Dangerous waters

keltner jess photo

Kenai River angler “Kurt” Keltner/photo courtesy Jess Keltner

This story has been updated

As summer turned to fall, the Kenai River finally gave up the body of avid angler Phillip “Kurt” Keltner who disappeared after a boating accident in early August.

The conformation by Alaska State Troopers on Monday that the body found on the North Beach at the mouth of the Kenai was Keltner’s brought to 18 the number of people believed to have died in boating accidents so far this year, said Jeff Johnson director of the state Office of Boating Safety.

Alaska is sadly on track to match or exceed the body count of 2016 when 19 died – more that twice as many as the year before.

The victims fit a pattern, Johnson added, nine out of ten were men without personal flotation devices (PFDs) who somehow ended up in the water.

“Every one of these fatalities has a story,” Johnson said. “Every one has a family, and every one is a tragedy.”

One such tragedy

After Keltner went missing in early August, his family and friends organized a significant search. No sign of the man was found. The family was left hanging in limbo for a month until a body was reported on the North Beach.

In July that beach is sometimes hundreds of people deep in dipnetters as it throbs to life as some sort of salmon-driven Alaska Woodstock. In September, it is quiet, windswept and chilly in the fall rains washing away the Alaska summers Keltner loved.

The Kenai was Keltner’s “happy place” his obituary in the Vail Daily said.

The 63-year-old man spent his winters in the Rocky Mountains near Vail moving snow to making a living and took off for Alaska in the summers to enjoy the fish and the wilderness. He kept a second home in Sterling.

“He was a wonderful neighbor. Summer started when he got up here, came over and gave me a KurtHug,” Rosemary Kimball from that community posted in a memorial. “Summer was over when he came over and gave me a KurtHug goodbye.”

There was no hug to end the summer this year, only news that her worst fears were true. Keltner’s happy place had claimed his life.

Unforgiving river

Keltner was in a boat headed up the Kenai toward the Centennial Campground just north of the Sterling Highway bridge in the community of Soldotna on the evening of Aug. 4 when a steering cable between the helm and the outboard snapped.

When that happened, the motor turned and the boat spun. The erratic, high-speed maneuver pitched all four of the people aboard into the water.

Boating accidents related to equipment failures are relatively rare, Johnson said. What happened next was unfortunately too common in the 49th state.

“Everyone made it to shore except my dad,” Keltner’s daughter, Jess, reported on her Facebook page in the wake of the accident. “He was seen back stroking to shore. He went around a bend and has not been found.”

Keltner was not wearing a life jacket. No one in the boat had on a personal floatation device (PFD), according to Alaska State Troopers.

The Kenai is a big, cold, fast and unforgiving river. In August, the waters run high from the glaciers melting in the Kenai Mountains to the east. The water warms on its way to the sea, but it never gets warm. Temperatures near the Soldotna bridge range from 52 to 58 degrees in early August.  

The water can be cold enough to bring on “cold shock,” which causes “breathing problems (including) gasping, hyperventilation, difficulty holding your breath, and a scary feeling of breathlessness or suffocation, according to the National Center for Cold Water Safety. 

“Short of being hit by a bus or struck by lightning, cold shock is one of the biggest jolts that your body can experience.”

Cold shock, according to the Alaska Office of Boating Safety, is the big reason everyone boating an Alaska river should wear a PFD no matter how nice the day, how short the boat ride, or how safe it seems.

Northern extremes

Cold, fast water is what makes Alaska one of the deadliest states in the nation for boaters.

The state’s boating safety record had been improving up until last year when the number of fatalities more than doubled, going from a record low of seven in 2015 to 19 dead in 2016. 

Johnson fears the state could match or exceed that record again with hunters now out in riverboats all across the state. State officials, he said, are continuing efforts to hammer home the message that the simple task of pulling on a PFD can save your life.

He noted the case of four kayakers who spent more than 40 minutes in Eklutna Lake just weeks ago, and survived thanks to their PFDs. Andrew Cunningham, an Anchorage paddle boarder who saved two of them, reported they were in bad shape when he found them in the cold water on Aug. 26.

The kayakers Cunningham found were  “wearing life jackets but soaked and cold and hanging on (to their boat)  for dear life,” Kirsten Swan reported in the Chugiak-Eagle River Star. “They had been in the water for a while, they said. They’d lost sight of their companions.

“While the woman was still able to swim, the man – her father – struggled to keep his head above the water and clung to the standup paddleboard for support, Cunningham said. They started paddling. Between the wind and the waves and the added weight, it took nearly an hour to reach the shore.”

But the kayakers survived. Others lacking PFDs have not been so lucky

This year started off in May with two Central Alaska men going missing in the Yukon River. Neither was wearing a life jacket.

A few weeks later, a 67-year-old man fell out of a canoe on Finger Lake near former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s home town of Wasilla and died. His auto-inflating life jacket failed to inflate.

Just days later, two men died when the fishing boat they were in capsized near the port city of Seward south of Anchorage. Whether they were wearing PFDs was never reported.

