FAIRBANKS — Ten agonizing days — since Patrick Hunsberger went missing.
Seven days — since the official search was called off.
“Until we find him” — the amount of time volunteers vow to spend looking for his body.
Hunsberger, 25, headed onto Harding Lake on his personal watercraft in the early morning hours of July 4, alone and without a life jacket. He never returned.
Though his watercraft was found floating near shore, Hunsberger was nowhere to be found and his friends, fearing the worst, called authorities. Troopers searched the lake extensively, using aircraft, boats and dogs, a dive team from Fort Wainwright, state parks rangers and members of the Coast Guard Auxiliary. After three days of searching failed to find any trace of Hunsberger, the effort was halted and Hunsberger is presumed to have drowned.
“In the Native culture, you don’t stop until the body is found,” Dave Hunsberger, Patrick’s father said. Patrick’s mother, Vera, is from Galena, a village on the Yukon River 270 miles west of Fairbanks, and members of her community as well as volunteers from across the Interior are joining the effort to find Patrick’s remains.
A picnic table under a green tarp serves as command post. A large map of the lake and a computer showing the GPS coordinates of previously searched areas jostle for space with a bottle of Tums antacid, two-way radios and cigarette packs. In the middle of the table sits several large photos of Patrick, a handsome young man with a devilish smile.
Several tents nearby hold supplies donated by various organizations, and items used to drag the water lie neatly laid out on the grass behind. A group of volunteers spread out as they search the shoreline on foot, passing a boat motoring into the small harbor where the command post sits.
“We’ve only got three boats right now and two of those aren’t doing so well. We could use some more boats,” said Noranell Duncan, the unofficial head of operation. “We have volunteers but no way to get them out there,” she said, waving one hand toward the lake while wearily rubbing her face with the other.
Pam Cleever, another search organizer, holds a clipboard used to keep track of volunteers.
“This checkpoint is always manned when there are boats out there. We never leave anyone solo,” said Cleever. “We never leave walkers alone either: We keep lists and use the buddy system.”
The command post will most likely have to be manned 24 hours per day now, said Cleever, because people not involved in the search have been wandering in and stealing supplies. Search efforts have also been hampered by weekend crowds, cruising through the search areas on boats and jets skis, but Harding Lake homeowners have been very helpful, said Duncan.
The search has been joined by people from all walks of life, many of whom knew Hunsberger and many who didn’t.
“We have family, relatives, friends and people from the villages. People from Northern Power Sports (where Patrick worked) have been out here every night. We have people from Triple A Moving Company, the Tetlin Search and Rescue Crew, villages on the Yukon, and people from California and Florida,” said Dave. “It’s just been fantastic how everyone’s coming out.”
“Tanana Chiefs Conference, Fairbanks Native Association and Doyon have been a big help with supplies and volunteers” said Duncan, summing up the outpouring of support. “The Interior is really kicking butt right now.”