Steven Kubacki was a student at Hope College, a small, private Christian university near the southeastern shore of Lake Michigan, when he vanished in February 1978. He’d gone off for a solo cross-country skiing trip, meant to be gone only a day, maybe two, but didn’t return. He left a 200-yard trail of footprints in the snow, leading past the edge of the lake. The one-way path ended abruptly, leading investigators to conclude, in the absence of any other clues, that Kubacki drowned somewhere under a thick layer of unbroken ice.
How he was first reported missing depends on who is telling the story. Going with a local news report from February 21, 1978, snowmobilers in Saugatuck spotted cross-country skis abandoned with a backpack and contacted authorities, who immediately launched an air and land search. The investigators knew right away who they were looking for.
Kubacki was 23 at the time, either a German or a history major, set to graduate that spring. The year before he vanished, Kubacki co-wrote an op-ed for the campus newspaper about the inadequate collection of books in the university library, arguing that the school should install an electronic security system to safeguard against theft. Bob Namar, a 1978 Hope graduate who didn’t know Kubacki but had heard about him after the disappearance, told me Kubacki was described as brilliant, and a “little more free-spirited” than the average student at the conservative school, which explained why he lived off-campus.
“Big Dungeons and Dragons guy,” Namar said of Kubacki.
Kubacki was also known to be an enthusiastic outdoorsman, who had previously climbed mountains while studying abroad in Europe. He’d been cross-country skiing in the same area bordering Lake Michigan before. The trip that weekend wasn’t particularly unusual. But the rest of the story is.
On May 5, 1979, well over a year after he went missing, Kubacki “woke up” in a grassy knoll in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, 700 miles due east from where he had vanished—you can draw a near-perfect straight line between them on a map. It was a Saturday night.
Kubacki had no memory of the previous 14-and-a-half months, and said he didn’t immediately realize how much time had passed until he bought a newspaper and saw the date. He found his way to an aunt’s house in Great Barrington, about 20 miles from Pittsfield. From there, he was reunited with the rest of his family in South Deerfield.
After he re-emerged, Kubacki told reporters that he had found himself wearing clothes he didn’t recognize as his own, and had a backpack filled with maps and hitchhiking signs suggesting he had traveled widely: Sacramento, San Francisco, Reno, Chicago; Utah.
He also had $40 in cash, new glasses, sneakers, and a T-shirt from a marathon in Wisconsin.
“I feel like I’ve done a lot of running,” he said in an interview the week he reappeared. His memory right up until his disappearance remained intact. He said the last thing he remembered was feeling cold and scared of being lost in the frozen darkness.
Kubacki told a reporter that he believed his blackout was caused by exhaustion and exposure, and said he would see a medical doctor for a physical–but he would not be seeing a psychiatrist. Kubacki insisted that he was in a healthy frame of mind when he set off for the skiing trip, and still was.
“My father was going to sign over the house to me. I had three courses at school and no trouble. I left a romance in Germany. There was no trouble with girls. I had a job lined up with the Holland Sentinel newspaper.”
Kubacki didn’t take that job, but he had been awarded a bachelor’s degree in absentia from Hope College the year before, when he was feared–but never declared–dead. Apparently, even the detectives who investigated his disappearance had doubts about the drowning theory. They sent his dental records to Chicago to see if Kubacki might be among the serial killer John Wayne Gacy’s unidentified victims.
Today, Kubacki remains alive and well in the Pacific Northwest, working as a psychologist.
He wrote a book called Meta-Mathematical Foundations of Existence: Gödel, Quantum, God & Beyond. For decades, he has refused to speak about his disappearance with reporters. He has ignored my attempts to reach him. Kubacki’s ex-wife told me, unequivocally, that she would not be speaking about it. His parents, who reportedly spent thousands of dollars on a private investigator after he went missing, refusing to believe that their son had died, have since passed away.
Kubacki’s story hasn’t received a lot of media attention–not even a Wikipedia page. But it’s popular in online communities concerned with the paranormal. One reason for this is the location of Kubacki’s disappearance, close to the southeastern boundary of the so-called “Lake Michigan Triangle.”
Much smaller in area than the better-known Bermuda Triangle, the Lake Michigan Triangle has been the site of numerous unexplained air disasters, shipwrecks, and vanishings, dating back centuries. There are stories of ghost ships; ghost planes; heavily corroborated UFO sightings; and one particularly spine-chilling tale about a competitive sailing crew that passed through what sounds like a vortex during a practice run on a calm, early summer evening. After a sudden, dramatic fall of fog and “wind filling the mainsail from two opposing directions,” three wooden ships took on a life of their own and performed synchronized 360-degree turns, with no one steering. There’s more to that story. And it happened just a few months after Kubacki vanished, when he was still missing.
Kubacki told reporters in 1979 that he was going to try and retrace his steps, to piece together where had been when he was gone. Did he? And did he find something he wished he hadn’t? Or did he not, because it wasn’t necessary?