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disappearance: a map


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  I live in a place where people disappear. Alaska. Too large to comprehend.

People go out in planes, boats, on foot, and are never heard from again.

It is May, almost spring but still a time of potentially cruel weather, especially in the tumultuous arc of the Gulf of Alaska, the place where the North American and Pacific plates meet and violence is upheaved in tectonic battle. It is a place of earthquake, young mountains, and volatile glaciers, a place where the pressure of frozen millennia breaks in blue ice against a stormy sea, a place where exquisitely sharp peaks throw back the weather that tries to move inland from that sea.

Somewhere in this unvisited place a colleague has disappeared. Kent Roth, a fishery biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, has gone down with two brothers and two friends on a flight from Yakutat to Anchorage. It is an immense area, one that has swallowed people from the earliest times of its recorded history.

Kent, his brothers Scott and Jeff, and their friends Brian Barber and Tim Thornton--all from Anchorage--had been fishing for steelhead, a species becoming ever rarer in Alaska, on the Situk River. They fished late, left late, in deteriorating weather. Their Cessna 340A took off from Yakutat at about 6 P.M. on Sunday, May 3. In the lengthening light of spring there should have been good visibility for the flight, but fog and icing conditions prevailed. A younger brother, Jason, had left Yakutat for Anchorage earlier in his own plane, in marginal weather. He was worried about his brothers. Except for a regular radio message from the plane a few minutes into the flight, as it reached an altitude of 12,000 feet, nothing was heard.

We can only conclude that ice forced it down into the vastness of ice, into itself. The area includes the Malaspina Glacier and the Bering Glacier, the two largest glaciers in North America--a torturous wilderness of snow and crevasse that has claimed many lives and left numerous mysteries. This immense area is sometimes referred to as Alaska's Bermuda Triangle.

At the office in Juneau, the state capital, we receive information about how to donate annual leave to Kent. As long as he has leave, he will be given a paycheck. If he is declared dead, that leave will be translated into funds for his family.

The family keeps the search going. Their loyalty surges from the newspaper accounts, leaps with desperate energy off the page. I look at the telephone, which used to bring me Kent's voice, and at a recent memo from him. I talk to people in the office. Some, on their own time and at their own expense, are involved in the search.

I watch the papers unfold the story of the disappearance, as the story itself gradually slips off the front pages, moves into the back pages, then disappears from print. How many times before has this story been told? I ask myself. And what of the others who have disappeared, whose stories have dropped out of the newspapers and off the radio reports, or whose stories never were included because they happened before the era of mass media or because no one knew of them? Or cared? What of those not important enough to be searched for beyond the cursory attempt? What is it to disappear?

I remember how, almost twenty years ago, Alaska's only congressman, Nick Begich, and House Democratic leader Hale Boggs of Louisiana disappeared in the same area. And I know in the intervening twenty years there has been a long list of others. Usually the plane is never found. The area is too large, the crevasses and the snow too deep, the waters too quick and too cold. Often the search is over quickly, the names of the disappeared forgotten or never known.

At sea, boats go down, and those who fish are swept overboard. Seldom are the bodies found. Crabbing in the Bering Sea is the nation's most dangerous occupation, but the waters of Alaska are unkind on every coast and in every fishery.

And in the Bering Sea and other northern waters, crab pots break away from their moorings and ghost-fish on the bottom of the sea. And the bottom of the sea holds many mysteries.

 
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Excerpted from Disappearance: A Map by Sheila Nickerson. Copyright © 1996 by Sheila Nickerson. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of the Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.