Dangerous innocence

The risks of not knowing

Spring in the Alaska wilds is once again doing what it does best, killing the unwary.

The latest to die was a 20-year-old man from Illinois unfamiliar with the silty, tidal soils of some Turnagain Arm beaches

Zachary Porter’s lack of understanding of how Turnagain mud can turn to something more like concrete as the water drains from it cost him his life.

On a hike with friends, the college student from Lake Bluff, Ill., became mired in the mud and then stuck fast. His companions called for help shortly before 6 p.m. on Sunday, according to Alaska State Troopers.

It was too late.

Before help could reach him, the fast-rising tide had swept over Porter, and he drowned. Troopers reported he died about 45 minutes after they received the call for help.

Not the first

His death was tragically similar to that of 18-year-old Adeana Dickson almost 35 years ago. A newlywed, she was on her way to a mining claim along the Arm with her husband in the summer of 1988.

“The Dickisons tried to cross a tidal slough that meanders through the flats and, according to accounts by the rescue crews, the four-wheeler became stuck in the mud,” Anchorage Daily News reporter Marilee Enge would late write. “Adeana Dickison apparently began pushing from behind, straining to move the vehicle and in the process worked her leg into the muck.”

Her husband struggled for three hours to free her, but couldn’t and finally went for help. Volunteer rescuers who came to help and an Alaska State Trooper who arrived on the scene later couldn’t free Adeana either.

By the time firefighters with the mud-blasting equipment necessary for a rescue arrived from the community of Girdwood more than 30 miles away, she had drowned beneath the tide.

The potentially deadly combination of quicksand and tides is not unique to Turnagain Arm, but the lack of understanding of the dangers of the two appears widespread.

Canadian Carmen Richter told CTV News she was out for a weekend walk on a beach near Port Moody, British Columbia in 2018 when she stepped into what is commonly called “quicksand,” “took a few more steps and I was up to my hips in this pudding sludge that was sucking my boots off. I was screaming out for help. I was terrified. I didn’t think I was going to get out of it.”

“Luckily,” CVT reported, “Richter was able to fall onto her stomach and pull herself to solid ground, but said she learned just how quickly a walk on the beach can turn into a life or death scenario.”

Her quick thinking reflected exactly what experts recommend.

“Quicksand is a mixture of fine sand, clay and saltwater. Once perturbed, the mixture transforms from a loose packing of sand on top of water into a dense, liquid soup. Movement by a victim makes things worse,” writes Bjorn Carey at LiveScience.

“After the mix liquefies, the quicksand splits into a water-rich phase and a sand-rich one. The wet sand sediment becomes so densely packed that it’s harder to move than cold molasses. Once the victim’s foot becomes stuck in it, the situation is dire.”

Natural cement

The situation only becomes more dire somewhere like Turnagain Arm where the falling tide is sucking the water out of that mixture of silt and sand causing it to set up much like cement, and rescuers are a long way off.

Daniel Bonn of the University of Amsterdam, who has studied these soils, told Carey that the key to survival in such situations is to quickly recognize what is happening and act as Richter did.

“You have to introduce water into the sand,” he said. “And the easiest way to do that is to make it trickle along your leg into the quicksand, by making a circular motion with your leg.”

Then, “stretch out on your back to increase your surface area and wait until your legs pop free.”

Once on your back, you’ll float atop the sand.

Not everyone, however, pays proper attention to what is happening beneath his or her feet.

The Anchorage Fire Department has regularly needed to rescue salmon fishermen at the mouth of the city’s Ship Creek after they stand around on the mud until they wiggle themselves into it and become stuck.

This phenomenon is not unique to Alaska, and many search and rescue groups around the world are trained to deal with it.

Morecambe Bay just east of Plymouth on England’s southern coast is described as “notorious” for its dangerous quicksand and fast-rising ides. The Lancashire News reported visitors to the area “getting stuck in more than 20 incidents” last year.

Known deaths around the Bay linked to the tides, the quicksand or both are reported to date back to the 1500s.

The Royal National Lifeboat Institution reported in its magazine on one dramatic rescue involving elderly beach hikers at Morecambe Bay in 2015.

The incident is eerily similar to that which killed Adeana Dickson only with a happy ending. The couple, who lacked a cell phone, were lucky that others spotted them and reported their predicament, and that rescuers were nearby.

When rescuers arrived, the magazine said, “the crew found the woman free from the quicksand, cold and terrified to move. Her husband had helped her get free and, in the process, had sunk even further into the mud, so that he was now up to his waist.

