Anniversary of Tustumena Lake accident is a reminder to plan for the worst

Refuge Notebook

The summer of 2011 was a deadly one here on the Kenai Peninsula. Both our highways and waterways were brought into light on several occasions due to the tragic deaths of several individuals. As a law enforcement officer, one of the “lowlights” of my job is the investigation and recovery of these victims, and the best case “highlight” is when a body recovery turns into a survivor situation.


One particular situation comes to mind as I write this article. In early June, State Trooper dispatch received a call regarding floating debris on Tustumena Lake. As I and an Alaska Wildlife Trooper responded with a boat, two planes were dispatched to aid in the search of the third biggest lake in Alaska. While responding, Alaska State Troopers were able to identify the owner of the boat and the numbers of people in their party as well as their final destination. After two hours of grid searching we located and recovered two victims in the water. Then approximately 40 minutes later we were able to locate three survivors at Nurses Cabin on the northern shore of the lake. As we provided first aid to the survivors, we were told a mind-boggling life-changing story of the survivors — this is what I want to talk about.

After ensuring that the three survivors had no immediate medical needs, and were in warm blankets and coats and had food and water, we started to talk with them about the events that happened on the lake during the 18-hour period since their boat capsized. All three had essentially the same recall of the incident with the overarching theme being “if it wasn’t for my mom and dad constantly drilling me about what to do in a situation like this we would have perished as well.”

The remarkable part was that when one of the three individuals started to lose faith, another would step up and keep the group together and focused on the next task at hand. Whether it was swimming 20 more yards toward the shore, or grabbing supplies such as lighters, food and clothing out of bags and coolers before they sank or floated away, or taking one more step in bare feet on a rocky shoreline toward the relative safety of a cabin, the group stuck together and never let a member give up.

After what seemed like an eternity of swimming, the survivors finally reached the shoreline and were able to climb onto land for the first time since leaving the boat launch. After a short break, recognizing that hypothermia was still a very serious threat, the “leader” started the group (with one shoe shared among six feet) walking along the beach toward Nurses Cabin. When asked how they knew where the cabin was, the survivors stated that every time they were on the lake their mom and dad showed them landmarks such as cabins, trailheads, and safe anchoring. That memory is what lead them to know where the cabin was in relation to where their boat sank.

Many of us who use Tustumena Lake know that Nurses Cabin is barely visible from the shoreline and hard to spot from the air. The survivors also mentioned the letdown when they thought they had located the trail to Nurses Cabin when in fact they had found the trail to Frenchy’s Cabin which burnt down approximately 17 years ago. However, they overcame their increasing fear and pushed each other to finish the trek down the beach to Nurses Cabin.

After arriving at the cabin, the survivors started a fire, cooked a small meal and gathered wood. They made a decision to only eat a small portion of the food despite their hunger because they knew they could be at the cabin for several days before help arrived. Additionally, they placed a burn pile on the beach to light in the event an aircraft flew over them. Finally, they all changed into highly visible clothes and found other bright objects to help signal rescuers when they arrived. When we recovered the survivors, all three of them were in brightly covered clothes and waving bright objects to catch our attention. Have I mentioned that the oldest survivor was only 18 years old at the time?

Purposely, I have left out some of the more horrific details of this ordeal and tried to focus solely on the fact that these survivors listened to their parents and relatives during these outings and absorbed enough information to prevent this from becoming one of the worst incidents here on the Kenai Peninsula. My rambling point of this article is this:  when you’re out and about in Alaska take the time to talk to all your passengers about landmarks, survival needs, and plans in the event of an emergency. You’d be surprised what they’ll remember and how it may save them.

Rob Barto is a Law Enforcement Officer at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. You can find more information about the Refuge at or


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