Man vanished on Alaska trapping expedition 46 years ago. His skull was just ID’d

Rick Bowmer/Associated Press file

His family remembers Gary Frank Sotherden as a free spirit who spent time in Canada and worked on the Alaska oil pipeline.

When he set out on the trip of a lifetime to go trapping in the Alaskan wilderness in fall 1976, his family understood, sister Ann Bunyan told KTUU.

But the 25-year-old from New York vanished sometime over the winter. His family never heard from him again.

Now, 46 years later, DNA testing on a skull found by a hunter in 1997 has identified Sotherden’s remains, Alaska State Troopers reported.

His family always suspected that was the case, Bunyan told KTUU. They couldn’t imagine Sotherden, who’d now be 71, would leave them wondering all these years. Confirmation, though, has brought acceptance.

“That’s the life he chose,” Bunyan told the station. “And not that he chose his death, but he chose a life (where) that was a possibility. So we just have to allow him to have chosen what he wanted.”

A fateful trip

Sotherden set out with another man to trap along the Porcupine River north of the Arctic Circle in fall 1976.

His friend suggested they work together on the same side of the river, but Steve Sotherden told The Post Standard that his brother had other ideas.

“He was very independent and loved the outdoors, and he liked to do things the way he wanted to do things,” Steve told the publication. Instead, the friends agreed to trap on opposite sides of the river, then meet up in the spring to catch a plane out.

But when the time to return home arrived, Gary never showed up, KTUU reported. His family hired a friend to search for him, but the man found only his camp with some of his supplies.

In time, his family erected a gravestone listing Gary’s date of death as 1977 with an inscription reading “Lost in Alaska,” the station said.

A mysterious skull

In July 1997, 20 years after Gary Sotherden went missing, a hunter found a skull along the Porcupine River about 8 miles from the Canadian border, Alaska State Troopers reported in a news release.

Troopers searched the area but could not find any other remains, the release said.

The skull, which had markings suggesting a bear attack, was stored at the Alaska State Medical Examiner’s Office with other unidentified remains for years.

In 2022, cold case investigators extracted DNA from the skull, the release said.

They contacted Steve Sotherden, who agreed to provide a DNA sample but suggested troopers use a sample he’d already given to a genealogy website, The Post Standard reported.

DNA matching confirmed the skull belonged to Gary, troopers said.

Steve told The Post Standard that he later learned the skull had bear tooth marks and that Gary probably died shortly after beginning his trip in fall 1976.

“It was much more brutal than I had hoped,” he told the publication. “You always have hope, but we now know what happened to him.”

The remains are being returned to the family, which is planning a memorial service for later this year.

What to do if you see a bear

Bear attacks in the U.S. are rare, according to the National Park Service. In most attacks, bears are trying to defend their food, cubs or space.

There are steps people can take to help prevent a bear encounter from becoming a bear attack.

  • Identify yourself: Talk calmly and slowly wave your arms. This can help the bear realize you’re a human and nonthreatening.

  • Stay calm: Bears usually don’t want to attack; they want to be left alone. Talk slowly and with a low voice to the bear.

  • Don’t scream: Screaming could trigger an attack.

  • Pick up small children: Don’t let kids run away from the bear. It could think they’re small prey.

  • Hike in groups: A group is noisier and smellier, the National Park Service said. Bears like to keep their distance from groups of people.

  • Make yourself look big: Move to higher ground and stand tall. Don’t make any sudden movements.

  • Don’t drop your bag: A bag on your back can keep a bear from accessing food, and it can provide protection.

  • Walk away slowly: Move sideways so you appear less threatening to the bear. This also lets you keep an eye out.

  • Again, don’t run: Bears will chase you, just like a dog would.

  • Don’t climb trees: Grizzlies and black bears can also climb.

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