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.
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.
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.