Lauren Anderson, 08-15-97

By Jolie Lewis, Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, ADN 10/07/97

Anderson ---Such a tiny body lost in a vast maze of fast-flowing water.

People looking for the body of Lauren Anderson, a 2-year-old girl presumed drowned in a slough of the Nenana River, likened the task to finding a needle in a haystack. Except it's harder, said airboat owner and volunteer searcher Floyd Bullen, because "the haystack reaches clear to the ocean."

The odds of finding the girl's body seem slim. The search area -- the channels of the Anderson slough, the Nenana River and the Tanana River -- seem daunting. But such suppositions have little connection with the hearts of a mother and father buoyed by faith and prayers.

"We have to know what happened to her," said Zoanne Anderson, a lone tear resting upon her cheek. "We know she's not alive anymore, but we still have to take care of her body. It's the body we held and took care of and loved and kissed."

Anderson and her husband, Bruce, have revived a search that was suspended officially more than five weeks ago. Despite helicopters, airboats, tracking dogs and the diverting of a quarter-mile of the rain-swollen channel that the girl slipped into, no sign was found of her 20-pound body. The search continued for 11 days after Lauren disappeared while playing with four siblings and friends by the banks of the Seventeen Mile Slough on Aug. 15.

The Andersons waited until last week to resume searching, mainly because they didn't want to endanger volunteers during hunting season.

A core of searchers from Nenana and Tanana were busy through the week. Brian Charlie of Nenana estimated he had driven his boat up and down the river at least 100 times since Lauren disappeared.

"Natives all stick together when something like this happens," Charlie said as he and two men from Tanana took a short break on land Friday.

The three men bundled into Carhartt insulated overalls and Mustang survival coats before putting in on Seventeen Mile Slough again Saturday. Charlie and other searchers promised to keep looking until the rivers freeze.

Volunteers expect that to happen within two weeks. Winter's imminent arrival was apparent Saturday morning as a chill wind sent leaves scurrying along the slough's silt bars. Snow flurries whipped into the faces of searchers in motorized boats.

River conditions have changed since the original search. With cold weather lessening glacial melting, water levels have retreated, exposing wide silt bars and log jams.

About 30 people turned up to search the massive maze of channels, braids, chutes and rivulets on Saturday. A handler and dog from PAWS, a Fairbanks-based canine search and rescue squad, teamed up with members of the Salcha Rescue team to conduct a scent search.

Rob Weathers and Ed Keep-Barnes of Salcha Rescue canvassed newly exposed areas of the slough. After zipping out to their staked-out site in an inflatable raft, the pair walked hundreds of yards of banks and silt bars, jabbing ski poles 6 inches into the ground. They poked their probes into the river bottom as they waded mid-thigh through rushing water where there is a possibility Lauren's body might have gotten caught on a branch or logjam.

If the body is trapped under the silt, the men's probes are intended to unearth the scent. "If there's any scent, the dog will pick it up when he comes back by," said Weathers. "They're the best resource out here."

Diane Aldrich and her dog, Juba, trained to track cadaver smells, trekked over the slough's islands and banks, flagging several areas the black lab honed in on. Volunteers trailed them, digging into silty deposits beside the river-worn trunk of a fallen tree tagged by the PAWS pair.

If found, searchers said, the body probably would be unrecognizable.

Bruce and Zoanne said they are confident their daughter's body will be found. The couple said they are religious people who have been blessed in the past few weeks with some answers to their prayers.

"There's certain things we have been told that ... the body will be recovered in the search, that the Lord has a purpose in taking her body, and her body is being concealed for a period of time," said Zoanne. "It's been really hard to be patient and wait."

For much of the afternoon, the Andersons chatted easily with friends. "We've actually been doing pretty good," Bruce said. "Like my wife says, probably just because it hasn't hit us yet."

Bruce and Zoanne, who have two other children, 7-year-old Riley and 5-year-old Kira, tended a fire and offered food to volunteers from a search base established a few feet from where Lauren disappeared.