BIG PORTAGE LAKE, MICH. – The difference between getting in trouble in the civilized world and getting in trouble in the wilds of Alaska could not have been better illustrated than it was here Friday when the boat started sinking and a family outing went south.

The boat was a rental. The plan was for a cruise around this lake to the “wild” side, which in Midwest terms means the undeveloped shoreline, to anchor off the bullrushes for a pontoon picnic. 

It ended with the rescue of most of those aboard and a skeleton crew limping the sinking pontoon back across the mile-wide lake just in time for the boat to sink at the dock. But that’s getting ahead of the story, which is really about the safety provided by the simple reality of population.

Say what you will about busy outdoor destinations – and many Alaskans are known to complain about them – there is an undeniable safety in numbers for one simple reason.

Almost anywhere you go on the planet, you will encounter people with an instinctive desire to help rescue those in trouble. Saving others makes many people feel good.

It is such a powerful urge that search and rescue organizations regularly talk about the danger of “rescue fever.” After the 1998 death of an assistant climbing guide on Mount McKinley (now Denali), the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) warned that training for guides should “emphasize physiologic responses such as rescue fever.” 

Too many people have been known to take foolish risks in the name of saving others. Sometimes those risks have had deadly consequences. But then that, too, goes back to terrain and weather and the vagaries of a land that remains as wild as Alaska today.

Here on the outskirts of Ann Arbor, there were would-be rescuers backing up the would-be rescuers backing up the would-be rescuers, and their sheer numbers – not to mention the friendly environment – all but eliminated risk.

When 62-year-old backpackers Michael Huffman and Rochelle Renken waded into the Sanford River in the heart of the wild Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve just days ago, the situation was totally different. There was nobody backing up anybody, and the worst happened. They lost their lives.

Risk and consequences

Huffman and Renken walked into a situation with moderate risk but high consequences. The conflict between risk and consequences might be why water kills so many people in Alaska every year.

People die in Alaska with some regularity simply by falling out of boats into fast flowing rivers sans personal flotation devices (PFDs). The risks of falling out of a boat are pretty low, but the consequences can be huge.

Phillip “Kurt” Keltner was in a boat headed up the Kenai River toward the Centennial Campground in early August of last year when a steering cable between the helm and the outboard snapped. When that happened, the motor spun quickly and the boat veered sharply. The erratic, high-speed maneuver pitched all four of the people aboard into the water.

Three of them managed to make it to shore. Keltner, who was not wearing a PFD, did not. His body was finally found in September.

He was not the first to die in a boating accident on the Kenai, and it is sadly unlikely that he will be the last. Many under-estimate the chill of the 52- to 58-degree glacial water and the speed at which the Kenai flows.

It is easy to do when you come from places like this where the water is warm and help is never far away. Here, as in much of the country, you can get in trouble and laugh about getting rescued, as we did. It is no laughing matter in Alaska.

But getting in trouble in the Lower 48 does shares one thing in common with the 49th state; it seldom happens by accident. It happens because of bad decision-making.

Obvious problem

By halfway across the lake on the way out from the Portage Yacht Club, it was pretty obvious the starboard pontoon wasn’t quit right. The boat was listing a couple of degrees to starboard even though most of the weight was on the port side.

We pressed on anyway. The cooler was stuffed with beer and soda, and the mix for gin and tonics. There were aluminum pans full of barbeque and bags of chips and buns and more desert than anyone would be able to eat.

A brisk wind pushed white clouds across the blue sky, and in the 80-degree temperature the wind was welcome. The water wasn’t quite bath warm, but it was close. Suffice to say, jumping in presented no shock to the system.

Most of the lake was surrounded by densely packed summer cabins and year-round homes. And the lake itself was dotted with boats – pontoons, a handful of jet skis, a powerboat with a wakeboardet behind, a few small day sailers, a wind surfer and more.

All in all, it was the kind of lake where people experience outdoor recreation in the Lower 48. The children aboard were enjoying the ride. And no one could see any reason not to push on toward the family picnic site.

Only after the anchor was down did everyone start talking about that list to starboard, which was by the moment getting worse and worse. It was then decided to pull the anchor and head back across the lake to the club.

We hadn’t gone far before deciding that everyone had best get on the port side of the boat to try to keep the starboard pontoon from going under, which it was now trying to do. The weight shift  helped for a few minutes, but the starboard pontoon was soon trying to submarine and all the weight on the port pontoon was enough to push the boat to the point where the outboard motor was in danger of going under.

That’s when Curtis – we never did get his last name – showed up in his pontoon and offered help. Two people in a speed boat were fast behind. Curtis volunteered to take some of the weight off, and within seconds the women, children and all those pounds of uneaten food and undrunk drinks were being transferred from one boat to another.

Curtis headed for the dock with that load, and four of us continued chugging toward the club escorted by the speed boaters who offered that “we’ll follow along in case you don’t make it.”

With three of us weighting the port float as if keeping a Hobie Cat sailboat from blowing over in a strong wind, we fortunately made it, or almost made it. The starboard pontoon grounded before we got all the way to the yacht club dock.

At that point, i jumped out into thigh deep water that was shockingly not at all like the water of Alaska. It was wading pool warm. It was the sort of summer water known to most who live outside of the 49th state. It posed no danger.

But it was a stark reminder of how easily people unfamiliar with Alaska could be fooled by situations they know, but really don’t.


4 replies »

  1. I was in a boat from my sons house in Skwentna. usually went by plane, but river was flooding. I was hanging on for dear life and that is why no boats for me. My grandson Israel was steering, all brush coming down the river. thought I was gonna die from fright. No more boats on flooded rivers. Told Tom not again.

  2. I’d bank fished rivers for years without a PFD. Then out of no where I befriended an elderly gentleman which lead to us going salmon fishing. We arrived in separate vehicles and upon getting geared up I noticed he donned a PFD. Out of curiosity I asked why. He stated that in all his years of fishing and fish guiding he’d seen too many deaths from bank fishermen because of the lack of a PFD. Now I’m following Bill Day’s example.

  3. I certainly feel extremely fortunate, having just read the Deadly article. I did not about them (nor the cavers) out of cell phone range, and for me it was the Yukon Territory, White River, Canada. Understanding my good luck.

  4. I think about when Jorgensen fell into the Copper River while dip netting in 2011….I heard from outfitters in Chitna that it was witnessed and boats immediately tried to rescue him, but since he was not wearing a PFD, he quickly succumbed to the cold rapid water.
    It seems like a PFD or float coat is the first piece of gear to consider when “recreating” near the water, although sadly many times they are not worn due to perceived inconvenience.

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