Volunteers, dogs continue search for Palmer man missing near Eagle River Nature Center

Thursday, May 2, 2019 - 09:51
  • Shadow, a miniature Australian Shepherd, returns from helping owner Dolly Lefever and volunteer Pat Schmaliy search for missing hiker Neil Guggenmos on Wednesday, May 1, 2019 near the Eagle River Nature Center. (Matt Tunseth / Chugiak-Eagle River Star)
  • Searchers head out onto the trails at the Eagle River Nature Center while helping the search for missing hiker Neil Guggenmos on Wednesday, May 1, 2019. (Matt Tunseth / Chugiak-Eagle River Star)
  • Maya, a Belgian Malinois/German Shepherd mix with the PAWS Search and Rescue group out of Fairbanks, heads out onto the trails at the Eagle River Nature Center to help search for missing hiker Neil Guggenmos on Wednesday, May 1, 2019. (Matt Tunseth / Chugiak-Eagle River Star)
  • A sign and trail map near the Eagle River Nature Center show the various trails that being at the center at the end of Eagle River Road. (Matt Tunseth / Chugiak-Eagle River Star)
  • Searcher Vikki Gross and search dog Taiya, from the Alaska Solstice Search Dogs group, returns from searching woods near the Eagle River Nature Center on Wednesday, May 1, 2019. (Matt Tunseth / Chugiak-Eagle River Star)

UPDATE (9:30 a.m. Thursday, May 2): The body of missing hiker Neil Guggenmos was found by searchers at around 9 p.m. Wednesday night, accoring to an update provided by the Alaska State Troopers. He died of an apparent suicide.

Original story:

Trained volunteers and rescue dogs combed the woods near the Eagle River Nature Center into the evening Wednesday as the search for missing Palmer man Neil Guggenmos continued with few clues to the 47-year-old’s whereabouts.

The center headquarters was being used as a makeshift command center Wednesday and had been closed to the public. The search was being carried out by searchers from the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group (AMRG) and several trained search dogs, according to searchers at the scene who were not authorized to speak on the record. Search coordinators Wednesday night referred further questions about the operation to Trooper spokeswoman Megan Peters.

The AMRG is a nationally accredited volunteer search group that works on about 15 missions a year, according to the group’s website, which says the group’s members “come from all walks of life and include mountain climbers, back country skiers, hikers, ski patrollers, snowmachiners, and military personnel who have committed to serving the citizens of Alaska by using their skills to help others in their time of need.”

Alaska State Troopers, park rangers and the Anchorage Police Department began the search Wednesday morning after Guggenmos’s wife found his vehicle parked at the nature center, which is located at the end of Eagle River Road.

Earlier Wednesday, APD sergeant Cameron Hokenson at the Nature Center said Guggenmos told his wife he was going to the movies Tuesday night, but never returned home. She checked the Nature Center Wednesday morning, Hokenson said, because Guggenmos is known to hike the center’s network of trails in the Eagle River Valley.

“There’s nothing suspicious in it or anything — paid for a parking pass, even,” Hokenson told the Anchorage Daily News. “No notes to say self-harm or anything like that.”

In June of 2018, Eagle River’s Michael Soltis was killed by a bear while hiking in the South Fork Eagle River Valley, which is about about five and a half miles west of the Nature Center. Center staff said bears have not been seen in the area this spring, though bruins are frequent visitors to area trails.

Dogged search

About a half-dozen search dogs and their owners joined the effort Wednesday, including Wasilla’s Vikki Gross and her German Shepherd Taiya. Gross and Taiya are members of the Alaska Solstice Search Dogs group and have participated in countless search-and-rescue operations over the years, Gross said. It’s challenging work, but something Gross said her dog enjoys immensely.

“We just like to help people,” said Gross, who like the other searchers was outfiffed with a radio and bear spray.

She and Taiya combed part of the Albert Loop Wednesday but found no sign of Guggenmos, an avid hiker who Peters said described as 6 feet tall and weighing 260 pounds with brown hair and blue eyes.

Gross said the work can be emotionally challenging, especially when a search has a negative outcome. But hope is what keeps she and other searchers coming back.

“We just keep hoping and hoping and hoping,” she said.

After spending about three hours searching for Guggenmos Wednesday night, Gross and Taiya were heading home to the Mat-Su to rest up Wednesday night. But she said they’d be back if the search continued into Thursday.

“If they want us, we’ll be here,” she said.

Peters asked the public to avoid the area while the search is underway, but the center’s trails will remain open to the public. A pair of trail runners who said they ran about eight miles up the Eagle River Valley and back Wednesday afternoon said the river was low and reported the trail was in good condition. They saw no sign of Guggenmos.

Email Star editor Matt Tunseth at [email protected] or call 257-4274.

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