CAPT. WILLIAM H. HEATH
Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion
49th Missile Defense Battalion
Alaska Army National Guard
Fort Greely, Alaska
Opening day for late moose season in interior Alaska was finally here. All of our equipment had been checked, licenses and tags were in hand and scouting was complete. Weather for this time of year was normal. Temperatures were in the high teens, low 20s at night and 30s during the day with overcast skies. The glaciers had stopped melting and were holding water. The river between us and the hunting grounds was low and starting to freeze. There had not been a lot of snow this year, so snowmobiles were out of the question. We would have to take all-terrain vehicles (ATVs).
After several trips to the point where we would ford the river, we knew we would have to pick our way across. Most of the tributaries of the main channel were shallow and frozen solid, but the main channel was still wide open. In many places, it was only about 20-30 feet across with both shallow and deeper spots. We would be able to get across, but we would have to be methodical and patient in selecting a crossing point.
After paralleling the river to the north and south, we forded with little difficulty, breaking ice on the edges as we went. The temperatures remained in the low 30s for the day and the cloud cover never dissipated. Unfortunately, the hunt was unsuccessful and we called it a day. We gave ourselves plenty of time to get back, forded back across the river in the same spot we had crossed that morning and made it to the truck with no issues.
We decided to go back the next morning because the moose were moving and chances of having a successful hunt were high. Temperatures had risen by a few degrees during the night, but not enough to concern us. We picked our way along the same path we had taken the previous day and reassessed the river. The river level was stable, the sun was shining and we were excited about the hunt ahead of us.
We crossed the river with no trouble. It seemed like it had risen a little from the previous day, but not enough to cause alarm. Throughout the morning, we noticed the sun was beating down and temperatures were rising. In fact, we had to shed some of our clothing layers so they didn’t get soaked with sweat and freeze if it got colder later. We knew we would have to pay close attention to the temperature. If it got any warmer, the glaciers could release water and the ice on the river edges could melt, causing the water to rise to unsafe levels.
Just after noon, we decided we needed to head back before the river got too high to cross. We made it to the point on the river that we had crossed three times over the past day and a half. It looked as though it may have risen a bit and seemed to be slightly swifter, but we felt that we shouldn’t have a problem crossing.
The first ATV crossed on the same line that we had been using with minimal difficulties. I followed in his same track and was three-quarters of the way across when the riverbed gave way and the current pushed me into a pocket of deeper water. The intake sucked in river water and choked out. The engine was dead. For a brief moment, the ATV held its ground. My buddy started yanking line out of his winch to pull me out. Before he could get enough line, though, the current set me adrift down the river.
At this point, I was getting concerned. The ATV was floating and my buddy was attempting to hook it up to stop me from drifting away. I could feel the ATV tires bouncing off the bottom of the river and believed I would soon stop. However, the river then got deeper and the ATV began to rock back and forth. I was able to balance it for a minute or so, but the strong current ultimately flipped the ATV.
I was aware enough to anticipate this event and able to push off and free myself before I rolled with it. I was mostly dry up to this point, but now I was chest deep in the river and could not touch the bottom. My hip waders immediately filled with water and weighted down my feet. I had intentionally not fastened them to my belt for this very reason, so I was able to quickly kick them away. The current was pulling me down the river, and I knew I had to get to the bank quickly.
The shock of being in the extremely cold, fast-moving water almost led to me make a poor decision and swim to the bank opposite from my buddy and the truck because it was easier due to the current. I quickly realized that was not an option and made my way to the correct bank. It seemed like it took forever to make it to the bank, but in actuality only took a minute or less.
Once out of the water, I knew I had to keep moving because I had no shoes and was soaking wet from feet to neck. My head was the only part of my body that was dry. I immediately started moving toward the truck, which was on the edge of the river flats about a mile away. My buddy was heading my way on his ATV to pick me up. We got to my truck within five minutes of me exiting the water. I immediately cranked the truck and changed out of my wet clothes.
Luckily, I made it through this event with no injuries and learned a lot from the experience. The biggest lesson learned was to never outdrive your skill level. Even though I had ATV experience, I did not have a lot of river-crossing experience, which ultimately led to the mishap.
Some key decisions we made that day minimized the damage:
- Having a buddy with me to help make the right decisions, provide different viewpoints and assist when something went wrong was critical in minimizing hazards.
- The fact that we knew the area from previous trips and scouting allowed us to cut down on the time it took to make it to the truck after the incident.
- I always wear my clothes in layers and have enough clothes for the weather conditions. This kept me from getting too cold as I moved back to the truck. Knowing the weather assisted in knowing the right clothes to wear.
- By not buckling my hip waders, I was able to kick them off, which made it easier to swim to the bank.
- Being mentally and physically prepared for problems was the factor that got me through this. My ability to remain calm in the frigid waters allowed me to make the correct decisions and minimize exposure. Also, being an active person in good physical shape helped me get to the riverbank and truck quickly. Because I was not physically smoked, my mind was clear, focused on the task at hand and I made the appropriate decisions.
The wilderness can be dangerous and unforgiving. Make sure you take the appropriate measures to stay safe or your next excursion could be your last.