Icy waters have killed another packrafter, the third in the last eight years to die in one of the rivers of glacier-dominated eastern Alaska.
Forty-ninth state adventurer Roman Dial once described the small, ultralight, highly portable rafts as “the poor man’s Super Cub” in recognition of the help they provide in accessing the vast, northern backcountry.
Sadly, the rafts are proving to offer both the benefits and liabilities of those small, two-seat, Piper PA-18 aircraft that first appeared on the scene in 1949.
There is no readily available list of pilots who’ve died flying PA-18s in the 49th state, but when Alaska pilot Alex Clark compiled a list of small plane accidents from 2000 to 2005, Super Cubs showed up as involved in more than twice as many accidents as any other single-engine aircraft.
The reason why is pretty simple. Pilots use Super Cubs to get into places otherwise difficult to access, and sometimes they push the limits of the aircraft or their capabilities or both.
The same has become true for packrafts.
For the gifted few, amazing feats can be accomplished with either form of transport. You can watch Mike Fiebig, Mark Oates and Mike Curiak paddle packrafts through the Grand Canyon in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z_3xRFOGg74
And the late and legendary Talkeetna-based Alaska pilot Don Sheldon became famous for the things he could do with a Super Cub,
“In 1960, Sheldon became the most famous Alaska pilot since the days of Ben Eielson and Joe Crosson when his high-level (Super Cub) rescue of stranded climbers on Denali brought him to the pages of Life magazine,” aviation writer Colleen Monder observed in 2016.
(Editor’s note: Life was a printed publication once more famous than Twitter. It died in 2000 as its circulation fell from 4 million readers weekly at the end of World War II to 1.5 million monthly.)
Paul Claus, who has followed in Sheldon’s footsteps, has done some equally amazing flying. Here you can watch him launch a Super Cub almost helicopter-like with only a 19-foot takeoff run: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_7gZCyl6kWw
But most pilots are mere mortals, not Claus, and so, too, most packrafters.
Friends of Christopher Roby, the latest packrafter to die, describe the 54-year-old carpenter from Utqiagvik, the top of the continent city formerly known as Barrow, as a man with “extensive outdoors, small-craft, and survival experience.”
The same could be said for 44-year-old Rob Kehrer, the first to die in the glacier-ruled corner of the state near where the U.S. and Canadian borders meet.
A 10-year veteran of the Alaska Mountain and Wilderness Classic, arguably the toughest wilderness challenge in the world, he was once again competing in that event when he disappeared into the Tana River of Wrangell St. Elias National Park and Preserve in 2014.
Had he put his raft in the Tana just a little farther downstream in the lower canyon, he might be alive today. But he made the decision that he could handle some still pretty big water.
Details on what happened to Roby in the Tsina River about 75 miles to the west of where Kehrer perished are unavailable. Alaska lacks any sort of agency that investigates wilderness accidents, and Alaska State Troopers have not released the name of Roby’s traveling companion, though those in Utqiagvik describe him as a highly skilled in wilderness travel as well.
He reported to troopers that Roby had gone missing in the river that drains the Tsina Glacier about 50 miles northwest of the Prince William Sound port city of Valdez.
Easily accessible from the Richardson Highway, the river is popular with both kayakers and packrafters. Anchorage-based paddler John R. Gilliland shot a YouTube video of his packraft run through the lower canyon in 2015.
The river has two canyons. American Whitewater, a national nonprofit river conservation group, categorizes the upper as intimidating Class V water, but describes the lower as “short and sweet moderate whitewater through a beautiful canyon.”
It is rated Class III+ on the whitewater rating systems that ranges from Class I, “easy,” to Class VI, “extreme.” Class III is described as “intermediate” with “injuries while swimming…rare; self-rescue is usually easy but group assistance may be required to avoid long swims.”
River Facts, another website for paddlers, however, cautions that rivers “in Alaska are often tougher than in other states. So if you’re visiting here do keep in mind that a large number of rivers in this state are not easy.”
They can, in that regard, be deceptive.
Second Wrangell fatality
The Nizina River, which joins the Chitina River not far upstream from the latter’s confluence with the Tana, is generally rated Class 2+. But in 2018 it claimed the life of neophyte Austrian paddler Aidan Don.
Don was not the first to get in trouble in that watershed. In the 1989 Alaska Mountain and Wilderness Classic – when competitors used undecked packrafts that invariably meant they got soaked and cold – a competitor nearly died after washing out of his boat in the Chitistone River, a Nizina tributary.
Some say packrafting and whitewater swimming go almost hand in hand. It is not uncommon for even good paddlers to get flipped or rolled out of the boat, although the packrafts used for running whitewater now are decked over and fit one almost like a full-body condom.
It is still not known what exactly happened to 22-year-old Don. The National Park Service launched an investigation into the accident, but has for four years refused to release any findings, claiming the investigation is still “ongoing.”
