The Indian River Valley. Cpl. Ewers says that it's easy to get turned around in these woods, "especially after the lights go out." (Flickr photo/ablong3)

The Indian River Valley. Cpl. Ewers says that it’s easy to get turned around in these woods, “especially after the lights go out.” (Flickr photo/ablong3)

A Sitka man is safe after losing his way during a family Christmas-tree hunt over the weekend.

Searchers located Geoff Diehl at about 10:15 PM Sunday evening (12-7-14) on the Indian River Trail near Sitka.

Downloadable audio.

Sitka Search and Rescue Coordinator Corporal Lance Ewers, with the Alaska State Troopers, says Diehl was reported overdue at about 3:30 Sunday afternoon, just as it was getting dark.

Ewers says things began to go wrong once the tree was cut down.

“He’s up there with his wife and some friends — other relatives are with them — and his family finds a nice Christmas tree. So together they cut this Christmas tree down, they get a beautiful picture, a nice family moment. And he says to his wife and his two small children, You guys wait here in the open for our relatives to come back, and then you all go back together. Cause I’m going to be dragging this tree out and I’ve got to go a different way, because I can’t drag it the way we walked in.”

Then, Ewers says, Diehl simply got turned around. The Indian River Valley has a number of muskegs surrounded by dense woods. Diehl is not the first Sitkan to find himself in this predicament: close enough to town that he wasn’t carrying emergency gear; just far enough out to get lost.

When people are missing so close to town, it may not sound serious, but Ewers says the margin of safety when someone’s lost in the woods is very slim.

“His cell phone was in his car. He didn’t have any flashlight. He was humping out a Christmas tree for the family, and didn’t plan on getting lost or turned around. So he didn’t have any means of communication.”

Ewers says an inter-agency team mobilized to join the search — about 35 people in all from Sitka Search and Rescue, other volunteers from the community and within the Fire Department, Sitka Police, state wildlife troopers, and Forest Service Law enforcement. The Coast Guard launched a helicopter, but high winds Sunday evening prevented a “low and slow” aerial search.
Ewers said it was a gut feeling on the part of state wildlife trooper Tim Hall that led to a breakthrough.

“Trooper Hall is super familiar with the area and he said, Boy there is just a chance that he got himself so turned around that he ended up on Indian River Trail.”

While most of the search effort focused on where Diehl had been Christmas tree hunting, Tim Hall and Forest Service officer Bill Elsner set off up the valley at about 9 PM. An hour or so later, they located Diehl, whom they said was in good condition and preparing to wait for daylight before walking any further.

Diehl was reunited with his family later that evening. Unfortunately, Ewers says it wasn’t a completely happy ending.

“We still have one missing 7-foot tall beautiful Christmas tree out there somewhere.”

Ewers took over as captain of Sitka’s volunteer Search and Rescue team in October. He says he was deeply impressed by their dedication and training, especially under the stormy conditions of Sunday’s rescue.