Deadly rivers


Once more high, fast water appears to have killed in Alaska.

Searchers looking for a pair of missing backpackers in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park on Saturday reported they found gear scattered along a seven-mile stretch of the Sanford River and were scaling back the search.

The park service has refused to name the couple or provide any information on their ages or experience in travel in wild Alaska. Wrangell-St. Elias is the nation’s largest national park and abuts other parks in both Canada and Alaska to form the largest chunk of protected wilderness in North America.

Over the years, it has been the site of numerous deaths and disappearances.

No bodies were found in or along the Sanford, but “as river levels dropped on Friday and Saturday, search crews discovered the backpacks and other gear in dry river channels that were previously full of silty, glacial meltwater,” a park service statement said.

The backpacks contained identification matching that of the missing pair.

“Ground searchers did see footprints near the (Sanford) glacier that matched the tread of a boot that was found about a mile down river,” the statement said.  It did not say how rescuers believe the boot got washed downriver.

There are two likely possibilities. Someone took their boots off and tied them to their backpack while crossing the river barefoot – not a recommended practice in Alaska where it is better to suffer wet boots in exchange for foot protection and the traction boots provide when crossing the opaque waters of turbid glacier rivers – or someone was swept away, and in the blender of a swollen glacier river one of their boots came off.

Deadly waters

High waters on streams and rivers in Southcentral Alaska have proven unusually dangerous this year. In May, an angler on Lake Creek not far north of the state’s largest city was swept away and drowned. In June a woman and her son were swept away and drowned in the Matanuska River northeast of Anchorage.

The boot and the scattered gear found along the Sanford makes it highly unlikely the missing couple survived. They had planned a six-day adventure on what the park calls the “volcanic traverse,” a trail less,unmarked route across the nearly mile-high Sanford-Dadina plateau nestled in a valley between the towering, glacier covered Sanford, Drum and Wrangell volcanoes.

The 15-mile hike starts with a crossing of either the Sanford River or the gravel terraces at the snout of the Sanford glacier. It appears the couple got into trouble almost as soon as they left the airstrip where they were dropped off by a local air taxi.

They missed two planned check-in calls by satellite phone during the six days they were supposed to be on the route, and when their pilot showed up to get them on Thursday, they were nowhere to be found.

“…Teams searching on the Dadina Plateau and along the Dadina River did not find any evidence of recent hikers,” the park service reported, “and by Friday the search was focused on the Sanford River.”

Heavy rains have caused high waters in the area in past weeks, and it wasn’t until the water started dropping that the first real sign of the pair was found. The search then focused on that area.

“An intensive aerial and ground search on Saturday yielded a few more items but no additional sign of survivors,” the park said. “After two intensive search days, the weather deteriorated on Saturday afternoon and ground crews were moved out of the field and the search was scaled back. The park pilot will continue to search the Sanford River area over the next few days as weather conditions allow.”



9 replies »

  1. “Getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory.”
    ― Ed Viesturs (Mountain Climbing legend)

    In this case, getting across the river was optional. Getting out alive was mandatory.

      • Bill,
        Thanks for sharing that article…I was not aware of their fall.
        John Irvine of Arcteryx describes the fallen Leclerc well in your link:

        ““He’s exceptionally humble,” Irvine said. “He is very comfortable sharing his exploits and sharing his passion for the mountains in a public speaking sense and through film and through articles. But again, it’s in a very humble way and in a way that doesn’t profile him as a hero, but in a way that profiles his passion for being in the mountains.”

      • Steve, folks in Juneau were totally consumed with the weather, at that time, as aircraft couldn’t fly to the Towers and a local guy involved. There was no attempt to recover bodies at that time and I’ve not heard if any attempt has occurred yet this Summer.

  2. National Park Service rangers Monday recovered the bodies of a hiking couple who went missing along the Sanford River in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, the agency said Tuesday.

    Rochelle Renken and Michael Huffman, both 62 and from Columbia, Missouri, were on a six-day backpacking trip in the park but did not meet a scheduled air-taxi pickup Wednesday.

    “Based on the evidence that was found by searchers, it appears that the couple attempted to cross the Sanford River near the toe of the glacier and were swept away by the powerful, glacial river,” the NPS said in a statement.

    The couple were experienced backpackers and Renken has been to Alaska several times in the past and had previous experience crossing Alaskan rivers,” the agency said Tuesday.

  3. It would seem that the hikers were unfamiliar with how glacier feed streams work. These streams will drop significantly late night or early morning. making them cross able in most cases.

  4. I can’t speak for the hikers but I’ve seen a “mentality or mind set” on big mountains where a person or group gets so focused on the quest of succeeding that all regard for common sense and safety on a route just goes out the door.

  5. Once again another Alaskan wilderness hiking tragedy has happened. Horrible situation for their family.

    For the future would be Alaskan hikers & climbers; I reckoned back to that 1973 Clint Eastwood movie line (magnum force) “Man’s got to know his limitations”.

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