The body of a Russian Mission snowmachiner missing for a week was found near Bethel Wednesday, with Alaska State Troopers saying alcohol is believed to have been a factor in his death.
According to a Thursday AST dispatch, troopers were notified at about 7 p.m. Wednesday that Bethel Search and Rescue volunteers had found 32-year-old Harvey Pitka’s body. The discovery was made about six and a half miles south of where Pitka’s abandoned snowmachine had been found Monday, on the Woodcutters Trail about 30 miles northwest of Bethel.
AST spokesperson Beth Ipsen says the search for Pitka began March 6 when he and a fellow snowmachiner, 53-year-old Raymond Marth of Marshall, were reported overdue on a 4 a.m. trip from Akiachak to the Yukon River after they didn’t show up in Russian Mission or Marshall. Troopers enlisted volunteers from Russian Mission and Marshall, as well as Akiachak, Bethel and Nunapitchuk to look for the men.
“There was a lot of searching going on,” Ipsen said.
On Sunday, Marth walked into Kalskag and told troopers that he and Pitka had gotten separated while snowmachining -- a point confirmed Monday, when Marth’s snowmachine was found 36 miles away from Pitka’s. He said Pitka had been drinking, and that he wasn’t properly attired or equipped for the conditions.
“He just wasn’t prepared to spend several days out in the elements,” Ipsen said.
An apparent break in the case Sunday turned out to mark the beginning of a separate search, when a man -- believed to be Pitka -- who had been spotted from an airplane and had supplies dropped to him turned out to be 28-year-old Matthew Heckman of Marshall. Heckman had been riding alongside a snowmachine carrying Joseph Fitka, 32, and Melissa Alick, 34, on a trip from Bethel to Russian Mission Saturday night. According to Ipsen, their group was properly dressed for the conditions.
“Heckman lost sight of the other snowmachine about 7 miles from Bethel during in a severe ground blizzard,” troopers wrote in a Tuesday dispatch. “Heckman circled attempting to find the others but could not find the machine or tracks.”
Ipsen says Heckman, who had run out of gas during his search, was rescued Sunday night. According to an AST dispatch, an Alaska Wildlife Trooper in a plane Monday spotted Fitka and Alick about 13 miles south of Russian Mission, where the two had made camp after their snowmachine broke down. Ground searchers found them uninjured and safely brought them to Russian Mission.
Efforts continued to find Pitka, until his body was located Wednesday. Empty alcohol bottles were found at the scene.
“He was found with alcohol on his person,” Ipsen said. “It seems like he had made a camp.”
According to Ipsen, no foul play is suspected in Pitka’s death, but a formal cause of death won’t be determined until his body undergoes an autopsy at the state medical examiner’s office.
“Because we have a few days where we don't know what happened, we can only have theories based on what we found,” Ipsen said.
Contact Chris Klint