A Tennessee hunter who went missing near Prudhoe Bay last weekend is still not found. North Slope Borough has paused their aerial search efforts, but numerous volunteer search teams are in the search area. The family continues to look for Steve Keel known in the community as Smiley.
An avid hunter, Keel, came to Alaska for a dream trip to hunt caribou and was reported missing on Aug. 28 close to Pump Station 2 and Happy Valley along the Dalton Highway, his wife Elizabeth Keel said.
The day before he went missing, Steve Keel and his hunting partner were carrying heavy backpacks with caribou meat from the hunting spot back to their campsite. About half a mile to seven-tenths of a mile away from the camp, Steve Keel got tired, put the backpack down marking it with a walking stick in the ground and walked the rest of the way to the camp. The next day, the hunter went to retrieve the backpack and didn’t come back.
“He disappeared,” Elizabeth Keep said. “Nobody’s seen him since.”
North Slope Borough Search and Rescue — with the help of the United States Coast Guard, the Alaska Rescue Coordination Center, the Alaska State Troopers and the Civil Air Patrol — have been conducting search operations since Aug. 28, according to the borough’s statement. Ground crews and at least 35 hours of aerial search involving over 20 aircrew members have been conducted but were unsuccessful.
“The helicopter searches didn’t turn up anything,” Elizabeth Keel said. “From the first day, we wanted a crew on the ground with a dog to track him by scent. And, you know, that has not happened, and that’s been extremely frustrating. My understanding is that it’s still not going to happen from the North Slope.”
There is a North Slope Borough volunteer onsite, according to the borough’s statement from Sept. 8.
North Slope Borough officials said in an earlier statement that their rotor-wing assets have been exhausted and undergoing maintenance. Once air assets are available, they said they will decide whether they will continue aerial search operations.
“North Slope Borough is coordinating with multiple agencies regarding electronic information gathering efforts,” officials said on Sept. 8. “Evaluation of this and any other information will determine further search efforts.”
But Keel’s family and community are not stopping their search efforts, working to track the missing hunter’s phone and organizing on-the-ground search teams.
“We’re bringing in our own,” Elizabeth Keel said.
A search team of ex-military from Steve Keel’s hometown, Dover, Tennessee, is coming up to Alaska this week to conduct a ground search, she said. Another group with a dog is coming from Texas EquuSearch.
Two of Keel’s sons, Jake and Ben, have been looking for their father on the ground as well, but are now returning to their homes. Keel’s oldest son has been staying with Elizabeth Keel in Dover.
“Time is the essence,” Elizabeth Keel said. “Steve is missing for 9 days, and every minute that slips by is a minute loss.”
Steve Keel was born and raised at a family farm in Dover, Tennessee. A former Marine, he has been working as an electrician.
“Everyone in two counties knows who Steve is and probably at least half of another,” Elizabeth Keel said. He’s just a well-known easygoing country person. … A lot of people don’t know his real first name. They just know him by Smiley.”
Anyone who wants to assist the volunteer search efforts can contact North Slope Borough Search and Rescue at (907) 852-2822.