Eielson airmen use survival skills in river rescue

Posted: Thursday, June 28, 2001

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- When Capt. Jon Boulet and three friends from Eielson Air Force Base loaded up their gear and slid their canoes into Tangle Lakes, they were expecting to cruise a few rapids, catch some fish, enjoy the wilderness and exit the Delta River with three fun days and 31 river miles behind them.

Instead, the adventure that began Friday turned into a two-day survival ordeal.

''It started at the portage,'' Boulet said.

Boulet, 2nd Lt. Brandon Acheson, Capt. Richard Benda and Capt. Mark McKamey had just carried their two canoes about a half-mile in order to avoid an impassable section of whitewater where the river runs through a narrow chute.

At about 4 p.m. on Friday, the four men discovered to their surprise that they were not alone on the river. Thirty feet from shore and beset on all sides by furious rapids, a man and a woman sat perched on a tiny rock.

''I would liken the rock to the size of a large bean bag,'' said Boulet. ''You could not have fit a third person on it.''

The stranded duo were Lindsay Roberts, 49, and Mary Jones, 41, both of Fairbanks. According to Boulet, they told them they had abandoned their canoe when they saw the chute in front of them and had ended up perched atop the boulder. They told the airmen they had been there for about 24 hours.

''They handled it very well -- very calm, very cooperative,'' said Benda.

The chute is at about the halfway mark of a popular two-day float trip that begins at Tangle Lakes off the Denali Highway and ends on the Delta River near Rainbow Ridge.

Out of cell phone range, the four trained survivalists gathered some of their gear and formulated a rescue.

''We came up with a plan and said a prayer,'' Boulet said. They lashed together several lengths of cord and tossed it to Jones. Boulet and Acheson stood on shore across from the rock while McKamey and Benda waited in a small eddy, 20 feet downstream and eight to 10 feet from shore, with an outstretched oar.

''We held the rope and tried to reel her in,'' Boulet said. ''It went like clockwork. She jumped in, the rope tightened up, she drifted across and Rich and Mark were able to gather her up.''

After what seemed like an eternity on the rock, the two were safe and on dry land again.

On to the next problem: how to negotiate two miles of rapids in two canoes that couldn't realistically stay afloat with three-person loads. It was decided that the four men would negotiate the Delta and the couple could follow the river on foot and meet them on the far side of the rapids. After that, they figured they could handle the calm river traveling three to a canoe.

But two of the men, Benda and McKamey, hit a rock and found themselves turned backward, then sideways in their canoe. When they hit a second rock, Benda was tossed out.

Finally, the craft became submerged and wedged against yet another rock, with the full brunt of the current holding it firmly in place.

Benda and McKamey spent twenty minutes trying to budge the canoe before the cold water forced them to head ashore. They decided to hike downriver and met up with Boulet and Acheson at the designated campsite. The six star-crossed paddlers were united again when Jones and Roberts arrived at ten p.m. after an exhausting slog through thick vegetation.

After midnight, the four men hiked back up to the canoe and made a valiant but fruitless effort to dislodge it. They were able to recover the gear they had left behind.

Boulet thought there was a trail in the vicinity that could possibly be hiked to safety, but he said Jones told them any more extensive hiking in her exhausted condition was out of the question. Considering what they had been through, the men had little reason to doubt her.

''They weren't in the kind of shape they had to be in to get out,'' Benda said.

Boulet and Acheson slept for three hours in the two remaining sleeping bags, and at 4 a.m. took the last canoe 20 miles down the river to call for help, arriving at their car around 10 a.m. Saturday.

They were able to establish a phone link with Eielson shortly afterward from Tangle Lodge.

By 3 p.m., an Alaska State Trooper helicopter had landed in a shallow of the river near the four stranded canoeists, and less than an hour later a Blackhawk search and rescue helicopter called in from Anchorage was hovering overhead, hoisting them aboard one by one.

All four say they are religious men, and they attribute the successful rescue to divine intervention and extensive survival training.

''It was a very long weekend,'' noted Acheson. ''I got back, had dinner and slept for 12 hours straight.'' -

(Distributed by The Associated Press)

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