The body of Bulchinta Bill was pulled out of a log jam on Lake Creek on Thursday in a tragic reminder of one of Alaska’s greatest dangers – moving water
Lake Creek was a favorite fishing location for 67-year-old William “Bill” Mazoch of Anchorage by way of Florida. A float plane had delivered him to Bulchitna Lake adjacent to the creek by shortly before his death.
Both the lake and the creek about 70 miles northwest of Alaska’s largest city are popular with salmon and rainbow trout anglers. At low flow the creek is not particularly dangerous, but it is not at low flow.
“Lake Creek is at flood stage. Made a run up it today and it is scary high,” Eric Johnson, who runs the nearby Northwoods Lodge said that day.
“We believe Bill had a medical issue, got heated up, and was splashing water in his face, (and) toppled over in the river,” his widow, Elaine, texted. The current could have quickly grabbed him and washed him downstream into a nearby log jam.
“There are log jams on all channels just below Bulchitna Lake,” Johnson reported. “Water will have to drop at least two feet before we can cut them out.”
Local fishing guides usually clear the river of log jams to ease access to upstream fishing and for safety. The 54 miles of river from Chelatna Lake in the Alaska Range to the Yentna River, various described as Class III+ or Class IV whitewater – is popular with rafters during the salmon season.
As with many Alaska rivers, fall rains can spark flooding that causes river channels to shift. Often the new channels under cut riverbanks and dump trees in the water. The trees can wash downstream, jam and become a serious threat to anyone who ventures near the water, or cling to the banks as almost equally dangerous “sweepers” with current flowing through them.
In this case, friends and family of Mazoch risked their lives to find and help recover his body, his widow reported on her Facebook page:
“(It) was too dangerous for troopers to continue the search, so family and friends went out to find him (with two) boats.One got swamped and guys in the water. One guy pinned between sweeper log and boat, other boat hits swamped boat trying to get to guys to save them.
“When the other boat hit the swamped boat, it freed the pinned guy and all were safe on top of log jam… including Gracie the dog. While they were standing on a stump in the log jam, one guy looked down and saw Bill.
“His son tied him off as they could not get him out. If it was not for that accident, they would not have found him. The recovery dive team came out today by helicopter and our guys along with the dive team got him to shore and waited for the trooper boat to arrive.
“The love expressed for him by those men out there risking their lives to retrieve him is a testimony to the kind of guy he was.”
Not always found
The family of Texan Gary Pitt Sr. never found his body after he went missing in an accident on the Goodpaster River in the fall of 2016. The current of the fast running stream also sucked him under a log jam.
As appears the case with Mazoch, that tragedy began with the simplest of accidents.
“We came around a turn (in the river) and sucked something up in the jet (engine) which made us lose power,” Pitt’s son wrote in a later GoFundMe post when the family we trying to raise money for an expanded search. “We came out of the turn only about 20 feet in front of a log jam.
“The current…pushed us up sideways against a log jam. The boat ‘tea cupped’ – one side went up the logjam pushing the other side down into the water – (and) with the speed of the current and the amount of boat in the water, it sank almost instantly.
“The only thing that I could say to the old man was, ‘Get the fuck out of the boat!’ It swept me out of the boat. I looked up and swear that I saw dad on the log jam right before I went underwater. I reached up and got ahold of the logjam just as I was going under it. I was underwater for about 45 seconds maybe a full minute or so losing what air I had in my lungs trying to pull myself up.”
Gary II somehow managed to pull himself to the surface or was pulled to the surface. He then saw his father in the water five to seven feet away clinging to the logjam.
“My guess is he tried to save me and fell in himself,” Gary wrote. “I found footing and rested my arms screaming at dad to hold on. I was in the water at least another two, or even three more minutes. This whole time I was yelling and screaming to my dad to hold on.
“He was loosing strength and his head started bobbing under the water. Adrenaline ran through me, (and) I mustered the strength to pull myself up out of the river onto the top of the logs. I tried to stand and could not. I screamed again to my dad to hold on. I crawled on my hands and knees to him.
“I laid down, grabbed him by the only thing i could get a grip on, his coat, just above his elbows. He looked at me just as his head went underwater. He saw me grab him. I know he felt my grasp. I tried so hard, yelling and screaming for him to hold on, to pull him up out of the water. I pulled and pulled and could not bring him to me. I had no strength nothing to bring even his head up out of the water.
“About 30 seconds go by of me failing to bring him up (and) all of the sudden he went so, so heavy the river ripped him from my grasp.”
That was the last the younger Pitt saw of his father. The power of fast-running Alaska rivers is hard to comprehend for those with no experience.
Water safety experts say that if you find yourself in the water being pushed toward a logjam, the only thing to do is swim at it as fast as you can and try to pull yourself up onto the logs. Speed is of the essesnce. The faster you are moving the less chance there will be for the current to pull you down and under.
Johnson cautioned that rivers draining the Alaska Range this year need to treated with extreme caution until water levels drop and channels are cleared. Breakup came late to the Range, and the delayed melt of snow is helping swell water levels.
“Lake Creek water levels right now are extremely dangerous,” Johnson said of the stream that attracts salmon anglers from all over the world.
A memorial service for Mazoch – the “Bulchitna Bill Beer Toast” is planned for Sunday at 2 p.m. at American Legion Post 28 in Anchorage.