“To make matters worse, the mud had now started to solidify around him. With Morecambe Bay’s tides, the crew knew they needed to act quickly to save his life.

“After moving the woman onto the hovercraft and wrapping her in a blanket to warm her up, the crew set to rescuing the man, who was now extremely cold….The crew needed to get him from the mud as quickly as possible.

“However, the notoriously treacherous muds had other plans, swallowing the crew’s mud boards and forcing them to risk getting trapped while they dug the man free. They were glad to see the Bay Search and Rescue team arrive on scene shortly afterwards with inflatable boards that allowed the two teams to work free from the risk of sinking.”

Lifeboat crews near British beaches regularly train for these scenarios as do firefighters in Port Moody and in Anchorage and Girdwood as well. But Alaska is different from the UK and even from Canada in that when problems arise in the 49th state, they often involve people a considerable distance from the nearest search and rescue service as happened Sunday.

It is that which makes Alaska especially dangerous. In Alaska, there is a much greater need for people to protect themselves.

For those who want to know more about the physics of how mud turns to leg-trapping cement, the SciShow linked here provides a good explainer in a segment titled “How to Escape Quicksand:”

For those interested in what the particularly dangerous mud looks like before it becomes deadly, there is an entertaining video of a Morecambe search and rescue volunteer dancing on it here:

And this video of a French tour guide with a group of clients on a beach at Mont Saint Michel, France – showing both how to get into trouble and how to get out – might be even better:

Note that while both the French and Canadian videos look to show people engaged in jolly good fun bouncing around on water-saturated beach soils, the sensible thing to do when encountering such conditions in or along Turnagain Arm is to promptly turn around and retreat to solid ground because should something go wrong, rescuers are invariably a long way away.









8 replies »

  1. I had some experience with flats when waterfowl hunting. Have gotten stuck a couple time when I was unable to pull one foot out of the mud-sand. Each time while retrieving a downed duck. The second one was a close call. I was stuck just slightly above my ankle bone. My hunting partner almost got stuck helping me. I barely pulled my foot out of by hip boots and crawled on my hands and knees for about ten yards where I got up And very quickly moved back to where the ground was more firm. The longer you stand in one place the more you sink in.
    Since then I have always had retrievers and tried to keep them away from The flats.
    More than 50 years ago a hunter got stuck in the flats near the hay field near the Knik River a little south of Palmer. There was lots of help even a helicopter. They would have torn him half if they pulled to hard because he was hopelessly stuck. They had boats along side of him. He tried breathing through the barrel of shot gun. When the water went over his head he apparently was so warn down or hyperthermic that he pulled the barrel from his mouth and drowned, the water level went up only about a few more inches and a few hours later they dug his body from the mud.
    There have been others who made mistakes trying to walk to fire island.

  2. I would think at different locations, i.e. Hope, Girdwood, etc., rescue teams would have breathing apparatus, i.e. scuba gear, as a standard part of their equipment. Perhaps could sustain life until hydraulic efforts are successful.

    • Good idea, but it’s usefulness would depend a lot on the experience of the user and the time of submerssion. I did SCUBA in Lake Superior sans a suit one June day long, long ago. I was in the water probably 20 minutes and came out seriously hypothermic. I didn’t have any trouble breathing during this time, but I was very familiar with the gear. I’m not sure how things would have worked out for someone less experienced, and then there is the fact of how long one is submerged. If you’re far offshore in Turnagain Arm, it could be a lot longer than 20 minutes.

      Teaching people about the dangers would seem a lot more useful. I’ve had some rather scary experiences waterfowl hunting this part of Alaska for decades, and I’ve had dogs scare the shit out of me on a couple occassions. But we’ve always managed to extract ourselves. That said, I’m a lot more cautious now and I quickly call the old dog away from any questoinable soils because I’m not confident he could get himself out.

  3. Unacceptable that he could not be rescued…where are the PJ’s when you need them. Dispatch should have found an available chopper right away.

    • Not sure that would have helped. At the fastest, given mobilization times, it would probably take more than a half hour to get a helo on the scene, and lacking hydraulic extractin equipment, you’d have to try to dig him out. The math is against it.

  4. Thank you for posting this, please post on Facebook too, such important information

  5. “AK outdoor experience turns tragic”, could also be the story title.

    “In northern states, that warm weather may only last four or five months. In southern states, it lasts the entire year. Unfortunately, drowning may result from pastime activities, and the state where most people drown is Alaska.”

    Sad to be #1 in this category. AK can be very unforgiving

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