One last heroic act: Father saves son before dying on lake ice

Posted: Sunday, March 07, 2004

As friends and family gathered at the Doxsee home in the Kenai Woodland Estates subdivision Friday to finalize memorial service arrangements for Adrien Doxsee, they still wondered exactly what happened out on Skilak Lake late Monday night that took the life of the 55-year-old husband and father.

Adrien Doxsee's body was found shortly after noon Tuesday on the lake ice, where he apparently died of hypothermia.

Before emptying the lake cabin the Doxsees recently had sold and moving their belongings across the frozen lake to Kenai, Doxsee had drilled as many as 60 holes to check the ice thickness, always coming up with measurements of 2 to 3 feet.

Why then did it open up and take his GMC pickup into the icy water? How was the disabled Doxsee, who normally needed a cane just to walk, able to save his 9-year-old son from 10 to 12 feet of water, lift him onto the ice and later get him safely to shore? Why did Doxsee then walk away from the warming fire he built for his son and the family dog, thinking he could get help?

Answers to their questions will never come.

Nor will anyone ever really know how 9-year-old Ryder Doxsee survived roughly 17 hours in the frozen wilderness until being found by Central Emergency Services ground searchers and a couple of trappers on snowmachines, suffering only noncritical hypothermic symptoms and some frostbite.

Events leading up to the tragedy began normally enough Feb. 29, when Autumn Doxsee, 42, rented a U-Haul truck to bring the family's belongings to Kenai. Her husband, Adrien, followed in his pickup truck.

Autumn, her 17-year-old son, Miles Richardson, and his 17-year-old friend, John "Bear" Connell III, took the U-Haul to the cabin and began loading, expecting to finish by Monday and return the truck by the time it was due back Tuesday.

In advance of the first lake crossing, Adrien had used a power auger to drill holes about every 100 yards, according to Miles.

"The ice was always 2 feet thick; sometimes 3 feet," Miles said Friday.

The Doxsees had owned their lake cabin for 10 years, and Adrien had made the crossing in winter at least 150 times, the family said.

"He knew that lake, and he knew ice," his widow said.

The loading took a little longer than expected, and the U-Haul wasn't brought back across the lake until 8:30 p.m. Monday. Adrien drove.

Once across, at the lower landing, Autumn took over driving, traveling the length of Skilak Lake Road where Bear took the wheel and drove the segment of the trip to the Fred Meyer store. Miles then finished the drive to Kenai, arriving sometime around 10:30 and began unloading.

Adrien, Ryder and their terrier, Pebbles, returned, got the pickup and began heading home, but somehow got disoriented and, unknown to Autumn and the teenagers, drove off the solid ice, plunging into 10 to 12 feet of open water.

"We went nose first, straight down and under the ice," Ryder said Friday.

"My dad got out through a window, but I had to kick out the windshield to get out," the boy said.

He saw Pebbles shoot toward the surface, but had to push himself off from the top of the truck to reach the top.

Once up, though, he couldn't pull himself onto the ice where his father already was.

"He jumped back into the water and helped me onto the ice," Ryder said.

The father and son and Pebbles struggled to get to shore, where, soaking wet and cold, they built a warming fire, using Adrien's lighter and some twigs.

"I tried to stay awake, but I was very, very, very tired," Ryder said.

After about one hour, his father began thinking they wouldn't make it and decided to go for help.

"He gave me his lighter and the flashlight and told me to fiddle with the fire until he got help and came back."

Adrien headed out.

Wearing a shirt, an Army-style green jacket lined in orange, jeans and socks, Ryder tried to stay awake and keep the fire going.

His boots had filled with water and come off in the lake, and he had no gloves or hat with him.

Sometime later, the boy fell asleep and during the night, the fire went out.

When he awoke after daybreak, he was freezing, Pebbles was snuggled against his back and his dad had not returned.

Ryder decided to go look for his dad and found him dead on the ice about 1 1/2 miles away.

"I put his lighter and flashlight in his pocket, and I went back to shore," he said.

He doesn't know why he put his dad's things in his pocket.

When her husband and son failed to show up as planned in Kenai, Autumn tried calling Adrien's cell phone but got no response.

She and the boys decided to head back to see if they could find them and made it to the landing sometime around 12:30 a.m.

A strong wind had come up and their vehicle tracks across the lake had been covered up, but they decided to head across anyway. They got lost.

"I got too close to Caribou Island, and the truck went down through the thin ice," Autumn said. The truck was empty.

She and the boys managed to get off the ice safely and made their way to the island cabin of Robert Klotz Jr., who awoke and took them in.

It was about 3 a.m. by this time, and Klotz shuttled the three to the Doxsee cabin by snowmachine, where they waited until daylight, hoping to resume their search for Adrien and Ryder.

At 10:25 a.m. Tuesday, Klotz called Alaska State Troopers and reported that two trucks had gone through the ice on Skilak.

A full-scale search was launched, using a trooper helicopter, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife airplane and CES searchers on the ground.

A Bureau of Wildlife Enforcement Trooper in the plane spotted Adrien Doxsee on the lake ice at 12:14 p.m., not moving. He was later determined to be dead.

At 12:44 p.m., searchers found the missing pickup, submerged, but visible under the ice. A CES dive team went in but did not find any sign of the boy or the dog.

Three hours later, Adrien and Pebbles were found.

The boy was flown by National Guard helicopter to the landing, where he was transferred to a waiting ambulance and taken to Central Peninsula General Hospital.

"They put me on a stretcher and put an IV needle in my arm," Ryder said.

He suffered only from frostbite on his face, hands and feet, though he did have some severe bruises on his right thigh and upper back, incurred while struggling to get out of the sunken truck.

He was released from the hospital after two hours, his mother said.

"He just wanted to get out of there and come home. We wanted him home, too," Autumn said.

On Friday, the Mountain View Elementary School third-grader said he misses his dad, to whom he said he was very close.

The two did lots of things together, he said.

Miles also misses him.

"It's like, one minute he was going to go and make dinner for us and the next minute he's gone," Miles said.

Autumn, who married Adrien 10 1/2 years ago, misses him, too.

"It's just a wonder he could hardly move. He had three back surgeries and hasn't been able to commercial fish since 1996," she said.

"And yet he made it all the way to shore to save Ryder."

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