Four years after 22-year-old Austrian filmmaker Adain Don died in a packrafting accident on the Nizina River in the Wrangell-St. Elias Park and Preserve, the National Park Service has finally released details as to the investigation into his death, and they paint a bizarre picture.
According to those documents, the Swiss national paddling with the Austrian when he reportedly flipped his boat told ranger Alyssa Van Schmus that “he could ‘not remember’ if Don was wearing a life jacket….could ‘not remember’ if they discussed wearing life jackets…(and) could ‘not remember’ if life jackets were available.”
Don was not wearing a life jacket when the park service recovered his body from a gravel bar in the Nizina a day after companions had reported him both missing and dead of drowning.
The Swiss national is not named in the heavily redacted documents obtained by craigmedred.news in response to a Freedom of Information Act filing, but he is identified as an employee of the Swiss Museum of Transportation in Lucerne.
It was there, he told Van Schmus, that he met the other key player in Don’s death. That is Philipp Sturm, the owner of Fly Alaska Lodge in Nizina, a former mining camp now within the boundaries of the park created by the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980.
The FOIA-released documents blacks out the names of most of those interviewed in the investigation, but there is one reference to a Philipp and other references to a man connected with the Red Bull-sponsored “Project Overland” that brought Don to Alaska.
Project Overland spent time at Sturm’s “Nizina homestead,” aka the Fly Alaska Lodge.
Sturm caters to rich Europeans who want to fly in the Alaska wilderness. He houses them in yurts, also mentioned in the report, strung along a gravel airstrip.
The boss’s boats
Don went to work for Sturm in Nizina, according to the document, after Red Bull reduced funding for it’s so-called “Project Overland” flight of a Piper Subercub from Point Barrow, Alaska to the tip of Patagonia at the southern end of South America.
The unnamed leader of that stunt (his name is blacked out) told the park service “they were all hoping for an extension for Don, but ultimately Red Bull Media House decided they wanted (blacked out) and his wife to do the filming.”
The blacked out individual can only be Paul Guschlbauer, another Austrian who along with his wife, Magdalena, completed the flight to Patagonia four months after Don died.
According to the documents, he told the Park Service Don “had an agreement to stay for a few more days (at Flying Alaska) without paying by filming a promotional video for in trade.”
Guschlbauer said Red Bull gave Don permission to use some Overland video for that project and that Don did more filming on his own. As part of the deal, according to the documents, (Sturm) allowed Don “to stay at the yurt, use the four-wheeler, and sightsee in the plane in exchange for the video production.”
Guschlbauer added, according to the documents, “that the normal rate to stay” and fly with Sturm “is approximately $10,000 for two weeks.”
Along with organizing air adventures into the 15,000-square-mile Wrangell-St. Elias Park, Sturm appears to be the man who outfitted Don’s packrafting adventure and told the unnamed Swiss national to lawyer-up before talking to park service investigators.
Why is unclear. Sturm has refused to talk about what happened.
The blacked-out park service documents do not specifically identify an interview with Sturm, but there is an interview with a man who identifies himself as a flight instructor who “teaches people to fly at a higher level” and who admits to providing the equipment for the float trip while claiming to have little else to do with it.
That man who, according to the documents “would only answer questions about Don’s death” with his lawyer present, said “Don and (the Swiss national) packed by themselves, and that they were ‘old enough to do it’.”
He did, however, seem to know a lot about the gear the men took.
“When asked to describe the equipment he provided to (the Swiss national) and Don, (blacked out) states: packraft, break-apart paddle, dry bags, repair kit ‘for safety,’ bear spray ‘for safety” and a satellite phone ‘for safety’,” according to the documents.
He claimed not to know if the men took life jackets though he said he had “five or 10,” but if he looked through them “at home he would not be able to tell which life jackets they took.”
The park service was provided a photo of Don paddling sans life jacket, apparently on Nizina Lake, shortly after he and the Swiss national were dropped off there by small planes. They were to float downriver to near Fly Alaska.
The documents indicate the only directions given the Swiss national if something went wrong on the river was to place a call, apparently to Sturm, on the satellite phone.
According to the Swiss national’s account, Don’s raft flipped when “it was in front of his by approximately 50 to 100 meters (approximately 160 to 325 feet).
Van Schmus wrote that the man told her “that he could not see Aidan Don after he capsized out of his boat…that he did not try to boat up to and help Aidan Don because their plan was that ‘if anything went wrong to call on the satellite phone.”’
