Water kills again


A booming new sport with its own dangers/Craig Medred photo

The growing Alaska sport of packrafting has tragically added to the number of drowning victims in America’s largest national park this year.


Officials in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve along the U.S.-Canada border in Eastcentral Alaska today reported 22-year-old Austrian Aidan Don died in the Nizina River late last week.

His death follows on the heels of that of two Missouri hikers swept away by the Sanford River and killed in the heart of the park in late June.

Park spokeswoman Margie Steigerwald reported Don and an unidentified friend, “both novice packrafters, were dropped off by plane near the lake at the base of the Nizina Glacier for a day-long packraft trip on” Thursday.

Packrafts are lightweight, one-person, inflatable boats that trace their history back to a legendary, 150-mile wilderness race across the Kenai Peninsula from Hope to Homer in 1982 that was destined to morph into the iconic Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic. 

Since that time, packrafts have been refined, improved and gone mainstream. The state now supports an active packrafting community. Packrafting pioneer Roman Dial has described the boats as “the poor man’s Supercub,” a tribute to the way in which they open up vast corners of the Alaska backcountry.

McCarthy-based Kennicott Wilderness Guides describe the boats as “a great way to participate in Alaska’s fastest growing sport.” The company guides beginning packrafters, who are required to wear drysuits, personal flotation devices (PFDs) and helmets.

Don and his unnamed friend lacked all of those pieces of safety gear, according to the Park Service, and it didn’t take long for Don to get into trouble after leaving Nizina Glacier Lake about 20 miles northeast of McCarthy, a community 60 miles deep into the remote park at the end of the rugged McCarthy Road. 

Once a little-visited outpost most famous for the long-abandoned and now-historic Kennecott Mine nearby, McCarthy has slowly but steadily been building a soft-adventure tourism business around flightseeing, sightseeing, glacier hiking and rafting. It’s still home to only 28 people in the winter but swells to 10 times that or more in summer.

Part of the Kluane/Wrangell-St. Elias/Glacier Bay/Tatshenshini Alsek World Heritage Site covering 24.2 million acres of Alaska, and the Yukon Territory and British Columbia, Canada, it attracts visitors from around the world.

Dangerous waters

Don was one of them. He took off on what the Sierra Club touts as “a trip of a lifetime.”

“….Kennicott Wilderness Guides will instruct us on the basics (ferrying, paddling, boat re-entry, and running small rapids),” says a Sierra Club itinerary for a Nizina adventure. “Flying to our base camp location at the foot of Nizina Glacier on Nizina Glacier Lake will be an adventure all its own as we fly past the Mile High Cliffs and scenery beyond words.  After we land, we will paddle across the lake to a lovely base camp where we will set up camp.  There will be time that first afternoon to take a short loop hike.  We will camp the next three nights.  Each day we will explore a different loop hike, paddling on the lake to access those hikes.”

Don and his friend decided to go for a slightly bigger adventure with a float back down the cold and glacially gritty Nizina to McCarthy. Regularly floated, the river is rated Class II+ or sometimes III whitewater at most flows. The main danger is big, splashy waves that can flip a packraft over backward if the paddler isn’t paying adequate attention.

The river almost claimed a competitor in the Wilderness Classic who washed out of his packraft in the 1980s when the race was run on a course from Nabesna, near the northern boundary of the Wrangell Park, to McCarthy. He was on a beach badly hypothermic when found and aided by another competitor.

Another Classic competitor lost his packraft on the Nizina after getting washed out after the Classic returned to the Nabesna-to-McCarthy course in the early 2000s. The boat was eventually found and returned.

According to the Park Service, Don got into trouble sometime shortly after he and his friend separated on the river only a few miles below the lake. The friend reported later seeing Don’s overturned raft with no sign of Don.

Falling into glacially cold water can trigger what is called “cold shock,” a reflexive action that can cause an inhalation gasp along with massive increases in heart rate and blood pressure. These reactions sometimes prove deadly.

“Short of being hit by a bus or struck by lightning, cold shock is one of the biggest jolts that your body can experience,” warns the National Center for Cold Water Safety. 

The paddler following Don down the river “landed on an island and made a satellite phone call for emergency assistance,” according to the Park Service. “Aerial searchers found Don’s body four miles further downstream on the south side of the Nizina River near the Mile High Cliffs. They were able to pick up the survivor and call for additional assistance with the recovery.”

The steep and spectacular Mile High Cliffs go almost straight up for hundreds of feet along the banks of the Nizina only about 10 miles east of McCarthy, but the terrain remains so rugged and remote the Park Service had to call in a helicopter to retrieve Don’s body.

