Seward man, father survive plunge under Koyukuk River ice

Posted: Thursday, June 12, 2003

FAIRBANKS (AP) A Seward man and his father were retrieved from the North Fork of the Koyukuk River by a Fort Wainwright helicopter early Wednesday morning after surviving a a plunge under river ice and spending five days without food or supplies.

The pair was found ''starving and tired and exhausted'' with the aid of a Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve ranger and local charter planes, said Army pilot 1st Lt. Wesley Madden.

Blake Stanfield of Seward and his father, Neil Stanfield of Oklahoma City, lost their supplies when both they and their raft were sucked underneath a large patch of ice northeast of Bettles on Friday, Madden said.

Troopers called the 68th Medical Co. at Fort Wainwright at 9:05 Tuesday night to retrieve the pair, who were reported four days overdue. The helicopter was told to pick up a park ranger from a sandbar on the Koyukuk River where he was in the field training other rangers in search and rescues.

''He actually gets a live one when he's out there in the field with all his people,'' Madden said.

The father and son told the pilot, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Keith Northcutt, that they were paddling south and had taken a right instead of a left and ran into a section of river that was covered with ice.

The swift current swept the pair and their raft under the ice.

They were trapped underwater for about 30 feet before surfacing in a break in the ice. The break lasted only long enough to let them take a breath before being swept underneath another, longer section of ice, Northcutt said.

''The only thing that saved them was a little pocket where they could hold their head and breathe,'' Northcutt said. They were eventually swept into ice-free water, but most of their supplies were lost.

The younger Stanfield set his father up in a one-man tent and hiked out to get help, Northcutt said. Four days later, Dirk Nikisch, a pilot with Coyote Air in Coldfoot, spotted the younger Stanfield, said Berni Hicker of Arctic Getaway in Wiseman.

Hicker accompanied Nikisch on a return flight. Nikisch dropped Stanfield a radio and found out what had happened, Hicker said. Nikisch then flew around and looked for the elder Stanfield.

''It took us a while to find him, but we did,'' Hicker said. Nikisch also supplied the coordinates that enabled the helicopter to find the Stanfields.

''A lot of the leg work was already done for us by the time we got there,'' Madden said.

The son gave the helicopter crew general directions to where his father was. After flying a few circles over the area near Fishless Creek, the elder Stanfield emerged from the tent he had been living in for five days, Northcutt said.

At 12:30 a.m. the helicopter landed on a gravel bar and medic 1st Sgt. Keith Stafford checked Blake Stanfield out.

''He had a few bumps and bruises on him, but nothing severe,'' Madden said. The father and son were returned to Bettles at 3 a.m.

''I would say for being out there for five days, they were doing great. I don't think I would be able to do it,'' said Northcutt, who has been through two Army survival courses.

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