She does it without even thinking, as soon as she steps out of the truck: a sweep of her eyes across the sky for a sign of bald eagles. They're as common here as...

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STERLING, Alaska — She does it without even thinking, as soon as she steps out of the truck: a sweep of her eyes across the sky for a sign of bald eagles. They’re as common here as ravens, but they’re bigger and easier to see from a distance. Maybe a single circling eagle will spiral down to the spot where her son lies — or his body, whatever is left of it.

Dolly Hills, 53, has come to think along those lines.

Her son Richard, the younger of her two children, has been missing since last February. She believes he is dead, his remains somewhere in the woods or waters near this Kenai Peninsula town.

Around here, scavengers are the quickest to locate a corpse, whether of a shot grizzly or a mortally wounded moose, or a 37-year-old man on a simple errand who vanished into the subzero cold.

Richard Hills was one of 3,323 people reported missing in the state last year, not a record but far more, in ratio to population, than anywhere else in the United States. On average, about five of every 1,000 people go missing every year, roughly double the national rate. Since Alaska began tracking the numbers in 1988, police have received at least 60,700 reports of missing people.

As everywhere else, most cases involve runaways who eventually return home or are found. But Alaska has the highest percentage of people who stay missing. Investigators have compiled a list of about 1,100 people who remain lost. This in a state with a population of 650,000.

“We live in a place,” Dolly Hills said, “where people disappear.”

Déjà vu

It’s now happened twice in her life. In 1962, outside a small village in western Alaska, she said, her 13-year-old brother, William, took a skiff onto the Kvichak River and never was seen again. Presumed drowned, the boy was not reported missing, which happens not infrequently in the bush. The number of people whose bodies never are accounted for probably far exceeds official tallies of the missing.

People vanish by accident and by design, by fluke of nature or quirk of circumstance, by foul play, misstep and bad luck. There are so many ways in Alaska to get lost, and so many reasons why the lost may not be found.

Between the western tip of the Aleutian chain to the eastern edge of the Alaska Panhandle lie 39 mountain ranges, 3,000 rivers, 5,000 glaciers and more than 3 million lakes, all of which offer nooks and envelopes for bodies to slip in and remain hidden forever.

The mudflats are like quicksand, the snowstorms like blankets that cover all tracks and traces, and for half the year in most of Alaska, the days are like nights.

In charge of searching this vast terrain are the Alaska State Troopers, whose field officers number a little more than 300. It works out to about one trooper for every 2,300 square miles, or about the size of Delaware.

Terra incognita

This, according to Lt. Craig MacDonald, the department’s search and rescue supervisor, points to what makes his job so difficult: When someone gets lost, the search areas can be as large as many states, and considerably more rugged.

So much of the terrain is unknown. Often when searchers enter a remote area, it will be their first time there — a distinct difference from other places where volunteers usually search areas familiar to them.

In Alaska, human settlements, including the largest cities, lie in the middle of wilderness.

“From this building, you can walk five minutes and be in deep woods,” said MacDonald, sitting in his Anchorage office. “You can go a mile, two miles out, and never be found. It happens all the time.” So many of the stories of the vanished begin routinely, even innocently. MacDonald rattles off case after case:

• Erin Marie Gilbert, 24. Girdwood. July 1995. Rode with a friend to a community fair. The car stalled in a parking lot, and the friend went for help. When the friend returned, Gilbert was gone. She never was seen again.

• Hiroko Nemoto, 36. East Lansing, Mich. June 1998. Last seen leaving a youth hostel in Wasilla. She had bought a train ticket to Whittier and a ferry ticket to Valdez. No one knows if she made those trips. No trace of her has been found.

• Michael Timothy Palmer, 15. Town of Palmer. June 1999. Rode his bicycle out of a subdivision and was not heard from again. The bicycle was found in the Little Susitna River. The boy’s muddy shoes were discovered in a field.

• Richard Hills, 37. Soldotna. February 2004. Drove to Anchorage to pick up a paycheck. His truck was found in a snow bank outside Sterling, about 15 miles from home. The keys were in the ignition. His wallet and cash were on the front seat. His footprints led to a spot on an isolated road a half-mile away, then ended.

MacDonald worked the Hills case. He and Dolly together have retraced Richard’s steps. They’ve walked the route with volunteer searchers, family members and psychics. Search dogs repeatedly lost his scent in the same place, as if Richard had dissolved into air.

“I know he’s gone”

Dolly Hills, at the moment, is walking that same stretch of road, near the spot. It’s only 10 minutes from where she and her husband live, and she drives out there occasionally. It’s a narrow, gently winding dirt road, bordered on each side by forest. The road leads to some fishing cabins and vacation homes along the Kenai River.

She scans the woods, the sky. She peers down long driveways, her breath gusting white clouds in the air. The temperature is just above zero.

“In my heart, I know he’s gone,” she said. “I can feel it. Ricky and I were bonded. We were close. Ricky is not someone who disappears. Something happened to him.”

In the days after his truck was discovered, fliers were posted along the Highway 1 corridor that connects all the little towns in this part of the peninsula. The photo shows a handsome man — sun-bronzed skin, white teeth, boyishly mischievous eyes just below a skier’s cap — cradling a glimmering salmon in his hands.

Richard grew up on the Kenai Peninsula. He worked as a roughneck on the North Slope, but always came home to Soldotna, where his longtime partner, Heidi Metteer, and their three children waited for him. Heidi said Richard never failed to call home.