In the wake of the latest fatality, the Park Service was again left warning people that the park’s “rivers are cold, silty and conditions change constantly depending on rain and sun, both of which increase the volume and depth of the water. The park’s rivers can be extremely challenging, even for experts, and are not recommended for unguided novice rafters. Dry suits and personal floatation devices are highly recommended for all river rafting and packrafting trips in the park.”

Don is the second packrafter to die in the park in the last four years. In July of 2014, 44-year-old Rob Kehrer, a 10-year veteran of the Classic, perished on the Tana River south of McCarthy.

Friend and paddling companion Greg Mills later said the last he saw of Kehrer was his boat disappearing into a boil of water from which Kehrer never emerged. His body, like that of Don, was later found miles downstream.

An experienced paddler, Kehrer had always been cautious around big water. Before him on the Tana, Classic veteran Luc Mehl said, two other Classic paddlers survived swims in dangerous Class IV whitewater upstream from where Kehrer and Mills inflated their boats and put in on the Tana.

“They actually put in below the worst of the gnarly,” Mehl said. “They walked way out of their way” to be safe.  That precaution proved inadequate.



21 replies »

  1. I have flown dozens of times with licensed “air taxis” throughout Alaska.
    Never once has a pilot opened up my bags and asked if I had necessary survival gear.
    How is this event any different from a pilot who drops a climber off on the glacier only to hear that climber died do to rock fall or rappelling off of their rope? Maybe they had wrong gear?
    Pilots do not force me to wear a helmet or check my bag for the proper amount of food?
    It seems ludicrous to blame the pilot for lack of a PFD and dry suit here.
    If he is in breech of state law for other business practices, then notify the authorities.
    As for the safety of the pack raft in wilderness settings, I have seen too many expeditions requiring rescue and tend to conclude they are better for use in more controlled settings where a walk out could occur if things were to go wrong.
    Why can’t anyone just float with their buddy on a larger pontoon style raft with oars?
    Much safer, carries more gear and has more ability to “get free” from hydraulics and standing waves while running Alaskan rivers.

  2. Bryan: thanks for your request for clarity. I’m typing from an iPhone in McCarthy and tjis situation has me a little upset.

    For whatever reason the NPS is not releasing the name of the pilot who dropped these youth, unfamiliar to the mountains. But the local conclusion has been confirmed by trusted rangers.

    Aidan and his young friend were not dropped off by a licensed local air taxi. And I agree, Craig air taxis are not responsible to police their independent clients. What appears to have happened here is diffeeent. The boys were almost certainly staying at an unauthorized remote wilderness “lodge” and flown out by an unauthorized yet active quasi-commercial pilot who has repeatedly established his recklessness with human life and his disregard for common law.

    Dry suits are up for debate (id never float the Nizina without one.). But embarking on a four to six hour whitewater cold water float without a pfd is ludicrous. Maybe they don’t have cold water in Austria, but Aidan’s local host should have and after five plus years in the valley presumably does know better. The morality of this sickens me. And if the pilot/wilderness host (his name is almost certainly the notorious Philippe) directly or indirectly received money for “renting” the packrafts, and/or arranging/recommending the route sans PFD, I do believe he should be held criminally liable.

    Likely this will spend months under investigation. But in the meantime, the public should know what’s happening. There Are so many fine businesses here in the Wrangells: I mentioned Wrangell Mountains air and KWG already. I also applaud St Elias Alpine Guides, McCarthy River Tours & Outfitters, Trek Alaska, ultimathule, and the NPS for all they do to assure recreationalists can take appropriate risks with effective guidance.

    What happened here was NOT the norm of what I’ve witnessed during 27 summers in this valley.

    Hence my outrage.

    And in case I failed to say so earlier: my heart goes out to the family and friends of Aidan. Presumably there is some solace knowing he died in pursuit of wild adventure but still, in my mind, this death was Wrong.

    • Nancy,
      I understand your reaction to this event, but blaming the pilot for a situation he did not force upon the “adventures” in not the solution.
      Just in the last month two Beavers crashed here in our Valley and both were licensed air taxis, but what comes out is their one pilot was from Michigan and the other was in his early 20’s and “foolish”, so going with a licensed air taxi does not secure your safety, nor did it hinder this party’s outcome.
      Some of the safest pilots in Alaska are not working for air taxis and sometimes you get a substitute pilot when you use a larger air service.
      Even my five year old son knows to grab his PFD before heading to the river…plus we do not know if the packrafts failed?

    • Nancy, not detracting from your statement at all, as I sympathize with your concerns. However, let me add a little clarity to your comment as well. As for a someone being a Commercial Pilot, well, you are either a Commercial Pilot for hire or you are not. No “quassi” about it. Now, is this guy a “Current” Commerical Pilot in the particular aircraft flown with current FAA Class Flight Physical? Also, there is no “common law” in the Aviation world, only the FAR’s. If you are familiar with the FAA requirements outlined in FAR Part 91 and 135, by all means report the pilot to the FAA for violations. In addition, make the company this individual is flying for aware of his actions in writing and remind them that they are possibly opening themselves up to monumental, civil liability. I am using a cellphone to type as well, so I apologize upfront for any errors.

