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Mike Riley and his team of Bethel Search and Rescue volunteers have saved dozens of lives during his 26-year tenure with the organization

By Hilary Reeves

Two men stand outside Bethel's search and rescue station.
The Bethel Search & Rescue Station. Photo credit: Peak3 LLC:Red Cross of Alaska

A wooden sign marks the wind-whipped trailer serving as headquarters for Bethel Search and Rescue. Black paint peeling, the sign features a single flag, red on yellow, drawing the eye toward something found.

Delta Western Operations Manager Mike Riley has lived in Bethel since 1968; his family moved south from St. Mary’s, the village on the Yukon River where Riley was born. Four hundred miles west of Anchorage, Bethel acts as a transportation hub for the 56 villages in the Yukon-Kuskokwim (YK) Delta, where the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers empty into the Bering Sea. It’s one of the largest deltas in the world, and Riley knows firsthand that each of its 129,500 square kilometers can prove deadly.

“(Bethel Search and Rescue) is called out at least three times a week,” he said. “We’re mostly looking for locals in the wee hours of the morning when they haven’t made it home.”

Riley began volunteering for Bethel Search and Rescue 26 years ago, and has been president of the all-volunteer crew for six. Married with three children and three grandchildren, he began his career as a carpenter, then as a helper at a local marina before transitioning into the role of small engine mechanic, working on outboard motors and snowmobiles. He went on to manage the marina, a job he held for 26 years, before electing to stay at home with his family.

The back of someone wearing an orange and yellow reflective Bethel Search & Rescue jacket.
Bethel Search & Rescue Photo credit: Peak3 LLC:Red Cross of Alaska

“That didn’t last long at all,” he joked.

He was offered a management position at a local gas station where he worked for 14 years before joining Delta Western. Throughout the second half of his career, he volunteered his time as a member of Bethel Search and Rescue.

“For many years, I was just a member, then for eight years I served on the Board of Directors as vice president before being elected president six years ago.”

The recipient of a handful of awards, Riley was honored again last year by the Red Cross of Alaska as a recipient of the 2016 Real Hero Award for Alaska Safety.

“If (Mike) knows someone is out there, he doesn’t give up until we know that person is brought back,” said Earl Samuelson in an online video. Samuelson, also a Bethel Search and Rescue volunteer, is a retired State Trooper pilot. “At times, he’d stay up all night, taking phone calls. I’d (go out) sometimes (for) a search mission and he’d stay…until the last person was back.”

Riley stands behind the underwater Remote Operated Vehicle
Riley stands behind the underwater Remote Operated Vehicle (ROV) he helped raise money for. Photo credit: Peak3 LLC:Red Cross of Alaska

Riley also spearheaded efforts to mark safe trails and developed partnerships with the City of Bethel Police Department, and the Alaska State Troopers. In 2015, Bethel Search and Rescue was able to fund and purchase a Remote Operated Vehicle (ROV) to assist in underwater searches.

“The urgency of finding people is needed, and the volunteer part of it,” said Riley, who encourages the younger generation to become search and rescue volunteers. “We have a lot of pride in our organization and we want to keep that reputation going.”

And though the Red Cross considers Riley a hero for saving the lives of dozens of people during the past three decades, he hesitates to accept the praise.

“I don’t like to say the word ‘I’ within this organization. It’s a ‘we’ organization. It’s (difficult for me) to emphasize myself, because we work so well as a group together,” he concluded.

When asked about a particular search effort that stood out in his 26 years, he recalled a pair of teenage brothers.

“Two brothers in their mid-teens got lost in a snowstorm,” he said. “Because they were so young, and brothers, it was important we find them. We used all the resources we had trying to rescue them: a Blackhawk, a C-130 with night vision, night flares. The temperature was 20 below. It took three long days. They were alive.”