LT. COL. MICHAEL SEINE
Alaska Army National Guard
Fort Richardson, Alaska
Running a boat on Alaska’s rivers can be dangerous — even more so if you don’t know what you’re doing or are unfamiliar with the area. Proper planning and knowledge of the area, your boat and your own limitations is crucial to ensure a safe and uneventful experience. During a summer trip to Lake Creek, Alaska, we witnessed — and were involved in — a couple of situations that could have been avoided with better planning.
It was the peak of the king salmon season. With roughly 13 lodges in the area, throngs of tourists in boats packed the river, hoping to land a mighty king. The mouth of the river was extremely crowded with “hog lines,” which are a bunch of boats anchored next to each other in a line during salmon runs.
As I made my way upstream, I noticed something unsettling and stopped the boat mid-river. There were two men standing up in a boat and fishing from each end. This was a little lake boat with a small motor that didn’t belong on this river. But what really caught my eye was these two gents had anchored their boat with the bow pointing down river and the stern against the current.
As I watched, the man at the bow turned around and started walking toward the back, which was facing upriver. With each step toward the rear, the bow rose higher into the air and the stern sunk deeper against the current. At his fourth and last step, the boat instantly filled with water, flipped upside down and sank to the bottom of the river, held in place by the anchor line.
There was no sign of the two men. As I scrambled to spot them, one of the men popped up and grabbed onto a log. He seemed to be holding on OK, so I continued to look for the other. Eventually, I saw a hand pop out of the water and grasp a sweeper, which is a tree that has fallen into the river. I quickly grabbed the man’s hand and pulled him out of the water and into my boat.
After I pulled his partner off the log, I took the men to shore. They were lucky someone was nearby and able to rescue them. Most people wouldn’t last long stuck under a sweeper in one of Alaska’s icy rivers. And while these two men were cold, wet and in shock, they survived to fish another day.
At the end of our stay at Lake Creek, headed farther down river. Halfway down, the boat’s old 75-hp Evinrude motor suddenly quit. We had a good set of tools onboard because we often have to do maintenance on the river. As I opened the cowling, however, I noticed a hole in the side of the engine where the piston rod had punched through the case. In an instant, our excursion became a float trip requiring an emergency recovery.
Because it was late and would be impossible to float up river back to the landing, we opted to find a cabin where we could get help and spend the night. Unfortunately, since we had not planned to spend the night on the river, we had no food, water, tent or sleeping bags onboard. Eventually, we found a cabin that provided adequate shelter for the night. As luck would have it, the cabin was also stocked with food and had a shallow well so we could get fresh water.
The next morning, we made contact with our home base via radiophone and were able to get help sent out to us. We also left the owner of the cabin a thank you note with our phone numbers and some cash to cover the cost of the food we ate.
This trip taught us an important lesson: Always be prepared to spend the night! Here are some additional safety tips to consider while boating on rivers in wilderness areas:
- Always keep a complete tool kit in the boat. Include electrical connections, wire strippers and an epoxy that will work underwater to patch holes in the boat.
- Never anchor a boat in a river with the bow pointing downstream.
- Standing up in a boat in a river is a high-risk activity. If you have to, mitigate the risk by maintaining three points of contact and move slowly, being mindful of the balance of the boat and remaining freeboard (the distance between the level of the water and the upper edge of the side of a boat).
- Know your limitations and ask the locals about hazardous areas and hidden rocks before exploring a river.
- Rivers can change overnight. A channel you use today may not be there tomorrow.
- Always anchor your boat securely at shore and know that the river may rise or fall several feet overnight due to rain or glacier melt in the mountains.
- Always wear a life jacket — no matter how good of a swimmer you think you are. Your swimming skills are useless if you’re knocked unconscious falling out of the boat. A life jacket could save your life.
- Never get off step while negotiating shallow stretches of river. You may not have sufficient water to get back on step, or to drag a heavy boat back to an area where you can.
- Always keep an emergency form of communication on board the boat.
- Leave a trip plan with someone else so they know when and where to start looking for you if you fail to arrive at your destination.
- Remember that there is no fish worth dying for!
- Don’t be a liability. Always put yourself in a position where you can help others instead of being the one in need of help.
You never know what might happen in the wild. Without warning, you could find yourself in a survival situation. It was sheer luck we found a cabin with sufficient provisions. It provided us with shelter, food, water, heat and protection from bears, mosquitoes and the elements. A night on the river without that would have been a dangerous and unpleasant experience.