CHITINA – Along the banks of the Copper River on Tuesday, many of those dipnetting salmon from the muddy waters raging south toward the Gulf of Alaska seemed well aware of the Saturday death of 35-year-old Russell Hepler.
Whether the larger message inherent in the tragic accident that killed him hit home was harder to tell. Alaska in summer is a beautiful and seemingly benign place that hides its dangers well.
As retired state Boating Safety director Jeff Johnson has observed, it can and does tempt people to overlook potentially deadly consequences because risks appear low.
A 35-year-old National Guard sergeant from Fort Greely in Central Alaska, Hepler had come here hoping to pull a winter’s supply of fish from the river as people have been doing for thousands of years.
He was fishing in Wood Canyon where the river narrows and the already cold, fast and turbulent water upstream becomes even faster and more turbulent. Though the canyon lacks for rapids, veterans of the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River say the violent turbulence looks very familiar, and the water is even colder.
The Copper was ranging from 40 to 45 degrees this week, some 15 to 20 degrees below the temperature the National Center for Cold Water Safety warns will trigger what is called “cold shock,” a reaction to cold-water immersion that can spark a reflexive gasp that causes people to immediately inhale water.
“Cold water can kill you in less than a minute,” the center warns. “It’s actually so dangerous that it kills a lot of people within seconds. Thousands of people have drowned after falling into cold water and a lot of them died before they even had a chance to reach the surface.”
“Cold shock is a lot more complicated and dangerous than just gasping for air,” the center adds. “The instant that cold water makes contact with your skin, you will experience a number of potentially lethal shock responses. These fall into three categories:
- Loss of breathing control
- An elevated heart rate and increased blood pressure
- Mental problems ranging from indecisiveness to disorientation to fear to panic.
Simply falling into the shockingly cold water of an Alaska stream or river on a warm and pleasant day can and has killed people. British scientist Michael Tipton, an authority on immersion deaths, now believes many deaths attributed to “drowning” in the past were most likely due to cold shock.
“Even in ice‐cold water, the possibility of hypothermia does not arise for at least 30 minutes in adults,” he writes. All those stories you’ve read about how you only have minutes to live if you fall in the icy waters of the 49th state are wrong.
You have tens of minutes to live in even the coldest water if you live through the first minute or two. As Tipton is now widely quoted as observing, “if you are lucky enough to survive long enough to die of hypothermia, you have done very well.”
Not just the cold
Were the easily overlooked cold water the Copper River’s only danger, it would be one thing, but there are other threats here as well. The current in Wood Canyon at places hits 10 mph and the water swirls and boils as it slams into the canyon walls only to rebound back into the main flow.
Hepler, an Alaska State Trooper spokesman said Wednesday, was wearing hip boots when he fell into this raging river. He was not wearing a personal flotation device (PFD).
The presence of the former and the lack of the latter has been the case with most, if not all, of previous drownings in this river.
Hip boots, or hip waders as they are sometimes called, do not fill with water and pull people under as some believe. But they create hydrodynamic drag that can pull people down in fast water.
Think of the force on your hand if you hold it out the window of a car doing 60 mph. If your hand is parallel to the ground, air flows around it with a little force.
Turn your hand perpendicular to the ground, however, and drag multiples in proportion to the increased surface area. And in the case of this river, there are the added influences of density – mud flows with more force than clear water – and speed.
If you fall in this river and hope to live, you must be prepared to swim and/or be wearing a PFD or preferably both. It is hard to impossible to swim in hip boots in fast water.
As American Whitewater, an organization dedicated to river safety and preservation, puts it: “hip waders, when filled with water, are a huge handicap to swimmers in fast water and often cause fatalities.”
Not just drownings
The danger of fast, cold water is too often underestimated in this state. A pair of experienced backpackers trying to cross the Sanford River just north of here drowned in June of last year when they decided to push on during high water.
But water is not the only killer stalking the unwary.
And the situation is actually worse than that simple statistic would indicate.
“Unintentional injury (accident) is the leading cause of death for all age groups from 5 to 44 years of age,” the University of Alaska Anchorage Justice Center reported at the start of this decade.
The Alaska Department of Health doesn’t appear to have prepared a new “Alaska Injury Surveillance Report” since 2011, but there are no indications Alaska, or Alaskans, have become any safer.
State news might focus on crime as the greatest threat to public safety, but the reality is that the greatest threat to your safety is staring back at you from the mirror in the morning.
Seventy-eight Alaskans were victims of homicide in 2017, the last year for which full data is available, according to the CDC. More than five and half times as many died in accidents.
Suicide remains a chronic problem in the state, but the 193 people who died in suicide in 2017 were less than half of the 439 who died in accidents.
The state doesn’t have the highest accidental death rate in the nation. That dishonor now goes to Louisiana, and 11 other states now surpass Alaska on the top-20 list of where to die in an accident.
But all but one of them – Arizona – see two to three times as many people die in motor-vehicle accidents, a still all-too-common cause of death in the country. And Arizona has a pedestrian traffic death-rate about twice that of Alaska, not to mention a climate that encourages people to get out of the house year round.
Alaska’s climate encourages people to spend long hours indoors or in the safety of their motor vehicles during the state’s most dangerous season – winter.
Extreme cold weather is inherently risky, but technology has come to help insulate Alaskans from it. The mail isn’t moved by dog teams anymore. Nor do Alaskans undertake arduous day long, or weeks long trips by dog team or on foot to travel between villages.
The airplane long ago altered that dynamic. Ever better snowmachines and modern communications changed it yet again. The machines break down less than in the past, and it is easier to summon help – or have someone summon help – if problems arise.
Technology has rendered the inhospitable season less deadly even as the hospitable season of summer has become in some ways more so given the ever more urban makeup of the world.
It’s hard to assess risks if you don’t understand the dangers.
Twenty years ago, the state of Alaska didn’t have to warn people about the dangers of being stomped by moose in May because most people were well aware of the protective instincts of the mothers of many species.
Not so in these times.
“I always thought of (moose) as docile creatures,” 67-year-old Taylor Caldwell, a Lower 48 musician who now calls the Anchorage suburb of Eagle River home, told KTUU-TV after a stomping by a protective cow moose landed him in the hospital for a week in May.
Moose and bear dangers exist in few places Outside. Water dangers in many other places are muted by warmer temperatures. And there are few places left – most of them in the West – where it is as easy to get lost as it is almost anywhere in Alaska.
In much of the country, if you can walk two miles in a straight line you’re almost sure to hit a road or a trail. In much of Alaska, even along the Alaska road system, you can walk two days in a straight line and not encounter anything but more nothing.
From there, it is possible to bushwhack to the river and float the Twentymile south to the Seward Highway if you happen to be carrying a packraft. The only other sensible alternative is to turn around and retrace your route back along the trail because there are miles and miles of nothing in all other directions.
No one knows what Broach did or even if he made it to the end of the trail. Many thought he might have turned off the trail early on a loop to the nearby Crow Creek Mine and maybe fallen into Glacier Creek while trying to cross it using a hand-powered tram.
The creek was thoroughly searched. His body was not found. And some thought a fall from the tram highly unlikely given that had never happened. And then it did.
This year Anchorage’s Jeffrey Hummel, 57, tumbled to his death there. The local police department said he was trying to help others onto the tram when he lost his balance, fell off the landing, somehow overshot the safety net below the tram landing, and fell 50 feet.
He joined the too many who die accidental deaths in Alaska each year because it is so easy to die this way in Alaska.