If they have not already managed to evade a police dragnet, Bryer Schmegelsky,18, and Kam McLeod, 19, are believed to be stumbling around the unforgiving terrain that surrounds the remote Canadian town of Gillam.
Police believe the two fugitives are still close to the sprawling settlement of about 1,300 residents dotted across 2,000 square km. They are not thought to have a vehicle, and there is only one road in and out of town.
“Our last confirmed sighting is in Gillam area, so that’s where we are now,” said Julie Courchaine, a spokeswoman for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police on Friday afternoon.
In the region’s brief summer, sandflies and other biting insects make the most of the warmth by exploding in population and feeding on black bears, wolves and humans.
“If they are wandering around in the bush, they couldn’t have picked a worse time,” the deputy mayor of Gillam, John McDonald, told the Canadian Press.
Courchaine said it was possible the pair had changed their appearance and somehow made their way out of the area, but for now the focus of the manhunt is more than 2,000km from the roadside in British Columbia where the odyssey began in a spasm of violence that ended three lives.
Schmegelsky and McLeod were this week charged in absentia with one count of second-degree murder in the case of Leonard Dyck, 64, a botanist who taught at the University of British Columbia.
They are also suspects in the double murder of Lucas Fowler, 23, an Australian living in British Columbia, and US citizen Chynna Deese, 24, who flew out from her home in North Carolina to join him on a road trip to Alaska in a powder-blue van.
Fowler and Deese had met in Croatia in 2017. Two years later, their romance turned into the “worst ever love story”, in the words of Fowler’s father, when they were found shot dead on a remote Canadian highway.
Days later, Schmegelsky and McLeod were named as suspects in that crime, and a hunt was launched across the northern reaches of Canada’s prairie provinces.
Eventually, the burned-out remains of a car the pair had taken were found near the Bird reserve on Fox Lake Cree nation, three provinces away.
The RCMP descended on the nearby town of Gillam, bringing tracker dogs and hi-tech equipment to aid in their search.
The manhunt has attracted attention from across the English-speaking world.
The scale and duration of the search is thought unparalleled in Canada’s recent history – which might go some way to explaining the intense interest in this case.
Then there is the fact that the suspects and their victims are all white. No such manhunt has ever been launched after the murder or disappearance of dozens of Indigenous women along British Columbia’s infamous Highway of Tears, which is located about 1,000km away.
It’s a long way from where the two childhood friends set off: Port Alberni, British Columbia, a city of about 18,000 on the northern end of Vancouver Island.
Like many small British Columbia towns, Port Alberni runs on resource extraction – in this case, forestry – an industry whose stability has declined dramatically since the 1980s.
Several years ago the town was named Canada’s worst place to live, a ranking based on a range of factors including high crime rates, high unemployment and poor weather.
Port Alberni is the kind of place that many leave, and after saving up money by working at the local Walmart, Schmegelsky and McLeod did just that.
According to Schmegelsky’s father, he didn’t have a licence, so when they left town on 12 July, McLeod was probably driving the red and grey pickup that would be found burned out just south of the town of Dease Lake, some days later.
Some parts of their route are known: they would have had to take a ferry to leave the island, for instance.
But other things make little sense. According to Schmegelsky’s grandmother Carol Starkey, they were heading to Whitehorse, the Yukon capital, where two young men would not have much trouble finding work.
Starkey told a Vancouver Island newspaper that she received a call from her grandson a few days after they left, saying the pair had reached Whitehorse but would be leaving again.
Driving straight, with good conditions, the route would have taken at least a full 24 hours on the road. It remains unclear why – or if – they reached Whitehorse only to turn around almost immediately and head 650km to Liard River Hot Springs provincial park, where Fowler and Deese were believed to have been killed on July 14 or 15.
To reach Dease Lake, where Dyck is believed to have been killed about four days later, they would have had to retrace their steps before veering westward.
Meanwhile, a more complicated picture of Schmegelsky has emerged. Reporting by the Globe and Mail uncovered that he and McLeod had links to an online gaming community that uses Nazi and communist symbols. The newspaper also reported that Schmegelsky had sent photographs of Nazi paraphernalia to an online friend and espoused far-right views.
On Wednesday, Alan Schmegelsky gave an interview to the Canadian Press in which he said he thought his son was making a last stand.
McLeod’s family has refrained from making many statements, saying through a local reporter on Wednesday that they are trying to understand what happened and still hoping McLeod will “come home to us safely so we can all get to the bottom of this story”.
Meanwhile, the families of the three victims have all released statements expressing their deep grief and asking for privacy.