In the remote northeast corner of the 19-million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, on the far side of the northernmost mountain range on the North American content long removed from any hint of civilization, Dan Oberlatz stood on the banks of the Kongakut River in June and faced the nightmarish choice no wilderness guide ever wants to confront:
Try to recover the body of an apparently dead client or take care of seven people still alive to make sure everyone else survived?
Moments earlier – 69-year-old Cheryl Minnehan and 67-year-old Karen Todd – had either fallen out of a SOAR inflatable or rolled it and come out. No one saw what happened, so no one will never know how they ended up in the 45-degree water of the Kongakut.
The women were best friends of the 47-year-old guide’s mother.
Assistant guide Nick Allen saw them flushed through a Class III rapid out of their boat. He had just run the same rapid with another client and was waiting at the bottom in position to lend assistance if anyone got in trouble.
Minnehan and Todd were now in trouble. Allen and the client with him both tossed “throw bags,” weighted pouches attached to lines which allow someone on shore to pull a swimmer to safety. Minnehan was on the far side of the river, Oberlatz said, and the bag landed out of her reach.
But a bag was close to Todd. She swam for the end of the line, but couldn’t grab it.
“They just weren’t able to get to the throw bags,” Oberlatz said.
Seconds later the fast-running current swept both women out of sight into another rapid. It was the last time they would be seen alive.
Fast, cold and wild
The rivers that drain the Brooks Range mountains of ANWR north to the Beaufort Sea are not particularly big, no bigger than the hugely popular Shenandoah River just west of the nation’s capital in Washington, D.C.
The Shendondoah attracts hundreds of thousands of people every year. ANWR in total hasn’t had that many visitors in all the years since its was first protected as the Arctic Wildlife Range in 1960. It remains today what it was then – wilderness on a scale most Americans can’t even imagine. A land where the caribou, Dall sheep, grizzly bears, moose and muskox far out number humans.
A place where, if something goes wrong, help is a long way off. The nearest city is Barrow, 250 to 300 miles to the northwest. Fairbanks, the second largest city in the 49th state, is only a little farther away almost due south. Prudhoe Bay, the giant oil field, and a community that surrounds the airstrip at Deadhorse, sits along the western edge of the refuge, but it is an industrial outpost of humanity strangely isolated from the wilderness that surrounds it.
Suffice to say, help in ANWR is a long way off, which heightens the danger of its waters which though not big are fast, powerful and cold. Even on seemingly flat water, the eddy lines – the places where water from separate channels converge – can be so powerful that they bang a canoe or kayak sideways with enough force that it feels like it might go over.
The Class II and Class III whitewater with standing waves that pile up like haystacks is only more rollicking, and if you hit one of those haystacks wrong and end up in the water, it is brutally cold.
Cold-water shock – a phenomenon that causes people to gasp and inhale water – is a danger even for those outfitted in protective dry suits. Cold-water shock, or “cold shock” as some now refer to it “is one of the biggest jolts that your body can experience,” according to the National Center for Cold Water Safety, which compares it to being struck by lightning or hit by a bus.
The gasp reflex, according to the Center, is threat number one; threat number two is “an instantaneous and massive increase in heart rate and blood pressure….In vulnerable individuals, this greatly increases the danger of heart failure and stroke.”
Paddlers Minnehan from Elk Grove, Calif., and Todd from Sparks, Nev., were no strangers to Oberlatz, the owner of Alaska Alpine Adventures. Along with being friends of his mother, they had been on a wilderness trip with him before.
In an interview, he described them as capable and fun-loving. They seemed to be enjoying every minute of an Arctic adventure planned as a 10-day float along 75-miles of wilderness river.
The pace was leisurely with plenty of time set aside for relaxing, hiking and wildlife watching.The first five days of the float passed uneventfully with everyone enjoying the splashy Class II whitewater of the upper Kongakut.
Day five marked the start of what everyone expected to be the best, most-exciting part of the trip – The Gorge.
“The rapids (here) are normally only Class II to III but high water can raise the difficulty at times,” according to Bob Kaufman at Alaska.org. “There are the distinct sections of boulder gardens to negotiate….The first rapid is considered the trickiest with a long line down the center then right of center, all the while trying to line up for a final plunge over a small ledge that is best taken on the left, away from the right side wall. It is common to get hung up in rafts here and rafters have become swimmers when they weren’t hanging on well enough. Some call this Eddy Out rapid because that is where Eddy fell out of a boat.”
“A mile further is the second rapid and is another boulder garden with the biggest danger just getting horribly stuck in the rocks, which means someone will get wet trying to get off the rocks. Enter this one on the left, stay middle past a Volkswagen sized rock and move back over to the right to exit.”
Shallow water makes small inflatables the craft of choice for Kongakut floats. Alaska Alpine uses 14-foot SOAR inflatable canoes which look more like what most floaters call “IKs” (eye-kays), an acronym for inflatable kayak.
Since the craft first hit the market in 1993, SOAR says, they have “become one of the finest, most versatile and sought-after watercraft in the world….For a paddler with a bit of skill, you will find that a SOAR canoe loaded to full capacity can be easily maneuvered through technical whitewater.
