Countless times Larry Christopherson had fished the clear waters of Montana Creek 110 miles north of Alaska’s largest city. It is a relatively small stream full of rainbow trout that rushes down out of the Talkeetna Mountains to join the Susitna River.
There is little about the creek that looks threatening, and yet it claimed the avid fly fisherman’s life on Thursday. He died after the tiny inflatable boat he was using to float downstream between fishing holes was pinned against a log jam.
Details are sketchy. Alaska State Troopers reported only that the little raft was found around 2:45 p.m. “hung up on a log jam. Investigation found that…Christopherson, age 44 of Wasilla, died from an apparent rafting accident.”
Other anglers said it appears Christopherson was washed under the log jam in an accident eerily reminiscent of that which claimed the lives of two Montana women on Eagle River just north of Anchorage four years ago.
A silty, glacial flow, Eagle River is bigger and more powerful than Montana Creek, but the dangers are similar: Powerful hydraulics pushing people down and under woody debris and trapping them there.
Montanans Fern Johnson, 60, and Carol Heater, 48, were in a canoe with Johnson’s husband, Robert, when it hit the Eagle River log jam and capsized. Robert managed to scramble out onto the tops of the logs and survived. Fern and Heater were swept under and died.
River runners classify these obstructions as “sweepers” and “strainers,” and the only safe way to deal with them if they fully obstruct a waterway is to beach the boat and portage around. If swept into one, the key is to do what Robert Johnson did: Get out on top of the logs.
Getting washed under one is inherently dangerous because there is really no way to tell which is sweeper, which floats atop the water, and a strainer, a net-like tangle of limbs and roots beneath the surface through which only water can pass.
Christopherson’s familiarity with these dangers is unclear, but the manager of the Montana Creek Campground, where Christopherson was often a visitor, said Friday that he was a regular on the stream.
“Normally, he comes up with a buddy of his,” she said. She asked him whether he was sure he wanted to go it alone on Thursday, a day after his 44th birthday.
“He said, ‘I’ve done this 100 times,” she remembers Christopherson answering before getting dropped off along Yoder Road six or seven miles above the campground. He had with him a “yellow and blue blow-up boat” with which to make his way back downriver, she said.
She suggested Christopherson take a personal flotation device as well. He said he wouldn’t need one.
Montana Creek below the Yoder Road bridge doesn’t look dangerous. Anglers wade much of the creek, and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game suggests it as a getaway for trout, Dolly Varden char and grayling:
But even where waterways seem benign in Alaska, danger sometimes lurks. One of Christopherson’s favorite fishing streams ended up killing him.
“This the hardest post that I have ever posted,” his mother, Ruby, wrote on his Facebook page. “My son Larry Christopherson was taken from his family in a an accident on Montana Creek while fly fishing . My heart is broken more than I can say or even believe right now.”
Christopherson left a wife and young daughter.