It was a duration of about 30 seconds from the time my packraft flipped to the time I was out of the water. Heather arrived on the sand bar across the channel about the same time I climbed up the debris pile. She looked at me and patted the top of her head, a whitewater signal asking if I was okay. I patted my head to confirm I was, and began trying to free my durable (but not invincible) raft as the force of the river bashed it into the mess of sharp sticks. Eventually, the raft was freed and floated away, upside down and out of sight. I chased for about 25 yards before realizing that I wasn’t going to catch it.
After regaining my wits and accepting that my boat was now gone, I turned around and trudged back towards the sand bar where Heather was cautiously putting her throw line back into its bag.
“Did your life flash before your eyes?” Heather asked.
“No.” I replied.
Heather nodded and sighed with relief.
I was soaking wet after being submerged in a glacial river, and my dry layers were floating away from me along with my mode of transportation. If we ever caught up to them they’d be uselessly saturated as well. Even though I could have potentially lost my life moments before, all I could think about was that the rifle my father had given to me was now washed away.
The Twenty Mile is a pretty typical Alaskan river. At the upper reaches are multiple tributaries that all flow down from alpine lakes, snow melt, and glaciers. They make up a plethora of shallow and narrow braids that are often knee deep at best, making boating difficult. Packrafts - inflatable rafts that weigh about 8 pounds and fit in a backpack - are about the only boats that can float in such conditions; add in the weight of a human, a full backpack, and potentially the meat from a harvested animal, and it’s nearly impossible.
In the spring and summer seasons the water level is generally higher, causing erosion and carrying the debris downstream until it catches on other debris or the shallow riverbed. This often creates blockages and dams resulting in sharp bends in the river’s flow. Sharp bends mean blind corners, and blind corners mean that a person can’t see the potentially life-threatening dangers that lay just a few meters ahead of them. In this case, a strainer was waiting for me around that blind corner.
If you bring both hands together and interlock your fingers, this resembles what a strainer looks like. They’re basically piles of tree trunks, sticks, grass, and other debris that has been spliced together by a river, creating a nearly impenetrable dam. As the water runs into the strainer, any objects flowing along with the current are trapped and the water continues through - just like a colander in the kitchen.
As I was pushed against the strainer, the water began to flow over the upriver side of my boat, pushing it under the surface. The river promptly flipped my raft and I plunged into the water. Still holding onto my paddle, I threw it onto a nearby sand bar. If we found my boat, it wouldn’t be very useful without a paddle. I then kicked my legs to make sure they weren’t snagged on some underwater debris and was able to climb the strainer like a ladder until I was fully out of the water and on top of it.
Heather has much more experience on these backcountry sections and was able to recognize the danger to avoid it. Had she been right behind me, we could have been much worse off. Although I was aware of the dangers of obstacles like this, I didn’t exercise enough caution when I wasn’t sure what was around the next corner. The easiest and most responsible action to take would have been to get to the nearest take out point before the current got too strong for me to escape. I floated right by that safe take out, and when it was too late, I had no choice but to brace myself for what was to come.
Up to this point, our trip had been nearly flawless. This was our first mountain goat hunt, and although we didn’t see any goats, we were able to enjoy an incredibly beautiful 13-mile hike to camp in the rugged Chugach mountains. Surrounded by protruding cliff bands and the reds, oranges, and yellows of autumn colors, we watched bears forage on berries for hours; and our bodies had that satisfying ache from carrying heavy backpacks to a well-earned camp spot.
Much of our time was spent surveying the surrounding landscape in search of mountain goats. The reflection of sunlight toyed with our minds as it bounced off wet rocks, large white pieces of quartz, and snow patches – each resembling mountain goats from a distance. We were hopeful that one of us would spot the animal that would provide us with some meat throughout the winter.
Although we didn’t find our animal, the weather held out well for us and we had a soft cushion of tundra to sit on as we continued enjoying our time in the backcountry; looking forward to when we would hike down to the river, blow up our packrafts, and float out to the highway. The trip had been extremely humbling, and we were lucky to be in a place that, chances are, not many people get to see.
After my spill into the river, we had two options as night approached quickly: we could hike back the way we came, another 13 or so miles, or we could both squeeze into “Bumpy”, Heather’s packraft, float short distances and get out often to be sure nothing else catastrophic happened, and hope to find my raft and gear. We chose option two, and after less than a mile there was “Eddy”, my blue boat, upside down in the middle of the river. My bag and rifle were still attached. Nothing had been lost.
We covered the remaining miles on the river quickly, paddling hard to stay warm and get to the road before nightfall. I was cold, but not hypothermic. Upon reaching the highway, I immediately hitched a ride from a good Samaritan back to our truck, and went back to pick up Heather and our gear. We had narrowly avoided a very serious situation, and I had a brush with an event that has previously taken other people’s lives.
On the drive home, our discussion consisted mostly of what we had learned and how something like that can be prevented in the future. I’ll leave you with what we came up with.
- Make sure that you always have a way to communicate in an emergency. The battery in our InReach had died, and if I would have gotten hurt, there was no cell phone service out there to call for help.
- Pack correctly. What would have helped was if my extra layers were in heavy-duty dry bags. Our backpacks were already heavy, but when cold water is a threat, suck it up.
- ALWAYS give people a time that they should hear from you; and if they don’t, who should be notified. “If I’m not back before... then…”
- As Heather bluntly put it, “When in doubt, get out.” If you can’t see what’s around the next river bend, take out at a safe place and scout to ensure you don’t find yourself in the same danger we were in. Not only could something bad have happened to me, my actions also put Heather in a very real and scary situation.