A bridge too narrow, a creek too fast and a six-wheeled vehicle sold for its ability to “go anywhere” combined to claim the life of a 68-year-old Alaskan this week.
Wasilla’s Barry Yocom drove his Argo XTV into O’Brien Creek about two and half miles south of the Copper Valley, outpost community of Chitina on Wednesday evening planning to power across to a Copper River trail regularly used by dipnetters pursuing the river’s famed king and sockeye salmon, according to Alaska State Troopers.
“He had crossed O’Brien Creek many times before with his Argo, but I guess the water level was higher this time,” a friend said Saturday.
In Alaska what is safe one day can be deadly dangerous the next all depending on Mother Nature’s whims. Avalanches, rockslides, earthquakes, extreme cold and more regularly kill people in the state, but fast water is one of the most consistent killers.
In this case – either because of the water being faster from a higher flow or the new channel this year being deeper than the old channel last year – the Argo lost its hold on the rocky bottom of the creek. The current then pushed it sideways and downstream into the muddy Copper boiling into Wood Canyon at better than 10 mph.
The fast water grabbed the Argo and pulled it under. Yocom’s body has not been found.
He was, sadly, crossing the creek just downstream from a bridge wide enough for many four-wheel, all-terrain vehicles (ATV), but a few inches too narrow for the five-foot-wide Argo. The Alaska Department of Transportation placed the skinny bridge across the creek after a 2006 flood wiped out a previous bridge wide enough for trucks and sport-utility vehicles (SUVs).
At the time, the Chitina Dipnetters Association asked then Gov. Sarah Palin to replace the bridge with a similar structure, but the state Department of Transportation decided to install an ATV-only bridge both because it was cheaper and because it would keep large vehicles from continuing down a primitive road that had in the 1990s marked the beginnings of the late Gov. Wally Hickel’s proposed “Copper River Highway.”
The “highway” was for a time a nice, one-way drive for dipnetters in trucks and SUVs, but it never made it even a third of the way to its hoped-for, tidewater terminus in the coastal community of Cordova at the southern edge of Prince William Sound.
Killed by costs and objections from environmentalists, the pet project of the development-minded Republican governor was left to the recreation-minded governor who followed him into office. Democrat Tony Knowles proposed turning the planned highway into a world-class, 82-mile trail through the stunning wilderness along the big muddy river that drains the glacier-filled Chugach, Wrangell and St. Elias mountains along the Alaska-Canada border.
That plan eventually faded away with barely a peep.
Through the 1990s into the 2000s, the road steadily deteriorated into a primitive trail due to the dangers and costs involved in state maintenance of a route regularly buried in rubble from landslides that thunder down from the Chugach Mountains above when the rains came heavy.
After one landslide in 2001, the state had to launch a rescue to aid dipnetters whose trucks and SUVs had become stranded on the wrong side of a rock pile far south of Chitina. A tiny community about 250 road miles east of Anchorage, Chitina is Alaska famous for a bumper sticker that asks simply “Where the hell is Chitina?”
A later landslide led the state to declare the roadbed unstable and permanently close the road to motor vehicles only about a mile south of the O’Brien Creek bridge. It wasn’t long after that the bridge washed away and was replaced by the small, four-wheeler bridge.
One dipnetter described the bridge as just big enough for his Honda 700, side-by-side ATV, but not big enough for his Honda 1000. The 700, according to the Honda website, measures 59.7 inches wide. The 100 is but 3.3 inches wider, but won’t fit between the low uprights that rise on either side of the bridge to help prevent ATVs from falling off.
The only way to get a vehicle as wide as an Argo across the creek and onto the trail to which the DOT did make some improvements this year is to ford the water. The best place to do that is, unfortunately, downstream from the bridge and very close to the Copper River.
A coveted piece of machinery in Alaska, the six-wheeled Argo is billed as the ultimate “go anywhere, do anything” machine for use on both land and in the water.
“The Argo takes to water like a duck-tolling retriever,” wrote Vern Putzer at Dirttrax, “although when we tested it, we opted to appeal to its sporty persona and entered the water more like a dog at a dock jumping competition.
“With its exclusive chevron paddle tires, the Argo propels itself in the water at 3 mph. Steering the Argo in water is no different than on land. You power the paddle tires by twisting the hand throttle and adjusting the rate of power delivery to either side by turning the handlebars in the direction you want to go.”
The spinning tires work great to motor the vehicle across lakes or the slowest moving rivers but – like the two webbed feet of a duck – they are useless for paddling upstream against a strong current.
Once the tires of Yocom’s Argo lost traction on the rock bed of O’Brien Creek, he was in big trouble. A friend of Yocom, an experienced Alaskan outdoorsman, described the fatal accident that followed as tragic.
But Yocom is not the first driver of an offroad vehicle to be killed while trying to cross a stream in Alaska. Several have died that way in recent years.
They are a reminder of how dangerous fast water in the 49th state and especially so the waters of the Copper so heavily laden with silt you can hear it grinding on the rocky cliffs on either side Wood Canyon.
Yocom’s death is the first this year connected to the Copper River dipnet fishery, which allows Alaskans to harvest large quantities of salmon with nets for personal use, but it is far from the first on the Eastern Alaska river.
Last year a 35-year-old Army National Guard military policeman assigned to the 49th Missile Defense Battalion at Fort Greely in Central Alaska slipped off a rock into the cold, fast waters and drowned.
Hickel envisioned an 82-mile road along the bed of the long-abandoned, Northwestern and Copper Railway from Chitina on the Edgerton Highway to the fishing port of Cordova on the Gulf of Alaska coast just south of Prince William Sound.
copper river fatal.
Argo 850, 60 inches: https://argoxtv.com/vehicles/aurora-800-sx
promoted as vehicle that can “swim,” https://www.alloutdoor.com/2020/05/27/argo-xtv-different-kind-machine/
On 7/8/20 at approximately 1910 hours, Glennallen AST received a report of a person being swept down river near Obrien Creek and the Copper River in Chitina. Barry Yocom age 68, of Wasilla was operating an Argo while attempting to cross Obrien Creek when it was swept into the Copper River and went under. AST and AWT searched the area with aircraft and utilized local Jet Boat Charters to search from the water. A search of the area revealed items from the Argo but there were no signs of Yocom. The active search has been called off. Next of kin has been notified.