Gates of the Arctic

Thomas Seibold - Strange disappearances from U.S. national parks

thomas seibold disappearance

Thomas Seibold, disappeared September 27th 2012, Gates of the Arctic National Park, Alaska

Thomas Seibold of Three Rivers, Wisconsin, travelled to Alaska in June 2012 to put years of survivalist training into practice in the state's backcountry. A native of Germany, Seibold had spent the previous six years teaching and training at Three Rivers' Drum Outdoor School, a survivalist school that teaches Native American values along with weather forecasting, shelter building and primitive hunting and gathering techniques. He spent much of his time under the tutelage of the school's founder, Tamarack Song, who described Seibold as a very experienced outdoorsman and a "wandering spirit." To make the trip to the Arctic Seibold had taken a six-month leave of absence from the outdoor school.

Thomas began his trip at an Alaskan Native fish camp in the southeastern part of the state, and from there travelled north along the Tanana River near Fairbanks, all while living on the land. By September 2012, Seibold had arrived to the northwest Alaska village of Ambler. From there he trekked about 30 miles up the Ambler River to the cabin home of a woman his mentor at the outdoor school  had put him in touch with, and her 13-year-old son.

Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve.
Ambler, Gates of the Arctic National Park

The cabin was in in the Brooks Range just outside Gates of the Arctic National Park. The Schiebers, who owned it had built a comfortable home where they lived for almost 20 years, from 1984 to 2003, and raised four sons. 

Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve is a U.S. National Park in Alaska. It is the northernmost national park in the U.S. (the entirety of the park lies north of the Arctic Circle) and the second largest at 8,472,506 acres. The park consists primarily of portions of the Brooks Range of mountains. It was first protected as a U.S. National Monument on December 1, 1978, before becoming a national park and preserve two years later in 1980 upon passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. There are no roads in the park because of its remoteness and lack of supportive infrastructure, the park is the least visited national park in the U.S..

On September 27th Thomas said goodbye and headed off into Gates of the Arctic. That was the last time he was ever seen. He was expected to be back in touch between the end of October and the beginning of November with November 10th being the cut off date to catch his flight back to Wisconsin on November 15. It is clear that something happened which prevented Thomas from following his plans of trekking 30 miles to the town of Kobuk, where he would take his plane back to Fairbanks and then on to Wisconsin.

Alaska state police were alerted on November 11th, 2012, when he failed to show for the flight and they quickly focused their search near the confluence of the Ambler River and Ulaneak Creek, where they believe Seibold may have built a base camp.

Searchers at the Kotzebue post headed up by Sgt. Duane Stone, immediately launched a search and were initially confident in finding him as he had camped alone in extreme northern wintertime climates before, including reindeer hunts in Norway in minus 25°F temperatures. Thomas was highly trained in primitive survival skills, including building snow shelters, ice safety, making fire and orienteering without map or compass.  

Troopers found Thomas's diary in the cabin and the last entry was October 7, where he stated he was preparing to go on a several-day exploration. The Troopers found no evidence of him being at the cabin after that approximate date. In it, he described his hiking and camping higher up in the mountains exploring for a potential campsite. He also talked about cleaning and preparing wood at the cabin for the colder weather ahead, which suggests that he was planning to return to the cabin. 

The SAR (search and rescue) team inspected the cabin and found that he had taken most of his gear including at least one 22 calibre rifle and enough meat and provisions to last him a while, but found no sign to guide them to his whereabouts. Due to the severe weather conditions (-23 degrees F), the short daylight hours and remoteness of the area, the search faced logistical big issues in getting planes to the target areas. Snowmobiles were not able to be used in the search because there were only 3 inches of snow on the mountainous terrain at the time. 

On November 20th, the Alaska State Troopers put everything into one last effort to find Thomas. Up until then, they have been flying a two-seater Super Cub, a slow-flying plane which was ideal for the valleys, but it had trouble negotiating the winds in the highlands which is where Thomas was drawn to. They used a Piper Navajo, a six-seater, so they can put four or five spotters up in the air.

After three days of searching one plane found a circle drawn on a gravel bar far up the Ambler River, 8 miles N of Ulaneak creek. They landed and checked out whether it could be the “O” from SOS, yet found no indication that the circle was connected to Seibold. Thomas could have made the sign for himself to mark a place where he left provisions. Because the circle has such strong meaning to Thomas it seems more than possinble that he etched the sign. The plane returned to the site a day later to explore the surrounding area for more clues and to take photos.

