Alaska is such an easy place to die
Once again the drowning death of a friend has brought home the reality of what a dangerous place Alaska is for both work and play.
As a reporter in Alaska since the 1970s, I’ve now written about and known personally more people than I care to think about who died after setting out to enjoy themselves in the wilds of the north.
Many have died in small-plane crashes, but of those I’ve know personally more have perished in accidents on the water than have died in the climbing accidents and bear attacks, which attract a disproportion share of news coverage in the 49th state.
Seventy-year-old Craig George, the latest to pass, was a friend from Utqiagvik, formerly Barrow, the northernmost city in the nation, and someone I find it hard to believe has died.
We came to Alaska near the same time in the 1970s and watched the state change over the years and communicated about this regularly.
Craig knew well the danger of Alaska rivers.
After 54-year-old carpenter Christopher Roby from Utqiagvik died after flipping his packraft in the Tsina River near Valdez last year, Craig messaged me with his personal views on the one-person rafts of which I have been a fan for a long time.
“Packrafting strikes me as inherently dangerous,” he wrote.
I took it as a somewhat curmudgeonly view from someone still a little behind the curve on packraft technology. The boats were far more dangerous before sprayskirts were developed to deck them over in the early 2000s.
Originally designed as open boats they were prone to filling way too easily with glacial river water in any sort of splashy conditions, and even if a paddler didn’t end up washed out, sitting in 40-degree or colder water was an invitation to dangerous hypothermia.
The real danger with packrafts today might be that they have become so whitewater capable that they encourage people to push their limits to the extreme, as can be seen here in the rapids of the Grand Canyon: Alpacka Alpackalypse.
The craft are best approached cautiously, especially by old people enduring the inherent and unavoidable losses in upper body strength and swimming ability that come with age. Craig had the sense to avoid these craft in his retirement years, making it tragically ironic that he should die in a rafting accident.
What is known
According to the initial reports on this accident from Alaska State Troopers, George was the victim of a raft that “overturned in the Chulitna River” about 180 miles north of Anchorage on July 5. But as all too often turns out to be the case, this trooper “dispatch” of the sort regularly parroted by the state’s mainstream media as gospel proved to be not quite accurate.
American Whitewater, which tracks river accidents, provided a fuller and more accurate report on what actually happened based on an interview John Schauer, a highly experienced paddler from Fairbanks, conducted with one of the other paddlers on the trip with George.
“The raft Craig and his partner were in did not overturn as reported in the trooper dispatch and news article,” Schauer wrote. “According to Jeanne (Molitor), Craig was knocked out of the boat by a sweeper (vegetation overhanging the river) while trying to avoid (a downstream) logjam. When Jeanne spotted their boat, he was attempting to re-enter the raft. He was swept into the logjam and the boat became pinned. Jeanne’s cataraft stopped on the mid-stream gravel bar on which the logjam had formed.
Craig was wearing a personal flotation device (PFD), as is now standard practice for all experienced paddlers in this state, but it couldn’t save him given the force of the water pushing hard against the logs.
Schaeur’s description of how Craig died hit pretty close to home. Years ago, a friend and I nearly lost his son after the young paddler was knocked out of a packraft and swept into a sweeper tangle on a thankfully smaller Alaska stream where the force of the water was less.
The lower flow enabled his dad to pull him out of what is aptly called a “strainer,” a tangle of brush against which the force of water can pin someone until they drown.
Despite his PFD, George was pushed under the driftwood along the Chulitna by the force of the current and never emerged. Volunteers from the Alaska Dive Search, Rescue, and Recovery team later chainsawed out most of the log jam in a search for his body, but it was not found.
It most likely washed out of the tangle during a high-water event on July 10 which brought the river up two feet. Changes in water levels of this sort are common on the state’s big, glacier-fed rivers as are sweepers, strainers, driftwood log jams often full of tangled roots, and fast, turbid water often makes for tricky channel-finding and paddling.
As Schauer observed, “I ran this section of the Chulitna on June 23 this year at a very high, bank-full level. There were a number of sweepers in swift current in this section, and several significant log jams including just above and below the railroad bridge.
“The 4-person, 12-foot paddle raft in our group broached on a log jam just below the bridge, but (everyone was) able to get out safely on the logs and free the boat without swimmers or injuries.”
A dangerous situation
Others, as with George, have not been so lucky as the group with Schauer.
In 2012, two Montana women floating Eagle River just north of the state’s largest city ended up dead after their canoe was pinned against a similar log jam and overturned.
When the canoe hit the logs, they made the simple mistake of leaning upriver, and it cost them their lives. A rushing current almost instantly filled the canoe with water, and it rolled.
The women were tossed out and again, almost instantly, sucked under the wood pile They died trapped there. Had they leaned the other way and jumped out of the raft onto the top of the log pile, they might have survived.
These are thin margins that separate life and death in the 49th state. This is also part of the reason why Alaska is among the nation’s leaders in preventable, injury-related deaths and by far the national leader in what the National Safety Council classifies as “all other” accidental deaths.
