FAIRBANKS — The hardest part of the day for Grayling resident Martha Maillelle is dinner time.
“That’s when the guys come back, and I know they don’t have my boy with them,” said the mother of Alvin Maillelle Jr. who has been missing since his snowmachine went through the Yukon River ice Dec. 1.
The “guys” Martha refers to are the many searchers who have been probing, dragging and scanning with a camera and sonar under the river ice for more than a month in an effort to recover Alvin’s body.
A day after Alvin, 33, went missing, his helmet was found near an open lead about three miles downriver from the small Athabascan village of Grayling, and his snowmachine was pulled out a few days later.
Martha last saw her son, the third of her six children, the evening of Dec. 1. He left her home about 10:30 p.m., after the 10 o’clock news, on his red snowmachine to pick up a friend in the community of Anvik, located about 18 miles downriver from Grayling. Alvin had been drinking, Martha recalled, but she didn’t know how much at the time.
When Alvin didn’t return home the next day, Martha called a daughter who lives in Anvik, but she was unable to locate Alvin.
In Grayling, Martha and another of her three daughters scoured the town looking in vain for Alvin’s snowmachine before reporting him missing.
Marvin Deacon, Alvin’s eldest uncle, who has been involved in the recovery effort since the beginning, said the weather the night Alvin disappeared was “a snowy, stormy night,” and the next day continued with blizzard conditions. Yet, Grayling searchers went out and located snowmachine tracks and found Maillelle’s helmet on the ice.
“You could see where the machine went into the water,” Deacon said.
By Dec. 3, Grayling searchers were joined by search and rescue teams from Anvik, Holy Cross, 65 miles downriver, Kaltag, 65 miles upriver, and Shageluk, 32 miles by snowmachine.
Early in the search efforts, there were 60 people on the ice for a time.
A lot of man hours were put in drilling holes and digging trenches in the ice to drop the drags underneath, Deacon said.
Holy Cross sent a camera that was used as well as sonar.
“We had four boats in the water, before the hole froze over,” Deacon said. “We had the boats pulling on ropes. We dragged and dragged with those boats.”
The “hole” was extensive — about two miles of open water, the first part about 1/2 mile long and 40 feet wide that led down to the bigger hole.
“We also had women go down there from the village, which is usually not done,” Deacon said, “but all help is welcome.”
Martha also visited the search site.
“I went down to the spot where Alvin went in the water and walked the place and thanked everybody who was down there,” she said. “I don’t know if I can go down there again. All I want is to have them find my son and bring him home to rest I don’t know what I will do if they don’t. I pray everyday that they find him.”
A teacher’s aide in the village school, Martha hasn’t been working since the day Alvin went missing.
Throughout the day-to-day efforts, Martha, her daughters, sisters and relatives, some traveling from Nulato and Fairbanks, have continued to provide breakfast and dinner at her home, and send lunches down, hot coffee, tea and soup, to the searchers on the river ice.
Martha describes Alvin as very generous, paying bills and buying her furniture as well as helping out other family members.
An Anchorage resident, Alvin worked on crab and halibut fishing boats, and was visiting Grayling over the Thanksgiving holiday.
“This son of mine is a happy-go-lucky person. He’s loud; he’s the type of person who goes everywhere with his loudness, happiness and laughter,” said Martha, who has custody of and is raising Alvin’s two-year-old daughter Precious.
“The first thing he says when he walks in the house here, is Where’s Mom?’ and How’s my bossy baby?’”
Martha said that Precious misses her daddy. “She hears a snowmachine stopping outside and she thinks it’s him.”
But Precious’ presence brings much needed light to the Maillelle family in this dark time.
“His little girl brightens up everybody’s face,” Martha said. “She is a joy to us. We see his eyes in hers.”
Peter Atchak, a Yupik Eskimo who heads of search and rescue in Bethel, and is very knowledgeable on drowning recoveries, came in for a week as well, Deacon said.
The Holy Cross and Kaltag teams were put up in the city hotel and the bulk of the other search volunteers were put up by families and friends.
In addition to transporting boats and equipment to the search site, volunteers set up tents, stoves and a generator to thaw out tools and keep the search running.
Deacon said a typical day begins with breakfast at Martha’s followed by a meeting at the village community hall where searchers brainstorm and discuss what they did the day before and plan the day’s activity. The short daylight hours find them wrapping up about 5:30 p.m., but work has gone on under bright moonlight as well.
“We never gave up yet,” Deacon said. “We give it all we have, and give it all the resources. It’s pretty important to us.
“It is in our Native culture being Yupik, Athabascan or Aleut. It is very important to bring our loved ones home and put them to rest and have closure.”
Tanana Chiefs Conference President Jerry Isaac concurs.
“It gives comfort and rest not only to the family but the whole community and the whole, close-knit region.”
Currently, active searchers are down to about 10 volunteers and are not willing to give up.
Deacon said they are waiting to hear from a man in Wasilla who has an especially good camera for underwater searches. He’s hopeful that a benefit in Fairbanks planned for Friday will help pay costs to involve the specialty camera in the search.
Deacon said the call is out for more volunteers.
“The main hard core are getting pretty tired,” he said. “If somebody new came down, we can brief them.”