Wildlife professionals Michael Huffman and Rochelle Renken loved the outdoors. They came to Alaska looking for adventure in the wild, and it killed them.
Officials at Wrangell-St. Elias National Park on Tuesday reported the bodies of the couple, both age 62, were found along the Sanford River in the heart of the nation’s largest and one of its wildest national parks on Monday.
Both were retirees who had worked for the Missouri Department of Conservation. They lived in Columbia, Mo.
Renken worked in the Canadian far north in the early 2000s. A colleague studying snow geese there described her as “the best field assistant anyone could ask for.” She was a former president of the North Central Section of The Wildlife Society, a professional group that promotes wildlife education and science.
The park service provided no details on Renken’s experience crossing Alaska rivers.
River crossings in Alaska vary greatly and can change significantly within hours depending on local weather conditions. Only days before Renken and Huffman disappeared, a loose dog was credited with rescuing an inexperienced, 21-year-old college student from Tennessee who got in trouble crossing glacial Eagle River just north of the state’s largest city.
She was at the time hiking the popular Crow Pass Trail in the half-million-acre Chugach State Park. There is a marked ford across the river about halfway along the 21-mile trail from Anchorage’s Eagle River suburb to near the ski-resort community 40 miles east of the city along Turnagain Arm.
The ford is the most-used, glacier-river crossing in the state, but the park warns hikers that “crossing Eagle River can be dangerous and river temperatures are extremely cold! Know proper river fording techniques. It is recommended that you cross at the marked ford sites (white posts).
“Test depth with a walking stick. Choose your time; glacial rivers swell under hot sun or heavy rains, and are usually lowest during the early morning hours.”
Despite the marked crossing and advice, Irish backpacker Larry Dowling died there in 2007 after he slipped while crossing and was washed downstream. Dowling made a tragic mistake in leaving his backpack strapped to his waist and across his chest. When he fell down in the river, he was unable to get free of the heavy load being pulled downstream by the fast-flowing current.
Park services reports indicate Huffman and Renken avoided that mistake. Their “two, gear-filled backpacks” were reportedly found some distance from their bodies. But they still succumbed to the bone-numbing chill of the water near the face of the glacier.
Unlike Crow Pass, the Sanford River to Dadina River hiking route in the 13.2-million-acre Wrangell park – a mountain and glacier-filled wilderness area near the size of the state of West Virginia – lacks both a trail and a marked river crossing. The park service promotes the backpacking trip as a true wilderness hike from a remote Sanford airstrip to an equally remote Dadina airstrip.
The agency calls this the “Volcanic Traverse.”
“HIGHLIGHTS,” say a park service brochure: “A wild and remote area with unsurpassed scenery. Volcanic peaks (Mount Drum 12,010’, Mount Sanford
16,237’, and Mount Wrangell 14,163’), alpine tundra, and splendid isolation. Watch for sign of caribou, Dall sheep, grizzly bear, moose, bison, and ptarmigan.”
But the brochure also warns of the crossing of the Sanford River or Sanford Glacier only two and a half miles from the landing strip that delivers backpackers to the northern edge of the plateau.
“At the glacier, depending on conditions you may have to either negotiate the several icy streams flowing from beneath the glacier, and/or cross over sections of the glacier. Be careful!” the brochure says. “What appears to be just gravel, is actually a thin covering over glacier ice. Crossing the moraine is deceptively difficult and slow. Your destination is the base of the grassy hillside on the south side of the glacier’s terminus. Once
past the glacier, there is a nice camping area at the base of the hill with clear water nearby.”
A park service press release indicated Huffman and Renken tried to avoid the difficult Sanford moraine in favor of crossing the river just below.
Their bodies, the agency reported, were found “less than two miles from” the airstrip, and “search crews found footprints along the Sanford River where it emerges from the Sanford Glacier. The footprints were indicative of two people preparing for a river crossing. Over the weekend search crews found two backpacks and other backpacking gear strewn along a seven mile stretch of the Sanford River downriver from the Sanford Glacier and the location of the footprints.”
From the beginning of the search – which began after an air-taxi pilot reported Huffman and Renken missing from their scheduled pick up after twice failing to make scheduled check-ins by satellite phone – the park service has been less than forthcoming with information on the missing backpackers.
It went for days refusing to disclose who it was looking for and then on Monday reported that the search for the still unnamed backpackers – “NOTE TO EDITORS: The NPS cannot release the names of the missing hikers at this time.” – was “being scaled back” and that “no people have been found.”
That press release said that “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.”
Just over 24 hours later, the agency reported that Huffman and Renken had died along the river. How the bodies came to be discovered after ground crews left the area is unclear. The park service press release on Monday said only that rangers recovered the bodies on Monday less than two miles from the Sanford airstrip.
“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,” that statement added. “The NPS reminds backpackers that river crossings are always dangerous and that rivers and streams that are sometimes passable become impassable, even for experts, after rain events or on sunny days with rapid glacial melt.”