A couple weeks after that, a Kake man died in a Southeast Alaska boating accident. 

But in August, not long after Keltner disappeared, a kayaker was saved in a daring rescue on Sixmile Creek on the Kenai after getting pinned against a rock wall. Daniel Hartung, 64, was lucky to survive.

Sometimes in Alaska, luck is all that separates the living from the dead.

8 replies »

  1. It’s good to have a plan for that, Tim Kelley, but when their cable snapped they couldn’t even get a word out before they were tossed into the water. Four grown men, one being over 6ft and about 270lb, were tossed like rag dolls. Good message and reminder, Craig. Johnson lake also claimed a man swimming who had removed his pfd and we lost a local near Ugashik, commercial fishing. A fishery where floatation devices are cumbersome and rarely seen despite the number of losses. I searched for Kurt for over a month, knowing exactly where he was last seen, and that river decides when and if it will give someone back. So grateful Kurt was returned to his family.

      • Couldn’t agree more. Im not in the commercial boats any longer but if I were I’d have something! Some just prefer to leave their life to fate like those before them. It’s an easy mentality to fall into in that industry. I know I did.

    • KC: Maybe re-read my comment. I wasn’t talking about this Kenai River incident. I was talking in general terms about steering cables, and the Big Su. I was giving ideas to fellow boaters on how to recover from this problem, if it happens and they are still in the boat. Other suggestions: always check the steering at the dock. Cables usually don’t all of a sudden snap without warning. There is usually a rough spot in the action, or skipping that you can feel. Both indicate that trouble is coming and it’s time to replace the cable. And like Art Chance says, use a lanyard so if you are thrown out of the boat the engine shuts off.

      And Craig is right. No excuse for no PFD. I’ve picked fish from a gill net while wearing a PFD. And yeah, now and then the webbing snags temporarily on buckles of the PFD. No big deal. A quick flick and it’s freed. The safety is worth the slight hassle.

      • I understood and didn’t mean to “tell” you how or what to do. Wanted to convey that in this particular case, he never felt anything out of place. It is indeed rare, thankfully. I also concur on the PFDs in comm fish. Again, just speaking of what I’ve seen and know there. No excuses no matter what the reason for being on the water.

  2. This article mentioned a steering cable snapping. I always worry about that happening. That could be a really bad deal, especially in a fast moving, sweeper-filled river like the Big Susitna. I always carry compression rachet straps for a situation like this. Throw out the anchor to (maybe) slow your drift. Then use a rachet strap (or two) to quickly strap an oar/boat hook/2×4/shovel/axe (whatever you have) onto the outboard cowling to make a temporary tiller. Then at low power, slowly work your way out of the current to a sand bar or bank and beef up your emergency work before continuing. Or, something that I do, carry a tiller arm, with throttle cable, that I can install if needed. Of course, if you have an inboard, and no outboard, you will not have these options.

  3. Anybody in an open boat in Alaska water without a PFD is a complete idiot, and in my boating days I saw one Helluva lot of complete idiots. $200 will buy you a high quality automatically inflatable PFD that doesn’t get in your way fishing. Catch them on sale and you can get a quality manual inflatable PFD for $100. The inflatables do have to be serviced and the CO2 canisters have a shelf life. $2-$300 will buy you a Mustang or equal floatation jacket. Under $100 will buy you a pack of six Type III PFDs; they’re bulky and are inconvenient for fishing or just moving around on a boat, but they’ll save your guests/passengers’ lives. Where there is a USCG presence they’ll pull alongside and ask you how many passengers you have and ask you to show them the PFDs; if you can’t they can and will terminate your voyage and if you’re licensed cite you for it. I have in some instances seen political correctness gets in the way of terminating voyages, even when there are whole families in an open boat in big water with not a PFD in sight. If you’re driving an open boat or from the flybridge and don’t have the kill switch lanyard attached to you, you’re a complete idiot who is risking your own life and that of your guests/passengers. I’m willing to bet that in this incident either the kill switch lanyard wasn’t in use or was disabled. An incident such as this that pitched everyone overboard including whoever was driving would have killed the engine when the driver was thrown from the helm, the boat would have stopped and those thrown overboard, would have been able to swim to the boat rather than have to try to make the shore – not that it is easy to climb out of the water into a boat, but it’s easier than a long swim to shore in cold water. I always left the swim step boarding ladder on my boats for just that reason; it is really hard to hoist yourself out of the water and back into the boat without some sort of ladder.

    • art: i used to be one of those idiots, but we were paddling bluewater kayaks all over Southeast before many were doing that, and we figured, “what the hell, if you come out of the boat in the middle of Stephens Passage in bad weather, you’re dead anyway. might as well get it over fast.” it’s an argument. i’m no longer convinced it’s a good a one. it might not make any difference out in the middle of stephens passage, but along some shoreline where a paddler is most likely to get into trouble it could make a lot of difference. of course, PFD’s are also a lot better designed now and more comfortable than they were 40 years ago.

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