She said she shares Dolly Hill’s feeling that Richard was a victim of foul play. Richard simply could not have become lost and failed to survive the elements. He was a strong man, resourceful and fit. “He knew these woods!” Dolly Hill said in frustration.

But MacDonald isn’t convinced. His 23 years of conducting search and rescues are rife with stories of experienced hikers, climbers, hunters, even survivalists, who didn’t think it could happen to them.

Thinking it through

In Richard Hills’ case, there are, in trooper lingo, “equally plausible alternative inferences.” MacDonald, with practiced professional detachment, lists some possibilities:

Richard could have lost control of his truck, slid into the snow bank and injured himself. He could have been disoriented and walked for help. He was wearing jeans, a turtleneck and a work jacket, which would have been no match for the cold.

He could have been picked up by a snowmobiler, which might have explained why his tracks ended so abruptly. He might have been taken somewhere and killed, although Hills had no known enemies.

To keep warm, Richard could have crawled into thick brush or a hole in the ground, or buried himself underneath something — a log, a boulder, debris. MacDonald once found a lost hunter who had wrapped himself in the bloody hide of a newly killed moose, the brown fur making him almost impossible to detect.

It was cold enough for Richard to suffer hypothermia within 90 minutes, and to freeze to death in hours.

Animals could have found the body in the spring, devoured or moved it. Bears are known to bury their kills for later. Foxes and birds could have taken apart the corpse and scattered it over a wide area. This is known among Alaska searchers as “the critter element.”

At the bottom

A short walk from Richard’s truck is the Kenai River, a wide, swift, light-green ribbon of glacial water that courses through the peninsula to Cook Inlet. Hills could have fallen into the river and drowned. Whenever anyone goes missing near a body of water in Alaska, there’s a high probability that person is at the bottom. Water accidents and drowning are suspected in more than half of all vanished-persons cases.

Bodies that sink into Alaska waters tend to stay sunk. In warmer climates, corpses decompose and generate gases that eventually raise them to the surface. Alaska’s frigid waters tend to preserve corpses, and glacial silt — fine dust created by glaciers grinding down rock over centuries — gets into clothing and crevices, and further weighs down the bodies.

Richard felt comfortable on the Kenai River. One of his favorite fishing spots was just downriver from his truck.

“If he’s in there,” MacDonald said, “we’re not going to find him.”

Searchers in Alaska, saluted by the public for their skill and daring, in private seem to dwell more on the people they don’t find.

Paul Brusseau, a member of one of the state’s most respected search teams, can talk in great detail of the many barriers to finding a body. Brusseau helps lead the Alaska Search and Rescue Dogs. He is one of about 1,100 on-call volunteers police depend upon to look for the missing.

Brusseau, who makes wood moldings for a living, said a searcher can be right on top of a body and not see it, obstructed by snow and ice, or thick brush, or debris kicked up by a windstorm.

But the most difficult searches, he said, involve people who don’t want to be found.

The end of the road

Alaska lies at the end of the continent, and many who come here are end-of-the-roaders: people fleeing or seeking one last chance, dreamers and schemers, and loners hoping to conduct a life — and in some cases, a death — in private.

“If someone wants to drop off the face of the Earth and not have anybody know,” Brusseau said, “this is one place you can do it.”

James Miller didn’t want anybody to know. An eccentric with a wild streak, Miller had had his 15 minutes of fame when, in 1993, he para-glided into the outdoor ring of a nationally televised boxing match between Evander Holyfield and Riddick Bowe.

He was dubbed the “Fan Man,” and spent 10 days in jail. He later pulled off other public stunts that got him in trouble.

In 1996, he moved to Alaska to start anew, but soon after was diagnosed with diseased arteries. He underwent three bypass surgeries and fell deep into debt. In September 2002, Miller, 39, disappeared. Police and family members spent a month looking for him.

Six months later, hunters bushwhacking through thick woods on the Kenai Peninsula found his body. Miller had hanged himself from a tree. Police said he had chosen the remote Resurrection Trail in Chugach National Forest, veering deep off-trail to a spot that might not have been discovered for years, if ever.

“It makes you want to cry sometimes,” said Paula Sweetwood, the senior researcher and statistician for the clearinghouse for missing persons. A division of the Alaska State Troopers, the clearinghouse collects data from every police agency in the state.

A few feet from Sweetwood’s desk, across from the hundreds of files that she tends with such care, hangs a mural-sized map of Alaska.

Tiny push-pin flags mark the spot of every active missing-persons case in the state. Red flags, the most numerous, indicate water-related cases; green stands for ground; blue for anything involving aircraft; yellow for suspected homicides or suicides; and black for unidentified remains. It is a crowded swath of colors.

Said Sweetwood: “You feel worse for the people looking for them.”

Seeking resolution

Back in Sterling, Dolly Hills visits regularly with her son’s family — Heidi Metteer and their children: MacKenzie, 14; Katibeth, 10; and 6-year-old Calvin. The two women sometimes drive to the spot where Richard’s truck was found.

Dolly is trying to organize another search party to drag the Kenai River in the spring. There’s one stretch in particular that she’s been brooding about: a bend some few hundred yards downriver. It’s the only way in her mind to break down the search into comprehensible parts. Otherwise, the Kenai is too big. Alaska’s too big.

Heidi, a coffee-shop manager, recently filed a court petition to declare Richard legally dead. The petition would allow her to receive financial help from the state. More important, the family would be able to hold a memorial.

“Up till now,” Heidi said, “I don’t have anything to say, ‘Look, this is what happened to your dad.’ ”