All-other deaths is a catchall for people who die from causes other than poisoning, motor vehicle crashes, choking and falls. West Virginia is the per capita leader in accidental deaths, but that is largely due to a staggering rate of poisonings linked to accidental drug overdoses.
Alaska has a poisoning death rate about a third of W.Va., but the 49th state’s all-other death rate of 19.1 per 100,000 is almost twice that of W.Va. And Alaska leads the nation in per capita drowning deaths with a rate almost four times that of California.
After parsing Centers for Disease Control (CDC) data for a 19-year period from 1999 to 2017, the Flordia-based law firm Salter, Healy, Rivera & Heptner ranked Alaska second only to New Mexico as the state in which “You Are Most Likely To Die In an Accident.’‘
Part of this is because Alaska is a dangerous place to play and part is because Alaska is an equally dangerous place to work.
According to the AFL-CIO, Alaska is second only to Wyoming in work-related deaths with a 49th state rate of 10.7 per 100,000. The union’s report notes that the most dangerous industries in the nation are those involved with “agriculture, forestry, and fishing and hunting.”
Alaska is big on hunting and fishing for both hunting and recreation. Both activities regularly place people in harsh environments in the 49th state.
“The rugged and often remote terrain of Alaska is likely a factor in the state having the highest percentage of deaths (9.995) coming from accidents,” the Salter-Healy report said.
Alaska led New Mexico in the percentage of deaths by accidents but dropped to second in the overall ranking because it has a lower unintentional injury fatality rate.
A long exposure
Craig spent his life in the state’s dangerous workplaces. He studied bowhead whales in the shifting ice of the Arctic and dealt regularly with polar and grizzly bears in the far north.
Like many Alaskans who spend a lot of time in-country, he was always properly concerned about bears.
When he last summer sent me photos of a trip to the Grindle Mountains of the Southcentral coast to search for fossils of walking whales, one photo was of the expedition’s tents surrounded by an electric fence to provide protection against bears, a precaution I admit to never having bothered to take.
George was a pretty cautious guy. It helped keep him alive for a long time. It’s hard to believe his life could end with his getting knocked out of a boat by a sweeper.
Everyone who spends time paddling wild Alaska rivers knows the risk they pose and tries to avoid them. But it doesn’t take much of a paddling mistake to hit one. I’ve done it, and I’ve watched others do it.
The speeds of currents and the power of eddies can sometimes be difficult to judge and, as with everything else, they get a little harder to deal with as you age and the raw muscle power to overpower a small mistake in judgment fades.
I wish Craig was here now to explain what happened in the seconds before he was knocked from the boat, but we’ll never know.
Instead he is now among the many killed by Alaska. Only a day before he died, the currents of the Little Susitna River north of Wasilla claimed canoeist Stephen Craig, 67, according to troopers.
The Little Su is a much tamer river than the Chulitna, and he might have survived if he was wearing a PFD. But troopers said he wasnt.
Then again, there is no way of knowing if it would have made a difference given the “cold shock,” the gasping reaction to being suddenly immersed in cold water, has probably killed as many people in the state as classic drowning.
Almost everyone reading this who has lived in Alaska long is likely to know someone who died in a river or the wilderness, or someone connected to someone who died in the wilderness.
There are so many sad stories, and the data only backs up the impression this a dangerous place to play, to work and sometimes, especially in the hinterlands, just a dangerous place to live.
“Accidents,” according to the CDC, were consistently the nation’s third leading cause of death behind cancer and heart disease before the pandemic of the old and unfit temporarily rose to number three.
Accidents are almost certain to be back in their old position by the end of this year or next, both nationally and in Alaska. But the so-called “accidents” that kill people in the rest of North America, “Outside” as Alaskans call the states to the south, differ than the accidents that cause death here because of wilderness and climate.
Drowning rates are higher here than any other states because the water is colder, and so, too, death in all-terrain-vehicles crashes because roads are often lacking.
“Alaska is a unique state in that many residents live in villages located in remote areas where travel by all-terrain vehicle (ATV) and snow machine are common,” according to the latest Alaska Injury Fact Report from the Alaska Department of Health and Human Service. “Likely due to their place in everyday Alaskan life, ATVs and snowmachines were responsible for over a quarter of all serious transportation-related injuries between 2012 and 2016.”
As with other so-called accidents involving other motorized transport, a fair number of these “accidents” are not really accidents but the simple result of bad or irresponsible driving – whether intoxicated or not.
But some are environment-related. These are deaths tied to ATVs or snowmachines going through the ice, or the operators of the machines getting lost and dying of hypothermia.
Luck is sometimes all that separates the living from the dead. I’ve been lucky to swim more than a few river rapids in this state and survive. Craig George was unlucky to get knocked out of the boat at the wrong time in the wrong place.
Knowing Craig, I’m sure he would want that to serve as a reminder to others of the danger of sweepers and the need to maintain a wide, wide berth when they are encountered.