While UFOs, shape shifters and secret pyramids make for great stories, they’re unlikely the reasons why so many go missing. The most likely is also why so many flock to the Alaska Triangle in the first place: unrelenting wilderness.
“People tend to underestimate how wild Alaska is — the scale is difficult to wrap their heads around,” says Shayden Lowry, a professional wilderness guide in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. “Everything is so massive, and the vast majority of the state is still untouched by human infrastructure.”
Lowry isn’t overestimating. A full 26 percent of Alaska is wild. That may not sound like much, but consider Alaska’s size, and that 26 percent actually represents 54 percent of all America’s wild lands. The sheer size of the state alone could explain many of the yearslong disappearances that might have been solved within days in any other state.
“When people do go missing, it can be very difficult to find them quickly,” Lowey adds. “A typical search-and-rescue operation in the lower 48 states has less terrain to search with more manpower to search it. On top of that, the hazards in Alaska make it a very hostile environment to be injured or lost in, and the weather can easily put search efforts on hold for days since they rely so heavily on aircraft to access remote areas.”
“Hostile environment” is the keyword, especially considering how unique some of Alaska’s dangers are. Death from exposure could explain many of the missing persons in the Alaska Triangle, especially missing hikers in backcountry areas without cell service or nearby resources.
A small mistake — even a sprained ankle or wet sleeping bag — can be deadly in the backcountry, especially when combined with Alaska’s notoriously cold temperatures. (Fairbanks’ record low temperature is minus 66 degrees Fahrenheit [minus 54 degrees Celsius].)
“A lot of the fatalities in our park end up being river related.” Lowry says. In fact, Alaska has more drownings per capita (4.97) than any other state. And according to the National Park Service, drowning accounts for 33 percent of unintentional deaths in national parks, and 60 percent of all the land protected by the U.S. National Park Service is in Alaska.
“People really tend to underestimate the power of water and can easily get swept away in even a couple of feet of swiftly moving current, or quickly become hypothermic and drown,” says Lowry.
Ultimately, Lowry and many others think most of the Alaska Triangle’s disappearances are due to Alaska’s unparalleled scale and dramatic landscapes. “The vastness of the terrain paired with hazards such as glacial moulins, highly active rockfall and avalanche dangers, and wild animals makes for no shortage of ways for people to vanish,” Lowry says.
Originally Published: Apr 15, 2008