Windstorm fallout

by • June 11, 2013 • 61 NorthComments (0)345

Beware: Strainers and sweepers plentiful following last year’s devastation

Spring came late to Alaska this year, and as it did, the carnage left from September 2012 began to appear along the banks and in the channels of rivers throughout the south coastal region of the state.

As this was written, there was many a boater hoping for a big spring breakup to flush the mess of sweepers and strainers left behind by fall floods, because sweepers and strainers are the killers lurking in and along Alaska waterways.

Richard Murphy prepares to navigate around a strainer on the Twentymile River. Craig Medred

Richard Murphy prepares to navigate around a strainer on the Twentymile River. Craig Medred

Forget the whitewater.  It can and does kill, but it is an obvious danger. It is not easy to underestimate. The tree trunks, root wads and other vegetative debris clogging the state’s rivers, creeks and streams are another matter.

Only last August disaster struck on Eagle River, the stream flowing through the Anchorage suburb of the same name, a stream familiar to hundreds of canoeists, kayakers, rafters and pack rafters.

The middle part of that river is rated “Class I’” on the International Scale of River Difficulty. And of Class I, the paddling manuals say this: “Easy – Waves small; passages clear; no serious obstacles, perfect for all ages and abilities. No guide needed.”

When 60-year-old Fern Johnson, husband Robert and friend Carol Heater, 48, slipped their canoe into the glacial silt flowing past the Chugach State Park access site near Mile 9 Eagle River Road last summer, the manual gave them no reason to worry, but Fern and Carol would be dead before the day was over.

No sooner had the visitors from Montana gone round a bend in the river on their first Alaska float than they encountered a logjam extending across the width of flow. The water running through the logjam six to eight feet deep created a giant strainer just waiting to pin someone underwater.

The river’s current, which is deceptively strong even in the slower moving stretches, pushed the canoe holding the Johnsons and Heater up against the logs and the rootwads plugging the river. The craft was pinned there. This is an especially dangerous situation. A canoe caught in this position is difficult to free from the trap. The best one can do is hop out onto the logjam and worry about saving the canoe later.

That’s what Robert Johnson managed to do. His wife and Heater did not. The canoe rolled upstream into the current and went under in the blink of an eye. Fern Johnson and Heater, despite the fact they were wearing flotation jackets, were pulled under the logjam. They drowned there.

They were among the dozens who have died this way in Alaska waterways. Eagle River alone has claimed more than a half-dozen lives over the past three decades. The popular Kenai River has killed several more.

The danger of these waters is easy to underestimate for people who’ve grown up stateside where most rivers meander to the sea. Streamside or in-river brush is relatively harmless in the barely moving current of a Minnesota stream.

Not so the 5- to 7-mph current of the Kenai or Eagle River or dozens of other Alaska rivers and streams. This sort of current has been known to push inattentive paddlers up against a bank where an overhanging tree can quickly sweep them out of a boat in the water. That’s why they’re called sweepers.

As for strainers, the name is obvious. The current can push you against one and hold you there until you die. As this is written, the well-known Campground Rapid on Eagle River – a popular Class III playground for rafters and kayakers most summers – is one big strainer thanks to driftwood last fall.

One can only hope that by the time you read this it has washed out or, if not, that everyone has the sense to stay away and stay safe.

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