After retiring from the Missouri Department of Conservation, Rochelle Renken and Michael Huffman of Columbia, Missouri, were on what the National Park Service described as the trip of a lifetime.
On their agenda: Six days of backpacking in June through Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve in south-central Alaska.
It is America's largest national park with 13.2 million acres — the same size as Yellowstone National Park, Yosemite National Park and Switzerland combined, boasts the park's website.
The two conservationists were experienced backpackers. Renken had visited Alaska several times and knew how to cross Alaskan rivers, parks officials said in announcing that Renken and Huffman were swept away while trying to cross the Sanford River, a "powerful, glacial river," near the top of the Sanford Glacier.
Their bodies were found Monday after five days of searching.
Margie Steigerwald, spokeswoman for the park, told the Anchorage Daily News the bodies were recovered less than two miles from where Renken and Huffman were dropped off by a bush pilot on June 22.
"Our hearts go out to their family," Steigerwald told the Alaskan newspaper.
The route they had planned to follow through the park, according to the Columbia Missourian, is known as the “Volcanic Traverse,” a 15-mile hike with no trails that is rated "difficult" on the park service website.
To see the spectacular scenery, “either you go up the glacier and over, or you cross the stream,” Steigerwald told the Missourian.
Or, she told the newspaper, you turn back.
In a series of press releases beginning June 29, the park service chronicled the search for the hikers.
They were dropped off at Sanford Glacier airstrip on the east side of the Sanford River to begin a six-day trek through an area described by the park service as remote and rugged.
Park officials said the two planned to hike from the river, across the Dadina Plateau and end up at the Dadina River, where an air taxi would pick them up June 27. But they weren't there for the pickup, and they had missed two scheduled satellite phone calls to the air taxi operator.
When they missed the plane, the pilot searched from the air for several hours, then reported them "overdue" to park officials who began an intensive air and ground search June 28, according to a National Park Service release.
By Thursday night, the search involved 27 National Park Service employees on the ground and in the air, and five aircraft, including an Alaska State Troopers spotter plane, according to the park service. Ground crews searched along the hikers' proposed route.
After river levels dropped Friday and Saturday, searchers found two gear-filled backpacks in dry river channels with Renken and Huffman's identification in them, and other gear that led them to concentrate around the Sanford River.
They also found footprints along the river, where it emerges from the glacier, that suggested two people preparing for a river crossing, according to a park service release.
Searchers found gear along a seven-mile stretch of the river near where the two had been dropped off June 22. The air and ground search continued into Saturday, but by then searchers found no additional signs of the two, according to the park service.
The ground search had to be scaled back Saturday afternoon because of weather, but the park pilot continued to fly over the area.
On Tuesday, the National Park Service announced that searchers had recovered the bodies on Monday along the Sanford River.
The deaths appeared accidental, and foul play is not suspected, park officials said.
River crossings are one of the hardest things to do in the back country, Steigerwald told the Missourian.
The glaciers and glacial streams represent “a unique backpacking experience, but they can be very dangerous,” she told the newspaper. “You’re faced with these judgment calls, and it’s hard.”
Renken and Huffman were both 62; from Columbia, Missouri; and former state conservation employees, according to KTUU in Anchorage. She was a biologist, and he was a forester, Steigerwald said.
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