Photo courtesy Alaska Department of Public Safety
FAIRBANKS — Traveling 1,500 miles by snowmachine across Bush Alaska in March might sound like a vacation to some people but for three Alaska Wildlife Troopers it will be a full-time job for the next two weeks starting Sunday.
For the second year in a row, three state wildlife troopers will be touring rural Alaska villages by snowmachine to talk to Native youths and adults about suicide prevention in the Bush.
Troopers Darrell Hildebrand, Jon Simeon and Thomas Akelkok, all Natives, will take to the trail on March 17, leaving from Manley Hot Springs at the end of the Elliott Highway north of Fairbanks for what will be a two-week journey covering 1,500 miles.
During that time, the three troopers will stop in 19 villages to talk to children in schools about suicide in rural Alaska, where suicide rates are much higher than the rest of Alaska, which already has the highest suicide rate in the country.
Alaska’s suicide rate — 23.1 suicides per 100,000 people — is nearly twice the rate of the rest of the country and the suicide rate for Alaska Natives is even higher at 35.1 percent. Even more alarming is the suicide rate — 141.6 — for Alaska Native men between the ages of 15 and 24, which is the highest of any demographic in the United States.
The same three troopers made a similar, shorter trip last year when they traveled 850 miles from Manley Hot Springs to the Bering Sea coast village of Unlakleet and back, stopping at schools in seven villages along the way.
This year, the trooper trio will turn south off the Yukon River when they reach Ruby and head for the Kuskokwim River village of McGrath. From there, they will travel 500 miles down the Kuskokwim River to Bethel before taking an overland trail to the Yukon River village of Holy Cross and traveling up the Yukon River to the Tanana River and back to Manley Hot Springs.
“After last year’s tour, the Bristol Bay region reached out to them and said, ‘Can you come here?’” troopers spokeswoman Beth Ipsen said. “There’s a big need in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. There have been a lot of suicides there.”
This is the fourth year in a row troopers have reached out to Native youths in Alaska to talk about suicide prevention and the program has gotten bigger each year. After flying to villages two years ago to give presentations, the troopers switched over to snowmachines last year.
“You connect better to kids and community members when you pull up to a village on a snowmachine,” Hildebrand said. “Everybody can relate snowmachines to the village lifestyle.”
The fact that all three troopers are Native and grew up in rural villages makes them more approachable, said Hildebrand, who was raised in the middle Yukon River village of Nulato and works just upstream as a trooper in Galena. Simeon, who works in the Glennallen trooper post, is originally from Aniak, one of the villages the troopers will visit on the Kuskokwim River. Akelkok, who works in the Matanuska and Susitna valleys area, is from Ekwok in Southwest.
Hildebrand knows first hand the impacts and sorrow caused by suicide. His father committed suicide when Hildebrand was just 4 years old. He knows more than 40 people who have committed suicide, many of whom were family members. That’s one of the reasons the suicide awareness tour is so important to him, Hildebrand said.
“I’ve experienced suicide in my family too many times to count,” he said. “I want to get the message out there that if you’re having problems, if you’re depressed, talk to someone and let them know what your problems are. There’s always somebody out there who can help you.”
In addition to talking to kids about suicide, the troopers also talk about setting goals and achieving them. They use themselves as examples.
“We just try to be good role models for them and tell them, ‘You guys can make it out of the villages and do whatever you want,’” Hildebrand said. “If you set goals and start to accomplish those goals it’s a lot easier.”
The two-week tour is hard work, both physically and mentally, Hildebrand said. While all three troopers spend considerable time on snowmachines as part of their jobs, riding 1,500 miles across the Alaska wilderness is not easy. Some days they will cover almost 200 miles per day. Last year, they rode in temperatures down to 20 degrees below zero and battled 40 mph winds.
“It’s not a joy ride,” Hildebrand said.
Neither is bringing up memories of loved ones who have taken their own lives a pleasant experience, which they do on a daily basis for two weeks.
“Dragging up old feelings from a long time ago tend to be draining mentally,” Hildebrand said. “It can be mentally tiring.”
Hildebrand likes to think the troopers are making a difference and he has reason to believe that’s the case.
“A couple weeks ago I was passing through the Anchorage airport with my wife and a young person came up to me and said, ‘Hey, I remember you. You’re the guy who drives around on snowmachine and spreads the word about suicide prevention,’” Hildebrand said. “I think we’re getting recognized more and we are making a difference.
“Our goal is to stamp suicide out,” he said. “Is that a realistic goal? I don’t know. Communities in Alaska just have to keep working together and striving for that.”
If you’re considering suicide or you’re worried about someone else doing so, call Careline toll free in Alaska at 1-877-266-4357 (HELP) or in Fairbanks at 452-4357.
Alaska’s statewide suicide hotline is staffed by Alaskans for Alaskans from 6-11 p.m. weekdays, and overnights on Friday and Saturday.
During other hours, calls are automatically referred to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline,
The hotline provides crisis intervention, interacts with callers in a respectful and empowering manner, listens in a non-judgmental way, provides suicide prevention to those who are considering suicide, maintains caller anonymity, and provides information to those who are concerned about someone else.
Suicide warning signs
These are common warning signs that someone is at risk of suicide:
• Threatening to hurt or kill him or herself, or talking about wanting to hurt or kill him or herself.
• Looking for ways to kill himself or herself by seeking access to firearms, pills or medications, or other means.
• Talking or writing about death, dying or suicide when these actions are out of the ordinary for the person.
• Acting recklessly or engaging in risky activities, seemingly without thinking.
• Experiencing dramatic mood changes.
• Expressing feelings of purposeless or seeing no reason for living.
Suicide in Alaska
• Alaska’s suicide rate of 22.6 suicides per 100,000 people was the highest in the country in 2010. The national rate was 12.4.
• The suicide rate for Alaska Natives was 35.1 in 2007.
• Alaska Native men between the ages of 15 and 24 have the highest suicide rate — 141.6 — among any demographic in the country.
• Alaska had 1,389 suicides between 2001 and 2010, an average of 139 suicides per year. That translates to an average of about 2.6 suicides per week.
• In 2010, approximately 79 percent of suicides in Alaska were committed by men and 21 percent were committed by women.
• At least one suicide occurred in 176 Alaskan communities between 2000-2009.
Contact Fairbanks Daily News-Miner staff writer Tim Mowry at 907-459-7587.