Don wasn’t wearing a personal-flotation device (PFD) or a dry suit. The former are considered vital packraft gear, and the latter have become common attire for packrafters on glacial and Arctic rivers in the state.
It remains unknown whether Don – a budding filmmaker shooting video of a “Project Overland” flight from then-Barrow to Terra del Fuego, Argentina – rented or borrowed the packraft in which he died.
But local paddler Nancy Cook observed at the time that no matter which the case someone should have explained to the young Austrian adventure the equipment needed.
“Embarking on a 4- to 6-hour whitewater, cold-water float without a PFD is ludicrous,” she said at the time. “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.”
The general belief is that the lack of the proper equipment contributed to Don’s death, though there is at this time no way of knowing that for certain.
Cold water dangers
There have been cases of well-outfitted rafters dead in Alaska after falling into glacial rivers and succumbing to what is called “cold shock” or sometimes coldwater shock.
Cold shock can cause a reflexive inhalation of water and subsequent death by drowning or spark a deadly heart attack.
“By itself, a drysuit offers as much insulation as a shower curtain, but it does keep cold water off your skin and therefore it can delay the immediate effects of cold shock. For example, delay gasping long enough for you to get your head above water,” according to the National Center for Cold Water Safety.
The important word in that quote is “can.” There is no guarantee a drysuit or wetsuit will do this.
University of Portsmouth doctors studying the unusually large number of deaths in triathlon and open-water swimming events where the competitors reguarly wear wet suits to insulate themselves from the cold water in 2018 found a link between heart attack and plunging into cold water and tied the problem to immersing one’s face.
“In the study, they explain how rapid submersion in cold water, combined with holding one’s breath, automatically activates two powerful responses in the body which may interact and cause conflict at the level of the heart (‘autonomic conflict’),” doctors in the United Kingdom later observed.
“The cold shock response, which speeds up heart rate and causes hyperventilation, may conflict with the diving response, which does the opposite in order to conserve oxygen. While not all heart attacks lead to cardiac arrest, it is possible that quick immersion into cold water, such as leaping in during a triathlon, could trigger this conflicting response and therefore increase the risk of a cardiac arrest.”
Triathlons have witnessed unusually large numbers of death, usually in the swim, and some have suggested the conflict between the dive response and cold shock as the problem there as well.
After 14 deaths in the 2011 triathlon season – with 13 of them coming during the swim – a Washington Post reporter suggested “panic attacks” might be the cause, but the late Dr. Michael Ross – a triathlete, sports medicine physician and founder of a athlete performance-testing laboratory in Pennsylvania – suggested something similar but different.
“Let’s examine what happens when you jump into a cold lake,” he wrote on his blog. “Most swims are in bodies of water that are at least 10 degrees colder than body temperature. Cold water immersion leads to…the ‘mammalian diving reflex.’ This reflex decreases breathing and slows the need for oxygen and is life-saving for non-swimmers and children who fall into water.”
For triathletes, however, there is a problem when this reflex collides with the cold shock reflex.
The latter, Ross observed, “will cause you to take a deep breath followed by uncontrolled hyperventilation. A triathlete who jumps into cold water, or at least puts their face in cold water, will have a temporary breath-holding reflex. If this same triathlete starts swimming quickly, they would be out of breath before even starting. Imagine running down the block while holding your breath; you would feel out of breath very quickly.
“Hyperventilation will happen immediately following and is one of the components of feeling panicky. A rapid rise in heart rate will also accompany the ‘cold shock reflex’ and can also lead to a feeling of panic. A tight wetsuit can make breathing difficult as well.”
Echoing the Portsmouth researchers, he went on to describe a cascading series of physiological responses likely to lead to a continuing loss of breath control or a heart attack and the eventual inhalation of water and death officially by drowning.
Most of the 2011 triathlon deaths were blamed on drowning, he said, “but no matter what the cause of death, if it occurs in the water, chances are it will lead to drowning.”
It is possible Roby fell victim to cold shock after coming out of his boat, but friends think there might also be another possible explanation for his death: A blow to his head while submerged.
Whitewater helmets are not as common among packrafters as PFDs and drysuits, but can provide vital protection in boulder-strewn rivers in a sport which has gone from fringe to mainstream since its early beginnings in Alaska.
Luc Mehl, an Alaska adventurer and filmmaker, is now maintaining a catalog of packraft fatalities. He cites it as part of an effort to “develop a ‘Culture of Safety’ for packrafters in the hopes that we can skip the history of incidents that our peers in other water crafts have experienced.”
The death toll, he adds, also documents “a progression of the sport from Alaska-centric, to global, from 2009 to today.”
Mehl counts 18 deaths in Alaska, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, Russia, Argentina, Iceland and Greenland over the course of the last 13 years. Alaska leads the tally with eight dead.
Cold water is implicated in most of the fatalities.
Swimming whitewater can be a challenge when the water is warm. It only becomes more so when the water temperature is near freezing, which is what makes Alaska’s glacial rivers particulary dangerous.