Amid the untouched beauty of Alaska's rugged landscape, a mystery lingers. Planes go down, hikers go missing, and Alaskan residents and tourists seem to vanish into thin air.
The disappearances are in a triangle-shaped zone known as the Alaska Triangle. It slices through four of the state's regions, from the southeastern wilderness and fjords to the interior tundra and up to the arctic mountain ranges. Its points include the large swath of land from Juneau and Yakutat in the southeast, the Barrow mountain range in the north, and Anchorage in the center of the state.
Geographically that it covers nearly all of eastern Alaska. It's also the area where most tourists visit and where most of Alaska's population lives, with 55 percent of the state's residents in Anchorage and its outskirts.
Even the native Alaska Tlingit that live near Juneau have integrated this peculiar mystery into their religious culture (more on that in a minute).
What's certain is the rate of people reported missing in Alaska is almost twice the national average. While many cases involve runaways or people who return home, Alaska also has the highest percentage of missing people who are never found.
Most of the Alaska Triangle is wilderness, dotted with glaciers and crevasses, massive lakes and rivers with unimaginably strong year-round currents, and remote towns linked by rough, winding roads through steep mountain passes. Given the dramatic terrain and Alaska's reputation for extreme weather (and more than 300,000 grizzlies, among other predatory species), it's perhaps not surprising that more than a few people have gone missing in this space since the 1980s.
Except that it's not a few people. Some say between as many as 16,000 and as high as 53,000 could be missing or dead.
According to the Alaska Bureau of Investigation's Missing Persons Clearinghouse (MPC), the actual number of people unaccounted for in Alaska is 1,319 out of the entire population of 733,500. But at 41.7 missing persons for every 100,000 residents that's still the largest number of missing people per capita in the U.S. The next closest state is Arizona, which comes in at 4.5 missing persons for every 100,000 residents.
Alaska's state troopers lead more than 450 search and rescue operations per year in the state, with a mere 1,100 trained volunteers to assist in searching Alaska's 665,400 square miles (1.7 million square kilometers). If every volunteer in the state participated in a search, they'd each have to search 604 square miles (1,564 square kilometers).
The Famous Among the Missing
Because Alaska has so many Indigenous and remote communities responsible for their own policing, it's hard to know precisely which missing persons case first established the mystery of the Alaska Triangle.
But the earliest case to receive national media attention was a small charter plane carrying Majority Leader Hale Boggs of Louisiana, Alaska Representative Nicholas Begich, as well as an aide and pilot Oct. 16, 1972.
Their twin-engine Cessna was en route to Juneau from Anchorage when it seemingly disappeared. There was no mayday call, and despite one of the largest search-and-rescue efforts in U.S. history — 40 military aircraft and 50 civilian planes searched a grid of 325,000 square miles for 39 days— no wreckage was ever found.
Shapeshifters, UFOs and Serial Killers?
Theories abound about why the Boggs' plane vanished and include everything from poor weather to even an assassination attempt. But the mystery remains just that — a mystery.
Though much like disappearances in the Bermuda Triangle, those in the Alaska Triangle have their fair share of more far-fetched theories, too. Though how fantastical they are depends on who you ask.
As we mentioned, according to folklore from Alaska's native Tlingit people — most of whom live within the Alaska Triangle — some of the disappearances are caused by Kushtaka or Kooshdakhaa. More akin to a shapeshifter than a Bigfoot or Sasquatch, the otter-like man creature is said to appear to people in the shape of a loved one to lure them into danger and, ultimately, to their deaths. It's one of many legends native peoples have passed down over time.
Other Alaska Triangle theories are more contemporary, albeit equally linked to unexplainable things, like one well-documented UFO sighting.
In November 1986, Japan Airlines pilot Capt. Kenjyu Terauchi reported an extended, unexplainable aircraft over Anchorage. According to the report, the craft "accompanied the flight from the Alaska Canadian border on the north along a flight plan which flows approximately from Ft. Yukon, Alaska, to Fairbanks, to Anchorage." On Jan. 11, 1987, Capt. Terauchi also reported another sighting in the same area.
The Federal Aviation Administration, however, downplayed the incident saying, "They determined that a second radar target near the JAL flight at the time of the reported sighting was not another aircraft but rather a split radar return from the JAL Boeing 747." Perhaps evidence that the region is a hotbed for otherworldly activity or simply another unexplained mystery.
The Likely Reasons People Go Missing in the Alaska Triangle
While UFOs, shape shifters and secret pyramids make for great stories, they're unlikely the reasons why so many go missing. The most likely is also why so many flock to the Alaska Triangle in the first place: unrelenting wilderness.
"People tend to underestimate how wild Alaska is — the scale is difficult to wrap their heads around," says Shayden Lowry, a professional wilderness guide in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. "Everything is so massive, and the vast majority of the state is still untouched by human infrastructure."
Lowry isn't overestimating. A full 26 percent of Alaska is wild. That may not sound like much, but consider Alaska's size, and that 26 percent actually represents 54 percentof all America's wild lands. The sheer size of the state alone could explain many of the yearslong disappearances that might have been solved within days in any other state.
"When people do go missing, it can be very difficult to find them quickly," Lowey adds. "A typical search-and-rescue operation in the lower 48 states has less terrain to search with more manpower to search it. On top of that, the hazards in Alaska make it a very hostile environment to be injured or lost in, and the weather can easily put search efforts on hold for days since they rely so heavily on aircraft to access remote areas."
"Hostile environment" is the keyword, especially considering how unique some of Alaska's dangers are. Death from exposure could explain many of the missing persons in the Alaska Triangle, especially missing hikers in backcountry areas without cell service or nearby resources.
A small mistake — even a sprained ankle or wet sleeping bag — can be deadly in the backcountry, especially when combined with Alaska's notoriously cold temperatures. (Fairbanks' record low temperature is minus 66 degrees Fahrenheit [minus 54 degrees Celsius].)
"A lot of the fatalities in our park end up being river related." Lowry says. In fact, Alaska has more drownings per capita (4.97) than any other state. And according to the National Park Service, drowning accounts for 33 percent of unintentional deaths in national parks, and 60 percent of all the land protected by the U.S. National Park Service is in Alaska.
"People really tend to underestimate the power of water and can easily get swept away in even a couple of feet of swiftly moving current, or quickly become hypothermic and drown," says Lowry.
Ultimately, Lowry and many others think most of the Alaska Triangle's disappearances are due to Alaska's unparalleled scale and dramatic landscapes. "The vastness of the terrain paired with hazards such as glacial moulins, highly active rockfall and avalanche dangers, and wild animals makes for no shortage of ways for people to vanish," Lowry says.
Now That's Crazy
While grizzly bears may seem like a significant threat for anyone lost in the Alaska wilderness, moose cause more injury and death than any other animal.
Originally Published: Apr 15, 2008
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