse to leave home without a GPS tracking device strapped securely to my person.
And I’d definitely pack up my kith and kin and move someplace more hospitable than Alaska—a comparatively cozy burg like inner-city Detroit, say, or downtown Fallujah.
There’s always a chance Kushtaka is enjoying the company of the two younger Palmer brothers so much
he‘ll start hankering to lay his otter paws on the complete set.