Commentary

Alaska: It can kill you

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Anchorage, Cook Inlet and the Aleutian Range beyond/Craig Medred photo

Updated: June 13, 2016

If ever there was a week to illustrate the potential dangers that lurk on the very edge of civilization’s foothold in Alaska, this was it. Four confirmed dead and one seriously injured as 49th state starts into what has already been one of the nicest summers in years.

On Sunday, searchers found the body of 26-year-old Nephi Sopher from Missouri floating on the ice just leaving Tanaina Lake in the Chugach Mountains only about a dozen miles from downtown Anchorage. Missing since February, many had thought he might have died in an avalanche.

But given the location in which he was found, with cigarette butts nearby and his cell phone open, it appears more likely he died from hypothermia in a valley no one ever really searched until it was too late.

On Tuesday, hikers in Denali National Park and Preserve found the body of 22-year-old Etienne Terrell from Atlanta not far off the Park Road. He had hiked into the wild sometime on or about July 3 of last year. No one seemed to have noticed that he never came out. The cause of death at this time remains undetermined, but you can pretty much take your pick of wilderness possibilities.

It doesn’t take much of an injury to make it difficult to make your way back to Alaska’s limited road system, and then problems have a way of cascading. Hypothermia and starvation are possibilities. So is the simple loss of the desire to survive.

On Wednesday, searchers at Hatcher Pass, a popular back-country ski area not far north of Alaska’s largest city,  found the body of 33-year-old Dr. Liam Walsh from New York. Only about a year earlier, he’d moved to the 49th state for the adventure.

Walsh went skiing in the Talkeetna Mountains in November with dangerous avalanche conditions building. He would never been seen again alive. It is believed he died in an avalanche.

On Thursday, the body of missing 22-year-old airman Robert Brown from Texas was pulled from Eklutna Lake, a popular recreation area just north of Anchorage. He’d fallen out of a kayak into the glacially fed lake in May and disappeared. Given the reports of witnesses, he most likely succumbed to cold-water shock, a dangerous gasp reflex that can cause people to inhale water and drown.

“Short of being hit by a bus or struck by lightning, cold shock is one of the biggest jolts that your body can experience,” according to the National Center for Coldwater Safety. If Brown had been wearing a PFD (personal flotation device), he might have had a chance, but on a nearly 80-degree May day, he’d gone without.

No place is safe

And then came the report of the stabbing/bear mauling/moose stomping on the edge of an upscale Anchorage neighborhood. Authorities are still trying to sort that one out for certain. It began on a Wednesday night when 50-year-old Fred Mayac of Anchorage was found barely alive on the edge of the Campbell Creek Estuary Park, bordering the wild 34,000-acre Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge.

Anchorage Police quickly concluded that Mayac, an ivory carver from Nome who traces his roots back to King Island west of there, hadn’t been assaulted and Thursday morning announced he’d likely been mauled by a bear. Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists not long after shot a young, female black bear that didn’t seem to be showing any fear of humans.

But as wildlife biologists began combing the area and talking to doctors about the Mayac’s injuries, the opinions on the mauling shifted from bears to moose, which have killed several people in the Anchorage area by stomping on them, and on Friday the state wildlife experts announced their opinion the man had been injured by a moose.

It could easily have been me. I’ve been chased by moose, treed by moose and kicked at by moose. A neighbor just down the hill spent days in the hospital after she chased her loose dog into the woods only to be stomped by a moose. A neighbor across the valley was lucky she didn’t lose an eye when she got run over by a moose while hiking. A hoof got her in the cheek.

If you live in the suburban edge of Anchorage long enough, you learn to keep your head up whenever you venture outside of the house because if you’ve got your head down it’s all too easy to walk into that moose that really isn’t paying attention.

It’s one small danger. They’re all small dangers. Motor vehicles accidents are he big hazard, but then they are now also the norm in the cilviized the world. Not animal attacks or hypothermia or avalanches or cold water shock.

Everything mentioned here could have killed me: I’ve been badly hypothermic. I’ve fallen in more cold water than I care to remember. I’ve ridden out avalanches. I’ve been lost for days and gone hungry beyond the point of just feeling hungry. I’ve been mauled by a bear.

Sometimes I used to ponder with old friend Jerry Lewanski, a one-time chief ranger for Chugach State Park who went on to become director of the Alaska Division of Parks before deciding he’d had enough with bureaucracy and starting the hugely successful Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop,  about why some of us make it and some don’t.

