ANCHORAGE - Villagers traveling to Bethel by snowmobile have been harassed and they are stepping up measures to protect themselves.
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Residents in Atmautluak, Nunapitchuk and Kasigluk, villages about 20 to 30 trail miles northwest of Bethel, met last week and now are warning travelers to partner up and travel during the day. They also chopped down willow thickets along trails where troublemakers have hidden and are broadcasting trail-safety updates in Yup'ik over village radios.
Nighttime attacks and high-speed chases have been reported since last January. The response also follows two homicides in Bethel this month, including the shooting of a cab driver by people on two snowmobiles who pulled beside the idling cab. No arrest has been made in the death of 41-year-old Ju Young Joung or Agnes Evan, 40, who was found dead of hypothermia after suffering blunt force trauma to her abdomen.
Villagers commute to Bethel, a city of 6,000, for work, shopping or flights using a trail network.
Last January, Jim Napoka was traveling to Bethel from Atmautluak when he saw four snowmobilers headed his way. He slowed and veered toward the edge of the trail so they could pass, he told the Anchorage Daily News.
Instead, they aimed their machines toward him and launched off lumps of tundra like they were ramps, flying above Napoka about four feet off the ground, he said.
"If I had a passenger (and couldn't lean back), the ski would have hit me on my chest and probably jacked me a little ways," he said.
He suffered two broken ribs and a dislocated shoulder, probably from leaning back and slamming into a metal bar, he said.
As the snowmobilers turned back toward him, he raced toward Bethel, going far off-trail to escape.
No arrests were ever made because of limited information about the attackers, said trooper Teague Widmier in Bethel.
Other travelers were attacked last winter, said Daniel Waska, vice president of Atmautluak's tribal government. In one chase, one person swatted at a snowmobiler with a two-by-four, missing the rider but whacking his windshield, Waska said.
Reported incidents have taken place at two willow thickets eight to 10 miles from Bethel, near a frozen lake and a lake bed, said trooper Andrew Merrill of Bethel. Wide-open tundra defines most of the trail.
The latest incident occurred Dec. 20. Several snowmobiles burst from willows around the lake bed, chasing Tom Frederick, 18, and his younger brother back to Bethel at speeds up to 90 mph, Frederick said.
"I think they were trying to beat us up or something like that," he said.
An Atmautluak resident searched the area later, finding an extendable baton like troopers use, probably dropped by the chasers, said Moses Pavilla Sr., president of Atmautluak's tribal government. It could have done a lot of damage if used, Pavilla said.
The incidents are affecting friendliness on the trail, said Allen Joseph, a Bethel search volunteer. People, scared they might be attacked, are passing disabled travelers without offering help, Joseph said.
Others are arming themselves with guns before traveling or are traveling in pairs, Waska said.
Alaska State Troopers have patrolled the trail several times since the chase Dec. 20, said trooper Merrill. Merrill is urging that people who are attacked call troopers immediately.