Group effort saves 3 from river

Canoers flip near river mile 25.5

Posted: Monday, August 21, 2006

Three canoers had the misfortune to capsize in the Kenai River without life jackets Sunday, but were fortunate enough to do it near the home of a former fishing guide who happened to have his boat in the water.

A little before 1 p.m. Sunday, Larry Wheat’s nephew Derek Sigler, who is visiting from Nebraska, spotted the swamped canoers from his uncle’s house in Moose Range Meadows, about a mile past the Soldotna Municipal Airport up Funny River Road.

“My nephew is here and he looked out the window and said, ‘That looks strange, there’s a canoe upside-down and three people floating,’” Wheat said.

A quick look showed the three, whose names were not obtained by the Clarion’s deadline Sunday, to be without life jackets. That’s all it took to send Wheat hurrying to his boat.

“I never have a boat in the water, but I happened to have a boat in the water and I went down and grabbed a fisherman off the bank and we went down and grabbed them out of the water,” Wheat said.

The man happened to be fishing from the bank near Wheat’s house, so he got conscripted to the rescue effort.

The first report of the overturned canoe came in around 12:50 p.m. from someone on the Sterling side of the river at river mile 25.5.

Wheat said he figures that’s probably about where the canoers overturned.

“I think they were a few hundred yards above where I live and they hit some rough water where there’s some rocks and they capsized,” he said.

The two men and one woman were all in their early 20s, Wheat estimated. When he and the conscripted fisherman got to them about a quarter mile downriver from his house, the boat was rightside-up but full of water with the woman sitting in it and the men floating alongside.

“They were in the water, the canoe was totally submerged but floating under the surface and they were hanging on to it. They were doing the right thing, they were hanging on to the canoe. That was the one thing they did right,” Wheat said.

The three were cold but conscious.

“The two guys helped get her in the boat,” Wheat said. “One guy was in really good shape and one guy was a little less. The (fisherman) was in great shape, about my age, in his 50s. I just got on the other side of the boat and he just pulled them right in.”

Wheat drove the boat to the first occupied house he saw, which was on the Sterling side of the river upstream from Swiftwater Campground. Someone at the house called an ambulance.

“Just the first person that we saw, and I don’t think he even lived there,” Wheat said.

Wheat thought the three were OK, but didn’t give them high odds of surviving if they had stayed in the water longer than they did.

“She was really, really, really cold and started to really panic,” he said. “... I don’t think she could have hung on much longer. Another five minutes or so, I don’t think she could have done that.”

Wheat said he went back and got the canoe, which had a 780-pound capacity so he didn’t think it was overloaded. More likely it was just a case of bad luck, compounded by the canoers not wearing life jackets.

“They just need to be prepared, just realize that in this water, the hypothermia is a killer here in Alaska, you know. ... Our climate and Alaska is real unforgiving if you’re not prepared. If they’d had life jackets they’d be a lot better off.”

Wheat didn’t know the canoers’ names, but hopes to get in contact with them.

“I don’t know who they are. But I do have their canoe, it’s here in the yard,” he said.

Central Emergency Services did not return calls seeking information Sunday.

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