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