As winter brings snow to the mountainous Montague island, off the coast of Alaska, each year, deer move to the lower areas where they’re easier prey.
George Matveev, 35, had set out for a day trip with two other men, Sam, 39, and Leo Tipikin, 37, hoping to take advantage of the almost-concluded deer hunting season, and so they set off from Whittier, 60 miles southeast of Anchorage, on Friday, Dec. 29.
A winter storm was forecast to hit that night, but they weren’t planning to be out that late and expected to be back by then.
But things didn’t go as planned. Instead, they spent four days on a deserted island as a blizzard pummeled the region.
A Change of Plans
The three men had headed out toward Montague Island, a 60-mile boat ride from Whittier, according to Anchorage Daily News.
But as the men were landing, the boat hit a rock, damaging their engine and the steering, Matveev recollected.
They were able to beach the boat and fix the steering, but the engine was acting up on the way back, guzzling triple the fuel it was before.
As dusk approached, they had to make a choice: try to make the 60 miles to Whittier or find a place in the wilderness to weather the storm. They chose the latter.
“We just didn’t want to risk it,” Matveev said. “You have one chance.”
All three men are construction workers, fishermen, and moose hunters who know how to handle themselves on water.
They checked their digital maps and found markings for an abandoned village on Chenega Island, about 25 miles from Montague Island.
Chenega Island used to be home to a community of several dozen Alaska Natives, who moved away after a tsunami triggered by the 9.2-magnitude Good Friday earthquake hit the area in 1964, killing a third of the island’s inhabitants.
Matveev and both Tipikins found the village where there was a cabin with three bunk beds—it was “like it’s meant to be,” Matveev said.
They had an oil heater and found some water and candles in the cabin. They had some food, but had no idea how long they’d need to survive before the weather improved and somebody found them.
Sleep, Pray, Kelp
“At one point I was starting to think, it’s going to be a couple of weeks—they’re going to quit looking for us. Everything crossed our minds, at night especially,” Matveev said.
They decided to conserve their food and eat kelp instead.
“We slept, we prayed. And we ate some kelp,” said Matveev, who was the only one with a sleeping bag. The other men just slept in their boots.
Meanwhile, their families and friends had reported them missing and started an online campaign to organize a search party.
Their social media posts were shared hundreds of times—by Monday they’d raised over $14,000, and with it, chartered a vessel to conduct a search.
Still, most of the work was to be done by the Coast Guard.
“Since Friday, Coast Guard air and sea crews have been battling the harsh elements of Alaska weather in efforts to get these three men back to their families,” said Capt. John Hollingsworth, Coast Guard District 17 chief of incident management, in a release. “Widespread rain and snow showers with blizzard-like conditions, winds with 45-mph gusts and seas reported as high as 20 feet in some areas are hampering our crews’ search efforts. Safety is a primary concern and our delayed crews remain ready to search as conditions improve.”
A Coast Guard boat and a helicopter searched over 1,600 square miles but still couldn’t find the men.
Then, in the afternoon of New Year’s Day, a rescue helicopter spotted a boat and a flag on a southern beach of Chenega Island.
The 21-foot Duckworth Advantage boat belonged to Matveev.
— USCGAlaska (@USCGAlaska) January 1, 2018
“Starting the new year with a positive outcome to a difficult case is all we can really ask for,” said Michael McNeil, Coast Guard Sector Anchorage command duty officer, in a release. “Our crews were able to brave the terrible weather, overcome lack of information as to where these men could be, and safely get them back to their family and community.”
By the evening, the men were all in a warm hotel room in Seward, waiting for a ride home.
“We really give thanks to the people of Chenega, because we probably would have died without the cabin. It was raining, snowing, sleet,” said Matveev. They plan to find the cabin’s owners and pay them back.
Matveev said they stayed positive and weren’t afraid, but thinking about his wife and five children worrying about him made him cry.
Indeed, their families and friends went through hardship of their own.
“The hardest part was not knowing, but still putting in every single effort and sweat into trying to piece in details for the search,” a friend, Zack Kasachev, wrote in a message. “We are all wearing a happy face now, with tears of joy.”
When the weather improves, Matveev plans to send somebody to pick up his boat.