“SOAR canoes have been taken on some of the most remote rivers from canyon rivers in the US West to fly-in rivers in Alaska, NW Territories and the Yukon to horse-backed in the Amazon, and Jeep-topped in Mongolia.
Alaska Alpine has been using SOARs without incident since the 18-year-old company started running the Kongakut in 2003. The rafts feature prominently in the companies online brochure for the Kongakut trip.
No one knows if the women flipped the raft or simply fell out. Either can happen, and no one saw how they ended up in the water. Everyone in the group made it through the first set of rapids. Two SOARS – one with Allen and a client, another with two clients – safely negotiated the second rapid in front of Minnehan and Todd. A third raft with two clients would come through safely behind them.
At the rear of this train of four, two-man rafts was Oberlatz with another client in a traditional, oval raft heavily loaded with gear. The big raft was the bail-out boat for anyone who thought they might be uncomfortable running whitewater in the IKs.
At the daily morning briefing, Oberlatz had outlined what the river looked like ahead and asked if anyone was uncomfortable running it. No one opted to deflate their SOAR in favor of a ride in the big boat. Everyone seemed primed for the adventure ahead.
“The water was high,” he said, “but we all felt comfortable running it.”
Now, as Oberlatz came through the second rapid, he learned disaster had struck. Ahead of him, about 1,000-feet downstream, he could see someone bobbing along in the current kept afloat by an orange PFD (personal flotation device).
He didn’t know who it was. Both Minnehan and Todd were wearing identical PFDs, plus dry tops and dry pants. Oberlatz started rowing madly to try to catch up with the person in the water. Swimming is something that sometimes happens when running whitewater. People usually survive.
Oberlatz remembers being irritated that the heavily loaded raft was so slow to row. He found hard to close the gap on the swimmer. By the time he caught up, thought, it was too late. Whoever the woman was, she was caught in a big, swirling whirlpool along a cliff face.
“There was a person being recirculated, floating face down,” said Oberlatz, who began trying to figure out how to get her out as his raft went past.
“We eddied out (below),” he said. “I ran upstream to get a better look at the situation. I was about 20 meters away and she flushed out. She floated past us face down.”
At that point, Oberlatz confronted the toughest decision in his guiding career. Chase after what appeared to be a body floating downstream or take care of the rest of the group in his care. He opted for the latter. He ran up onto a hillside where he could make radio contact with Allen and told the assistant guide to hold everyone where they were until the two of them could come up with a plan.
Eventually, they settled on Allen lining two boats down to where Oberlatz had pulled out and setting up camp there. Two clients in a boat that had slipped past Allen and pulled to shore upstream from Oberlatz were told to stay where they were until Allen could help them ferry safely across the river.
Oberlatz’s mother and four other clients hiked down to join him. Allen brought the rafts and stopped to help the two other clients across the river to join Oberlatz. He was already on the satellite phone to the Alpine office in Anchorage askings the company operations manager to institute emergency protocols.
Minutes later, state search and rescue authorities were being notified.
“There was a glimmer of hope somebody could survive,” Oberlatz said.
But that was not to be. Help didn’t arrive on the scene for more than half a day after the accident. Oberlatz said the waiting group saw a HC-130 search plane attached to the Alaska National Guard’s fabled 210th Rescue Squadron fly over at about 9 p.m., about 8 hours after the women went in the water.
The first aircraft to reach the survivors, however, was a North Slope Borough helicopter from Barrow that landed at about 4 a.m. with the worst news.
“They’d found a body,” Oberlatz said. The helicopter crew pulled the body out of the river and left it on the riverbank, but told no one. That would prove to have heart-breaking consequences when pararescue jumpers from the 210th later arrived on the scene to retrieve both bodies.
They found the body on shore and thought someone had managed to crawl out of the river still alive. That information got back to the family of the victim.
“It was horrible,” said Oberlatz, who was left to try to explain what had actually happened. He is still wrestling with that, with the deaths, and with what might have been done differently on the trip.
“I’m trying to deal with this loss both professionally and personally,” he said. “People have been very supportive. I think these women did everything they could. I think we did everything we could.”
Sometimes everything isn’t enough. Alaska is a land where certain primordial dangers still claim lives. Alaska Alpine had never suffered a serious accident before. Oberlatz said he’s only beginning to understand how to deal with something like this after it happens.
There is pain in his voice when he says that and a little bit of anger.
“There’s this whole bullshit narrative from somebody we’ve had to deal with,” he said. The story of what happened on the Kongakut started with the North Slope Borough suggesting that the company had flipped a raft loaded with 10 people into the river and everyone had to be rescued from the frigid waters.
Much of the media picked up that story and ran with it though even a quick look at the company’s web page would have cued one into the fact it used small, two-person inflatables for the Kongakut trip. The erroneous reports had the families of everyone on the trip worried their loved one might have had a near-death experience in the cold, Arctic water.
Losing two of your mother’s friend is bad enough without that.