Search narrows for missing hunter

Search party member Robert Masolini addresses a meeting at the Cordova Fire Hall. (Oct. 10, 2019) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times
Search party member Robert Masolini addresses a meeting at the Cordova Fire Hall. (Oct. 10, 2019) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

Foot searches for a missing hunter will resume Friday morning, planned aerial searches having been delayed by rough weather.

Neil Durco, 33, was last seen at McKinley Lake Cabin at 2:30 p.m. Monday, Oct. 7. He may have intended to head for Pyramid Peak, a summit near Saddlebag Glacier. Searches for Durco began after he failed to return Tuesday evening, as planned.

Search parties that surveyed the area Thursday, Oct. 10, believed it possible that Durco had been stranded to the west of Devil’s Spine, an elevated ridge near McKinley Lake. Torrential rains have swollen rivers throughout the Chugach Forest, and it’s possible that Durco crossed a body of water and found himself unable to return across it, searchers said. Search parties also found fresh tracks in the area that were likely Durco’s.

Friday, Oct. 11, search efforts will focus near Spruce Point, an area at the southern tip of Devil’s Spine that would make a suitable outpost for a stranded hiker.

Robert Masolini, who has trekked the forest around McKinley Lake for years, spent three hours looking for Durco on Thursday afternoon. Addressing a community meeting that evening at the Cordova Fire Hall, Masolini described the difficulty of searching amidst rains that deadened visibility and covered every mossy hillside in flowing water. In such conditions, the greatest risk to a stranded hiker would be hypothermia, he said. Nonetheless, Masolini was hopeful that Durco would be found safe.

The question of Durco’s whereabouts has been complicated by texts he sent to friends characterizing the planned overnight trip variously as a camping, hiking or hunting expedition. Durco was last seen wearing full camouflage clothing and carrying a shotgun, Trooper Laura Reid said.

Durco’s friends are concerned that he may have departed without adequate gear for the cold, rainy weather, and with minimal food, said Ken Marsh, information officer for the Alaska State Troopers. Durco’s truck was located at the McKinley Lake trailhead on Wednesday. His phone is not turned on, Reid said.

At the Thursday community meeting, Police and Fire Chief Mike Hicks signed up volunteers for the following morning’s search efforts. Hicks cautioned would-be volunteers that they would have to attire themselves appropriately, which could include donning chest waders to deal with rapidly rising waters.

A C-130 plane and a helicopter dispatched by the Alaska Rescue Coordination Center on Thursday afternoon were grounded following a storm warning for the area. Search parties plan to use the buddy system so that a lone searcher cannot be misidentified from the air as Durco.

Anyone with information concerning Durco is encouraged to contact the Alaska State Troopers at 907-424-3184 or the Cordova Police Department at 907-424-6100.