A Coast Guard helicopter crew rescued three Haines paddlers on Sunday along the Tsirku River, east of Klukwan. As KHNS’s Corinne Smith reports, dry suits and a satellite phone may have made the difference between life and death.
It was supposed to be a beautiful, three-day weekend of pack rafting. The trio had been flown in by helicopter to explore the Tsirku Glacier near the Canadian border.
“Then we had a long, long float out, (on) most of the Tsirku River, said Erik Stevens. “And the vast majority of it was really just perfect – spectacular scenery, and the river was great. It was clean. We were having a really great time.”
But on day three of the trip, just as they were at the end is where things began to unravel.
“I mean we were within one minute of making it to the car. At the speed the river was flowing we would’ve been to the car in one minute if we hadn’t hit trouble at that spot,” Stevens said.
Stevens was in a one-man raft. His sister Shannon and his girlfriend Kayla Schutes were in inflatable kayaks. As they approached the end of the Little Salmon River, there was a blind corner but he said he’d run this part of the river before.
“I probably should have gotten out on the other side of the river and really taken care to scout out that blind corner, but I was too complacent, didn’t do that. So we floated around the corner and were really surprised to find a very very strong, very fast current from the Tsirku was coming at us sideways, and pushing directly into some cliffs, and forming a big whirlpool and a big rapid there,” Stevens said.
He made it through the rapids. But his sister flipped. Schutes tried to help her but then she got sucked into a strainer: that’s a fallen tree and that kind of river hazard can be deadly. In moments, the two women scrambled to the cliffs, and surfaced about 100 feet apart. Stevens made it to a sand bar across the river.
“At this point, Shannon was screaming. And I thought she was drowning. It sounded like she was drowning, or about to be sucked under a log. So I was just running, not running because I was dragging a 60 pound boat upstream. I was going as fast as I could to try to get up there and see if I could help,” Stevens said.
The two women couldn’t see each other. Stevens yelled across, and through the roar of the rapids was able to shout and let them know they were both alive.
“They were basically clinging to a steep hillside with cliffs around them and they couldn’t go uphill because it was too steep. They tried that, and they would just slide back down into the river. And they couldn’t go side to side because it was just sheer cliff on either side, and deep water, and rapids. So they were just stuck.”
Schutes lost her paddle so it was nearly impossible to maneuver her kayak. Shannan Stevens’ kayak was jammed upside down in the log jam, and getting thrashed by the current which carried most of their gear downstream.
Luckily they had a satellite phone. Stevens says they called friends for help but didn’t get an answer and it was getting late. So he called SOS.
Stevens says he hoped it worked. “It really seemed to me like a situation where I didn’t see how they could get the helicopter in there and get them.”
A Sitka-based Coast Guard aircrew arrived at about 10:30 p.m. in an MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter. A rescue swimmer first lifted Stevens to safety. But getting the two women proved more difficult.
“The helicopter is trying to get in close enough to the bank but there’s steep overhanging trees, and there’s dead fall, and the rotor wash is so strong it was knocking chunks of trees down, there were dead branches falling all around the girls. I mean it was very very dangerous, very chaotic”
The rescuer later told the group that he was in the river and had to swim ashore through the river. Stevens said he described climbing up the bank, “he said he was just praying there was some solid land over there because everything was just crumbling.”
The three were transported to the Haines Airport where friends were waiting, and though cold and shaken were uninjured.
“It was just a huge relief.”
Stevens says they were lucky and well prepared, all wearing dry suits and helmets. He says the biggest lesson was to have a satellite phone on your person, not just in a boat that could be swept away.
Though the Little Salmon River might have been a familiar and easy float in past years, he urges everyone to avoid it right now because of the currents at the confluence with the Tsirku River.
“The rest of the Tsirku is probably fine,” Stevens said. “You know if you were going to that spot from the main Tsirku, you’d probably go right around it and not even notice it. But it’s coming in from the Little Salmon, that’s the problem.”
The three hope to recover their camping gear and three boats, and ask anyone who might see anything wash ashore to get in touch. But Stevens says it’ll be awhile till he gets back on the water.