After six flights over 13 days, the Troopers suspended their search on November 24 as temperatures hit minus 35 degrees Fahrenheit. But the task was taken up by family and friends after they had read about successful rescues of others who survived in Arctic conditions for up to 49 days without food, equipment, or training, and Thomas had at least some of all three. The family and friends contracted privately with two of the bush pilots previously employed by the Troopers

From the beginning of the search for Seibold, whose disappearance is one of the most mysterious in Alaska, questions have centred on where exactly he was headed when he last left the Schieber cabin on or around Oct. 7. Probably the the upper Ambler River drainage also called the "highlands" but then additional information was discovered. On November 29, the Troopers handed over Thomas's remaining belongings from the cabin to next of kin. An assessment of those belongings and subsequent interviews with Ambler-area residents who met Thomas revealed three new clues:

  • A missing map section that Thomas may have with him indicates he had an interest in exploring the headwaters of the Imelyac, Amakomanek, Cutler, and Redstone Rivers, along with the Ambler.

  • When the cabin owner left, Thomas handed her a book he had just finished reading: The Last Light Breaking, by Nick Jans. A well-worn section describes the traditional Eskimo routes through the same headwaters area as on the missing map.

  • Area residents told Thomas alluring stories of the headwaters area's beauty and wildlife, and Thomas read several other books on the area, including Seth Kantner's bestsellers.

A quote from Thomas's last diary entry: "After I've read a lot about…this area, it's exciting to actually be here, and to see the things with my own eyes." 

Seibold also wrote about the possibility of rafting down the Ambler River, up which he'd traveled in an outboard-powered canoe, to catch a flight out of the small village of Ambler itself. Normally, this would be easy to do. Alaska Pacific University wilderness instructor Roman Dial, who had paddled the Ambler in a small, one-man inflatable boat called a packraft, describes the river this way: "Below the Ulaneak (Creek), the river slows and then braids and really slows on its way to Ambler." But in October 2012, it was not normal year in Northwest Alaska. The region had heavy rain from late August into September. So although he had built a raft, reports indicate he believed it was too treacherous a challenge.

Upper Ambler river Alaska

Seibold's decision to abandon the idea of floating out because of changing water conditions is illustrative of a man thinking rationally and coherently about the realities of travel in the Alaska wilderness. It would appear to strengthen the Traylor's observation that Seibold was not a wild-eyed adventurer, but someone who "does not take undue risks.''

Was Thomas injured whilst hiking, attacked by wolves or bears? All possible and when the temperature drops so low in the area there is no room for error.  But he was carrying a firearm it seems. Seibold's story likely ended like that of Chris McCandless, whose body was found in an abandoned bus not far off the George Parks Highway in 1992. German immigrant McCandless, was a young man from a well-off East Coast family who starved to death on the edge of the Alaska wilderness only to be later made famous by author Jon Krakauer's 1996 book "Into the Wild'' and by movie director Sean Penn's movie in 2007.

But there was also some controversy about the search efforts and the reluctance to engage with the Native American population. 

Ricko DeWilde, a young Alaskan entrepeneur who grew up in the Athabascan village of Huslia, south of the search area, now runs a his own Fairbanks-based clothing business. DeWilde noted that "from what I talked to people, they didn't even know there was someone missing out there." Some village search-and-rescue volunteers in the area told Alaska Dispatch they were never asked to help in the search, although they did hear about it through the grapevine. Respected Native elder Walter Sampson, once the head of the now-closed Civil Air Patrol unit in Kotzebue, admitted he and a friend flew their own search because they thought too little was being done.

DeWilde said "Just flying through the air isn't going to do shit. You gotta get some foot soldiers in there. ... But troopers, they've got so much pride. They never want to work with Natives. Those guys living there, they've got ways to find people, and even if the guy was not from out there, I think the Natives would want to get his body out of there."

Another person with German roots, who has disappeared in a U.S. national park. Despite Seibold's extensive outdoor and cold weather experience he has never been found. Many things could have happened to him out there in the Alaskan Wilderness. But DeWilde's accusations seem pretty on the money. Will his remains ever be found? In this huge area of nearly 8.5 million acres, it seems unlikely. Once you go into the Gates of the Arctic National Park with the few that venture there, its easy never to come out again. This is a very mysterious story indeed.