The other paddler said he managed to beach his boat “on an island near the spot ‘where it happened’ and made a satellite phone call to get help.” The report does not say if he was watching to see if Don or Don’s body came floating by as he was doing this.
The call apparently went to Flying Alaska and a plane eventually arrived to pick up the Swiss national and that “two planes flew looking for Aidan Don,” according to the documents, “and that he and (blacked out) saw Don’s body washed up on an island in the river at the same time.”
The reports do not say if the island was upstream or downstream from where the Swiss national was picked up or how far away. The report is unclear as to whether Don was washed up on an island or was in the water next to an island. It does not say whether he was face up or face down.
The park service official who released the report on Wednesday said he did not know if an autopsy was ever conducted to determine how Don died. Drowning is one possibility. A blow to the head and hypothermia are others.
A racer in the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic who came out of his raft on the Nizina in the late-1980s and managed to swim to shore nearly died there of hypothermia.
Don’s mother described him as an average swimmer. His brother said he was a windsurfer, a one-time windsurfing instructor and a sailor who almost always wore a life jacket when on the water.
When park service officials reached Don’s body a day after he had been reported dead in a drowning, he was not wearing a life jacket and was reported to be “face down in approximately two to five inches of water.”
The Nizina is a glacier-fed river that can rise or fall by that much or more in a single day. Van Schmus wrote that when she was first notified of the location of Don’s body the evening before she was told it was submerged in ”deep water.”
Cooperation between Flying Alaska and the park service do not appear to have been good.
Don’s disappearance was at first reported not to the park service in nearby McCarthy, but to Alaska State Troopers whose nearest post is 100 miles away in Glennallen. Troopers then asked the park service to recover the body and conduct a death investigation.
At the McCarthy Ranger Station, the day after Don died and while rangers were preparing to recover his body, Van Schmus wrote that one of those involved in the incident “told me that my job was to recover the body, not to ask him questions.
“I told (him) that I was law enforcement conducting a death investigation and that a death investigation was required by police in addition to recovering the body. I asked (him) if he was really telling me he was not going to cooperate with a death investigation.
“(He) stated that he was advised by his lawyer not to talk. I told (him) that it was my intent to interview the witnesses to the fatality and that I did not understand why he would not provide information and/or a witness interview for his ‘good friend,’ ‘very good friend,’ and/or ‘son’s’ death.”
Her report said the man blacked out in the FOIAed documents had earlier described Don as “a ‘good friend,’ a very ‘good friend,’ and that Aidan was ‘like a son’ to him.”
The then 57-year-old Sturm would have been old enough to be Don’s father. Sturm apparently did tell the park service that he was moved enough that “since the incident he had a friend fly over the location praying.”
Yikes, terrible friend and actually almost sounds like he may have even bonked the guy in the head? Wouldn’t put it past the Sturm character frankly. Either way letting someone drown is not something an Alaskan would do. What a great article, and informative! Thanks Craig.
I doubt there was foul play, and there is certainly no evidence of that. But it would make a good scenario for a crime novel. It wouldn’t be hard to knock someone off on a packraft float down a wild Alaska river if there was some motive to do so.
Would, however, be interesting to know the cause of death. Be horrible if Don did manage to drag himself onto a gravel bar alive only to die of hypothermia. But I’d guess this was probably death from cold shock. If you’ve never gone for a swim in a glacial river, that would be normal.
The water is often so cold it really makes you want to inhale, and you have to be consciously aware of the need to keep your mouth shut when you go under. There’s a reason Seward has rescue divers in the water for the annual Polar Bear Jump.
The only thing I would disagree with in the attached assessment of this danger is the conclusion that responses are “totally out of your control”: https://www.coldwatersafety.org/cold-shock
Experience can alter perception.
Dry Suit > Pack Raft
Sturm is well known by many in the McCarthy / Nizina area to not follow the laws and rules of society. He proclaims himself a “disruptor.” He violated his tourist status for a number of years by establishing two AK LLCs and operating a business with multiple aircraft on the airstrip at the Nizina West Subdivision. The Anchorage office of Homeland Security and ICE was well aware of Sturm and in Spring 2016 refused him entry into the US at SeaTac. However, Sturm was involved in a civil lawsuit at the time and was able to acquire a special permit to continue on to Anchorage and remain in the US only until his August trial date. The list goes on. . .
Sounds like a great friend.