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Mark Rendell
Mark Rendell

Yellowknifers organize their own search for missing Japanese tourist

“In New Brunswick, if something like this happened, we’d have the whole community out there searching“

As the hunt for missing tourist Atsumi Yoshikubo stretches into its fourth day, a group of Yellowknifers has taken the search into their own hands.

Last night, as snow drifted down, a search party of five met in the Ski Club parking lot. Guided by flashlights and headlamps, the team cut fresh tracks along the ski trails, checking under trees and bushes – places invisible to the helicopter that circled the area during the day. The group then split up, continuing along the ski trails or scouring the bushes along the highway to Giant Mine.

Yoshikubo, a doctor from Uto in the southern Kumamoto Prefecture (similar to province), was last seen Oct. 22 walking by herself past Jackfish Lake in a pink coat. Her disappearance was reported to police on Monday after she failed to check out of the Explorer Hotel and missed her flight on Sunday.

The NWT is a huge draw for Japanese tourists who come to see the Northern Lights. The territory has hosted over 60,000 tourists since 2008 – 30,000 in the last two years alone, and this is the first time a Japanese tourist has gone missing in the Northwest Territories, according to a spokesperson at the Japanese Consulate in Calgary.

When Sonia Daigle, a bus driver at Aurora Village, heard about Yoshikubo on Tuesday, she posted a message on the Yellowknife Classifieds Facebook page encouraging Yellowknifers to get involved in the search.

“It makes me sick to my stomach thinking about her out there. I feel sorry for her family who must feel so helpless, so I thought, why don’t I go out there and help?” said Daigle. Tuesday, Daigle and boyfriend Bruno Smith searched the ridge behind Niven and down along the Jackfish Creek ravine by Back Bay Cemetery.

She carried bottles of water and a blanket, in case she found Yoshikubo, and recorded her route using a GPS tracking app so she could report her findings to the police. The pair was out until 10 p.m., covered over four kilometres and Daigle says she’ll keep looking every evening until Yoshikubo is found.

“Back home in New Brunswick, if something like this happened, we’d have the whole community out there searching,” she said.

Angela Canning, who was part of the Wednesday night search shared Daigle’s sentiments: “I would hope that if something happened to me, or if I went missing on holiday, people would look for me and care enough to make sure I get home to my family.”

According to Daigle, who works with many Japanese tourists at Aurora Village, the whole situation seems strange. It’s not unusual for Japanese women to visit Yellowknife by themselves, but they usually pair up with other tourists from Japan when they get there. It’s also strange that she would be trekking out along the road by herself, said Daigle.

Security camera images of Yoshikubo courtesy RCMP

Who is Yoshikubo?

Not much is known about Yoshikubo beyond basic details provided by the RCMP and what can be gleaned from online Japanese media sources with translation help from Seiji Suzuki, owner of Sushi North.

According to a report from NHK, Japan’s national public broadcaster, the 45-year-old was working as a doctor in her father’s clinic in Uto until six years ago.

“I only hope she’s coming back,” her father told NHK, according to a translation given by Suzuki.

“I still can’t believe, can’t find out any words. I hope she comes back safe,” said her brother.

Official search continues with dogs and helicopters

The official search, orchestrated by the RCMP and the Yellowknife Search and Rescue Association, was based out of the Ski Club on Wednesday. A helicopter hovered low over the treetops as yellow-vested search and rescue volunteers checked the brush along the highway.

The case is still being treated as a “missing persons case” and as of Wednesday afternoon, the RCMP wasn’t suspecting foul play.

Inside the clubhouse, a group gathered around a map planning the operation, with several people at the ready to answer tips called in.

The phone system still needs to have some bugs worked out, though. Daigle said she tried calling in the results of her searches three times on Wednesday but couldn’t get through.

The police remained fairly tightlipped over the course of the day, though in the afternoon, RCMP spokesperson Cst. Elenore Sturko sent out a press release outlining the operation.

“Police are utilizing all available resources in an effort to locate Yoshikubo,” she said.

Search and rescue teams are combing the wooded areas around town with the help of police dogs while RCMP officers are going door-to-door looking for tips.

“Searchers have not singled out any particular area, however the majority of searching has been concentrated on areas where a person could hike to, or walk to from the Explorer Hotel,” said Sturko.

Police are also checking tourist attractions along the Ingraham Trail, she said, and the “Civil Air Search and Rescue Association are continuing air searches in an ever-widening area surrounding the city.”

If you want to get involved in coordinated search and rescue operations, call Yellowknife Search and Rescue at 446-4727. The RCMP is asking all unofficial search and rescue groups to report the areas they search, even if nothing is found. The number is 669-1111.