Danger fish

A typical Turnagain Arm hooligan (eulachon)/Alaska Department of Fish and Game photo


If reports coming from the Twentymile River approximately 45 miles east of Alaska’s largest city are to be believed, some six- to eight-inch long fish nearly killed a couple of people over the weekend.

Yes, the hooligan are running, and not everyone rushing out to dipnet a bucketful of the tasty, little, fat-laden fish understands the threats posed by the river’s current, the silty goo that accumulates in places on the riverbed, the Turnagain Arm tides or the glacial silt that turns to foot-grabbing mud in the Arm.

Wasilla’s Rodger Painter said he was on the river Saturday when he heard someone yell for help and looked upstream to see an elderly fisherman porpoising out in the 40-degree water.

“His family was trying to pull him in by his dipnet,” Painter said, “but the river was going over his head. His head was underwater. He was bobbing up and down.”

With the man’s feet mired in the mud on the river bottom, the man couldn’t get his legs under himself to stand up, and the river was having its way with him the way it does with driftwood stuck to the bottom in a fast current.

“He was going to drown,” said Painter, who expressed shock most others dipnetting hooligan or watching the fishing were ignoring the man’s predicament.

“There was at least 20 people right there,” he said. “None of them moved a muscle.”

The right thing

The 52-year-old Painter decided someone better do something and charged into the river. Fortunately, he was wearing waders with some insulation beneath and belted at the waist in case he fell down.

“(So) I can swim better with waders on,” Painter said.

Out in the river, he managed to pull the man loose from the bottom and get his head above water.

“That water is frickin’ freezing cold,” he said. “(But) I had his face up out of the water and got him on his knees so he wasn’t in danger of drowning.

“He wasn’t the slimmest guy in the world and his waders were full of water. He wasn’t wearing the belt around the waist.

“I think he would have drowned if I wasn’t there.”

While Painter was helping the man toward shore, he said another fisherman – a “big Samoan guy” – who’d been even farther away from the scene than Painter arrived to help pull the man out of the river and reunite him with his family.

The family was very thankful, said Painter, who didn’t get the man’s name.

“He was embarrassed,” Painter said, “which I understand. That’s never a situation you want to be put in – embarrassed and almost dead.”

It was after the man was safely ashore and under the care of his family that Painter said he learned the rescue was the second of the day.

“There’d been an incident earlier,” he said, “a young man kind of in a similar situation. He got stuck in the mud because he wasn’t moving.

“Once you get into that stuff, it’s hard to get out. He made a common mistake. People need to get some awareness down there.

“Two people almost drown on the same river in the same day? It’s kind of sad. But they both made it. That’s the most important part.”

Do the right thing

The rescue story could not be independently confirmed, but there’s no reason to believe Painter made it up. All sorts of strange things go on at the head of Turnagain Arm during the early May to early June fishery.

And what appears to have caused Painter to talk about the incident at all was some growing frustration with the behavior of other dipnetters.

Painter, who said he grew up in Sitka and trained as a Navy diver, said he simply cannot understand how people could just stand by and watch when a man’s family is yelling for help and someone appears to be struggling to avoid drowning.

“I was disappointed,” he said, He was so disappointed he later posted this on his Facebook page:

“OK, today at 20 mile, (I) heard a scream for help. Help my Dad is drowning . So I put my net up and start running . I get up there and the gentleman was hanging on to a net .I jump in the river waste deep . Pull his head above water . And one other person shows up to help out of 15-20 people most in their 20 and 30’s . I am 52 and the frist person their other then his family . Not sure how this can happen . This was a human drowning !!!! The cause of this was he got stuck in the mud and dropped his net . Folks your net is not worth your life and if my 52 year old ass can save a man for your 20-30 year olds…shame on you.”

The post was subsequently shared to a number of fishing sites on Facebook. The reactions voiced a near-unanimous belief that the old Alaska standard that says you do all you can to help others in trouble is fading in modern times.

The mainly urban Americans of today grow up with different values than those of an older Alaska. Those values made a big impression on Painter.

“It’s definitely an incident I won’t forget about,” Painter said.














4 replies »

  1. Craig u do great work thanks for your coverage of typical Alaska spring concerns including the post of crevices in the Denali area

  2. Unfortunately, typical human behavior. When my daughter’s middle school class was having a picnic at Valley of the Moon Park, a car dragged a man down Arctic and then the entire length of the street along the park. In addition to the parents, the park was full of adults “enjoying” the day. I would say at least 50. I was taking pictures of batters on the far eastern end of the park when I heard screams and tires squealing. Not one person tried to do anything and by the time I realized what was happening and got out of the batter’s cage, the car was alreading heading up the hill to 15th street.

    Fortunately, I had bear spray in my glovebox and was able to catch him behind cars at the red light at 15th. When I jumped out of my vehicle, he was trying to go around vehicles in front of him by getting in the wrong lane. Cars turning south from 15th street kept him blocked. I’ve often thought that the man would have died had I not done something. As it was, he had a huge chunk of meat missing on his calf, his toes and side of his head were ground flat and he was in serious shock.

    An elderly man had seen the vehicle going down Arcticand called 911, but he had an asthma attack from the excitement and arrived after the medics.

  3. Years ago my wife walked out onto the mud flats on Knik arm and got stuck. Tide was out. I built a pathway out to her with sticks and rocks I gathered. Got her feet loose. We got back to the bank and here came the tide. Big Time. That was a close one.

  4. After reading about clam diggers drowning after getting stuck in the mud and having the tide submerge them I did a quick search and found a movie that showed the proper way to get a person unstuck. It’s been a few years but I remember the solution was counter intuitive.

    It’s a different situation than the guy in this story but it should be required reading for anyone going out on the flats.

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