Winter ice still clogs Alaska’s Kenai River, but there is a definite sign of breakup on the horizon.
The phantom Ice Surfer is back.
Every year for several springs now, a young man who gets his rocks off on riding the shifting ice of Alaska’s most famous salmon river has made an appearance in Soldotna, a community of about 4,500 stretched out along the Sterling Highway on the Kenai Peninsula, according to Sgt. Duane Kant of the local police department.
Kant said the surfer has caused problems for local law enforcement, but “he’s not really doing anything wrong.”
Outfitted in a wet suit, the surfer is well prepared for floating the river, and with the glacially fed Kenai at its lowest flow this time of year, Kant said there is no real safety concern.
“I don’t have any issue that way,” he said, though he recommended against people riding the ice anywhere in Alaska.
On the Kenai, Kant said, the real problem comes with others spotting the surfer on the ice, judging him to be in danger and calling the authorities. Late last week, the surfer’s outing ended with Soldotna police, Alaska State Troopers, officers of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the river rescue team from Kenai Central Emergency Services converging on the river in response to one such report.
Afterward, Emergency Services Capt. Joshua Thompson used the local newspaper to request people undertaking what reporter Erin Thompson called “uncommon recreational activities” contact authorities first to give them a heads up.
“You don’t want to tell people not to have fun, as long as they do it safely,” he told the Peninsula Clarion reporter. “People could contact Soldotna dispatch, and let them know they’re going to do something crazy.”
Kant had no idea what motivates the surfer. He said the police department didn’t write up a report on the man the Clarion reported to be age 28, and thus knew of no way to reach him to ask his motivation.
“I don’t have any contact information for him,” Kant said, “(but) he’s been doing this off and on for a while.”
Kant said the police department hasn’t had any contact with the young man other than in the spring when ice is floating down the Kenai, and the man never seems happy about authorities showing up to rescue him.
Alaska is the land of odd sports and odd adventurers. Riders on ice floes have attracted attention before near the head of Turnagain Arm southeast of the state’s largest city and in Fairbanks where firemen rescued and police then arrested 18-year-old, Chena River floater Michael Poland in 2011.
“Cheers rose from a couple dozen spectators lining the riverbank as rescuers pulled carefully alongside the fragile-looking, 10-foot by 15-foot ice floe where Poland sat calmly on a plastic milk crate talking on a cellphone,” Mary Beth Smetzer wrote in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner at the time.
Poland, unlike Soldotna’s ice surfer, was not exactly well prepared for his adventure though he appears in a News-Miner photo to be enjoying the float.
“Dressed in jeans, a short-sleeve T-shirt, and tennis shoes, the 18-year-old stepped into the rescue boat and donned a red life vest provided by his rescuers,” Smetzer wrote.
Poland was charged with disorderly conduct and spent the night in jail. But state court records indicate the charges against him were eventually tossed out.