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Dangerous waters

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There is safety in numbers in wild Alaska. Packrafters on the Placer River/Craig Medred photo

The subtle but dangerous difference between wild and urban Alaska was underlined this week by the tragic death of a mother and son on the Kobuk River and the combat-fishing rescue of a young woman on the Kenai River.

There is little doubt the unnamed young woman who fell into the Kenai on Saturday in Soldotna would be dead if she had been much of anywhere other than the state’s most popular summer waterway.

The woman, a photo of whom appeared in the Kenai Peninsula Clarion on Wednesday along with that of her rescuer, is reported have been yelling “I can’t swim. I’m drowning” as the cold, fast, glacial Kenai flushed her toward Cook Inlet.

Luckily, the Kenai is a place where the odds are high someone will be around to hear a plea for help even at 5:30 a.m. on a July morning. The reason is simple. The Kenai is easily road accessible from Alaska’s largest city, and in July it is regularly plugged with fresh, silvery sockeye salmon.

Anglers flock to the river to chase the fish at all hours. One of the anglers along the river on Saturday was Andy Foor, a minister from Everett, Penn. He was with a gang of others below the Sterling Highway bridge in Soldotna when he  heard the woman’s shout.

“We were all just standing there helpless,” Foor later told Clarion reporter Elizabeth Earl. “I just said a prayer, and a voice said, ‘Throw your line out into the water.’ I hollered to the girl so that I’d get her attention, and I cast.”

Thankfully, Foor’s aim was good, and he was rigged up with 50-pound-test line for horsing sockeyes to a popular fishing dock just downstream from the Soldotna bridge. The woman latched onto the line, and Foor held tight as she pendelummed to the shore downstream where other anglers came to her aid.

There are those who contend the many people on the Kenai diminish the fishing experience, but for humans there is and always has been safety in numbers. And therein lies the biggest difference between the two worlds of Alaska.

When Merna Sheldon, 54, and son Albert Shelon, 34, fell out of a skiff on the Kobuk on Monday, there was no one around to help. A full day would pass before a friend in Noorvik, a village of fewer than 700 people tens of miles from anywhere, decided go find out why Merna, Albert and Albert’s four-year-old son Jim hadn’t returned from a berry-picking trip downriver

Usually, everyone gets luck and it turns out to be that the missing party ran out of gas for the outboard on the skiff or somehow broke down. This time, the situation turned out to be far worse.

Four-year-old Jim was found alone on the river bank. Asked what had happened, he explained, according to an Alaska State Trooper dispatch, that the family was  “returning from berry picking when the skiff began to spin in a circle causing Merna and Albert to fall out.”

Why that happened is unclear, but Jim got lucky in that the skiff eventually ran safely aground. The four-year-0ld got out to wait for his father and grandmother to return. They never did.

The Northwest Arctic Borough search and rescue volunteers with help from people in Noorvik eventually searched the river. They found two bodies.

“On Tuesday evening, Albert Sheldon was recovered from the Kobuk River without a life jacket and appearing to have drown,” the troopers reported. “The search efforts continued until Wednesday evening when Merna Sheldon was recovered from the river without a life jacket and appearing to have drown.”

There was no one around to throw them a line. In rural Alaska, there is almost never anyone around to throw you a line. Personal flotation devices (PFDs) might have saved the Sheldons, but even then there is no guarantee.

Alaska rivers are cold and fast, and sometimes the results are deadly if there is no one to help pull you out. The Sheldons died only days after a wild stretch of Montana Creek north of Anchorage killed trout fisherman Larry Christopherson.

He was fishing alone in a place where there was no one to help.

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