    • Craig, I just reread my comment above and need to delete the line “confirmed by trusted local rangers,” which is not entirely true. Is it possible to edit my comment? I would hate to do anything to negatively impact this important investigation. Thanks. “Confirmed by trusted locals” feels accurate.

  3. Thanks Craig for exploring this story further. Unfortunately as a long time McCarthyite who has packraft and skid that I concur with Fred Duee above. This was no simple unfortunate accident. The pilot/outfitter who facilitated this route for inexperienced boaters without even the most basic safety equipment should be held accountable for criminal negligence. Let it be clear: the wonderful folks at Wrangell Mountain Air and Kennicott Wilderness Guides had no part in this fiasco. They run legitimate businesses. What happened on the Nizina leading to the death of Aidan Dob is not business: it’s BS! Concerned citizens should insist upon full investigation of this incident . In the meantime, yes Craig. Cold water can kill. That’s why real boaters take precaution. In this case I believe recklessness was the real cause of death. killed. Reckless inexperienced boaters yes, but also a reckless local “guide” misguiding the innocent while operating quasi-commercially under the radar. This accident is beyond tragic. This “accident” is horrific. I hope all involved authorities are investigating the incident with a perspective to prevent future reckless endangerment of others

    • talked to a lot of people about this Nancy. pretty hard to police. boats could have been rented or borrowed. could even have been rented in Anchorage where someone was told they were planning to float Campbell Creek. who knows. it would be interesting to talk to the survivor, but the Park Service hasn’t provided a name.

      i can’t really hold any air taxi responsible. it’s really not their responsibility, and i’m not sure i want them policing. i’ve done some stuff alone and some other stuff with friends that i’m confident that if i/we told an air taxi the plan, they might have refused to fly us.

      i personally consider their responsibility solely to get me on the ground safely at the LZ.

      but with all that said, even a PFD here and the poor guy probably would have made it. drysuits are great. love mine. don’t think i’d packraft anything more than Class I without it and then only on a warm sunny day, but i survived more than a few river swims – both intentional and unintentional – back in the day without it and survived.

    • Nancy, I am not quite getting it, was this a company or individually sponsored “accident” or both? Actually, I know of a family, good people, who run an infaltable kayak company on one the glacier pools across from Katchemak Bay. They use PFD’s but, no drysuits. The water is extremely cold obviously. I have witnessed families with young, inexperienced children and adults paddling in the chop on a windy day. Sent a shiver down my spine. Accident waiting to happen.

    • I suspect these two novices were saving money by doing their own trip without the extra expense offered by Kennicott Wilderness Guides. These things happen all the time with folks watching their pocketbooks and occasionally things go wrong. This glacier river thing is just something that very few people have a grasp of since almost nobody has a feeling of what it’s like to get dumped in thirty-some temperature water.
      You seem to have some information that the pilot was some kind of “outfitter” but, without proof of that, it’s my guess the pilot will only be assessed on his/her flying.

  4. I’ve guided commercial and private river trips for decades in Alaska and the Yukon. If indeed the pack rafters did not have dry suits, PFDs and helmets then I would consider it negligence inconceivable on Alaska rivers even for experts. I live on the Nizina River 5 months of the year and very familiar with it the entire length. The remoteness, cold water and water fluctuations due to heat and precipitation heighten the risk for everyone who boats the Nizina with proper safety gear. For those who by choice or other reason are not outfitted properly and vetted for Alaska packrafting experience is unconscionable and deadly. Very sad and with no possible explanation in my wildest dreams.

  5. Too many explorers have switch to the packraft, but the reality is a conventional raft or metal Jon boat is a safer method of travel on Alaskan rivers. A pack raft does not have as many chambers of air in case of punture by a snag, where a larger raft does…that said, without a PFD there is little chance of surviving an unplanned swim in Alaskan waters.

    • The reality is a cruise ship is a safer method of travel than a conventional raft or metal Jon boat. Oh, wait. A cruise ship can’t get in and out of the same places that those vessels can. Now I get it…

      • I don’t know Pete, if you include the risk for stomach virus… Cruise ships look dangerous to me…I hear your point on running narrow creeks, but overall for the average river “floater”, they would be much better off with a raft that has much more floation in the chance one chamber is punctured…
        Just looking at Craig’s photo above, you can see the packraft riding low in the water.
        Want to run steep creeks?
        I suggest a plastic kayak with spray skirt…much warmer and takes a beating for years without “Deflating” your ego.

  6. 37 degree water. No PFD or drysuit. Where does one begin with this one? I’ll be directing my thoughts and prayers towards Denali today.

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