A high number of boating accidents have occurred on the upper Kenai River this season.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife has recorded 11 accidents — a considerable increase compared to the usual two or three per year.
Chris Johnson, U.S. Fish and Wildlife law enforcement supervisor, said there are multiple factors that contribute to this year’s unusually high number of accidents.
Last year’s high water on the upper river “undercut a lot of the bank,” Johnson said, which generated a lot of sweepers and strainers and created some areas of difficult navigation. Sweepers are trees that hang above the water line that can “sweep” or knock someone out of a boat. Strainers are trees or objects in the water that “strain” whatever is floating down the river and can trap boats.
Johnson said fast currents and beginning boaters are also contributing factors to the high number of accidents.
“There was a lot of high use up there and a lot of inexperienced rafters, canoers, and drift boat users,” Johnson said. “With that high current and all the extra sweepers and strainers along the shoreline, I think it just caused some problems.”
He said the accidents are happening “all over — up and down the upper river.” The boaters have been from Alaska as well as out-of-state.
None of the accidents have resulted in fatalities, but two rafters were medevaced from two separate incidents, Johnson said.
The first medevac incident occurred June 29 when six people in a Boy Scout group went overboard after hitting a sweeper. Three rafts were in the party and two of the rafts had experienced rafters onboard. The non-experienced group of rafters hit the sweeper. One scout on that raft was knocked into the water, and hit his head. It is unclear what he hit his head on. After showing signs of a concussion, he was evacuated. Medics checked his injuries, and Johnson said treatment was refused.
On Saturday, the second medevac accident happened when a women with a pre-existing heart condition was knocked off her party’s raft by a sweeper. After spending some time in the water, she was experiencing chest pains. She was taken to Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage. She was the only individual of her 6-person party to end up in the water as a result of hitting the sweeper, Johnson said.
Johnson said an area that should be avoided is a backchannel located across from Mile 57 of the Sterling Highway — between river miles 72 and 73. Fish and Wildlife recorded two accidents on that channel. He said there was and incident in that channel when a boat tipped over and another incident when an individual was knocked out of the boat.
The Kenai River Canyon below Jim’s Landing has swift water and can be difficult for inexperienced boaters, Johnson said.
He suggested beginning level boaters stay in midstream of the main channels of the river. Boaters are also required by law to have life jackets for all members of their party, and anyone under 13 years old must be wearing a life jacket.
However, less experienced boaters may have an easier time navigating the Kenai as the water level has dropped “significantly” in the last week, Johnson said.
“It isn’t quite as swift or quite as dangerous as it was before,” Johnson said.
Kaylee Osowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.