If you do the math on the deaths above, the average age of the victims is under 26. You’ll also notice all of the victims are male. Young men too often think themselves bullet proof. I’ve had plenty of acquaintances like that. Some didn’t live to be old men.

Forty-three years kicking around Alaska taught  me a thing or two. “Anchorage’s Big Wild Life,” as the Anchorage Visitors and Convention Bureau used to like to promote Alaska’s largest city, can bite you. Maybe that’s why AVCB’s successor, “Visit Anchorage,” seems to have backed away from the pitch a bit.

Today, it’s more about a place that “combines the best of Alaska in a city that has the comforts of home and the hospitality of the Last Frontier.”

There’s something to be said for cities in this the 21st Century. For one thing, they are free of the ancient dangers that require ancient survival skills. It is interesting in that context to notice how many fatal back-country accidents in Alaska happen not deep in the wilderness but on the interface between wilderness and urban Alaska.

It’s disconcerting how easy it is to be fooled by the idea that civilization is still almost close enough to touch. One of the last things Nephi Soper did before his death was to take a photo of Anchorage. He was on a ridge in the Chugach Park above Lost Lake.

Anchorage was a well-lighted, sparkling gem in down in the bowl to the west. It disappeared from sight as he headed down the couloir that leads to Tanaina Lake, and in that instant he went from one world to another.

The danger cannot be underestimated.Be careful out there.

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11 replies »

  1. All four of the deaths you mention occurred last fall/winter/spring but were in the news this past week because things have thawed and searchers have been working hard. The one death that actually happened last week – 48 year old Fairbanks woman who died in a rafting accident near Valdez – doesn’t get a mention. Not all the recent dead were young men…

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    • i thought the story made it pretty clear they all happened over the winter. and it wasn’t an all-encompassing list, although the Valdez fatal probably should have made the list as an another example of the unique danger of Alaska water. people tend to fear the bears too much and the water too little. and you’re right, not all the dead or young. AK kills all ages and genders, but the numbers in outdoor fatalities (other than flying) are still weighted toward young men, though the segment of young women is, unfortunately, growing. as the father of a daughter whose one-time career choice as to be a “big mountain snowboarder,” lord knows i spent enough time worrying about that. mainly, though, AK kills a lot of people who are new to the country. those it doesn’t kill learn about the dangers and become safer. the poor Fairbanks woman who died in Valdez was something of an anomloy. she was on a retreat. she was more in line with the tourists who die here, too. and they are supervised, or supposed to be supervised.

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    • I agree Pete….It is very convienant who the media gets to pick on & who gets a pass as an “anonomoly”.

      I recently found out helicopter fatalities are not included in FAA mortality statistics….

      Why, because no wealthy helo-tourons would take the bait if they knew their chance of dying.

      I personally feel the public is misinformed in Alaska that is why many young people make mistakes & die early.

      I guess too much of the American economy is based on risk instead of securing our children’s safety.

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  2. Sorry, it turns out two helicopters crashed last month going to Sled Dog Camps…
    One was Temsco outside of Skagway.
    One was Era outside of Juneau.
    One pilot died & one pilot survived with “critical injuries”…
    The one sled dog camp business is owned by an Iditarod musher from South-Central.
    It appears the Princess Tours also has a vested interest in keeping these 2 crashes hushed…

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    • i’m pretty sure those stories got reported, Steve. i know i read them somewhere, but like most Southeast news, they certainly didn’t get an overwhelming amount of attention here. i didn’t note them because aviation accidents, like auto accidents, sort of fall into their own category, and are pretty much the norm for all Americans. i’d guess the tourists who come up here remain unaware the odds of an accident increase slightly when they get in a small plane or helicopter, but many of them are probably also afraid to get in one of those aircraft.

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  3. Good article Craig – hope it gets widely read. When I spent my year in England, a friend mocked me for always checking the Anchorage obit page: Only old people read the obituaries. I told her: In Alaska, there are many ways to die.

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  4. What about the Pilot & passenger who died last month in an Era Helicopter crash on the Norris Glacier outside of Juneau?
    That makes 2 more deaths for your list this summer…or don’t these bodies count in the carnage since they were dropping off supplies for the commercial sled Dog Industry?
    Funny how this story never made it to SouthCentral…
    Iditarod gag? U know it!

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