Recent Alaska Whitewater Accidents

Each year, the state of Alaska leads the nation per capita in boating deaths. Many of these are commercial and recreational fisherman, but several are experienced whitewater boaters. The following is a list of recent boating accidents that have resulted in deaths on Alaskan whitewater rivers. It is a tragic thing when it occurs, but its awareness is a must when taking on this high risk activity.  A review of the following accidents shows that a lack of experience, improper equipment, and high water account for most of these deaths.

May 29, 1999  Two elderly women were killed when they fell out of their raft on the Nenana River (IV).  Eloise Hubbard of Doraville, Ga. and Doris North of Decatur, Ga were both 75. The water level was reported as 9.62 feet which is considered low.

July 12, 1998   Former Alabama state Senator Gary Aldridge (48) was killed when the raft he was riding was caught in a sweeper on American Creek in Katmai National Park. Aldridge was part of a group of nine people in three rafts.  In an attempt to get out of the river when they came across two downed trees blocking their way,  Aldridge was swept under the first tree when he lost his footing.  He then was swept under the second sweeper and disappeared.  His body was recovered several days later by the National Park Service. No one else in the party was injured.

August 29, 1997   Thomas Aho (41) was killed on Sheep River, near Talkeetna, while trying to ferry supplies across the river. While not on a rafting trip, he was using a one man raft to cross the river.  The raft swamped, and he was washed down stream.  He was on a hiking trip with his two sons in the Talkeetna mountains.

July 2, 1997  Expert Kayaker Gene Schumar was killed while kayaking on Eagle River. Schumar was paddling a class II section when he was caught in a sweeper.  For more details, see Danny Crow's newgroup posting about the accident.

June 28, 1997  Dr. Gary Archer (60) of Anchorage, Alaska was killed when the raft he was riding flipped in the second canyon of Six Mile Creek (class IV+).  See Anchorage Daily News article.

July 1, 1996   Keel-Soon Chung (42) of Seoul, South Korean was killed when the raft she was riding in flipped in Talkeetna Canyon of the Talkeetna River (IV).  Although several motor boatmen have been killed on the Talkeetna River, this is thought to be the first death of a rafter or kayaker.  Chung was riding a 14' paddle raft when it flipped after hitting a rock. She stayed with the upside down raft and the other paddlers made it to shore safely. She was not wearing a wet or dry suit, but the five other men on board were.  They were later rescued by helicopter. Although Chung had been wearing a good PFD and helmet, it is unclear why she wasn't wearing a wet or dry suit.  Her body was recovered later in the day by a local river boat guide. Because of earlier rains, the Talkeetna was running at high water.  The group had been advised not to run the river by themselves and to use a guide.  AWA report

May 21, 1995  Two twenty-two year old young men were killed while on a Sunday afternoon canoe ride on a South Central Alaska creek.  Michael Boyle and Alan Eckles, both who recently moved to Anchorage, were paddling a newly purchased 'scanoe' on the East Fork of Six Mile Creek (class IV) when they ran into trouble.  Both were without a life jacket and inexperienced canoers who had no idea what they were getting themselves into when they launched.  The peaceful creek in which they started, quickly and without notice, turns into a class IV challenge.  Since there were no witnesses to this accident, it is almost certain they overturned their canoe either prior to or at the entrance to the first canyon (Seventeen Ender Hole).  A minor who discovered the two men floating in the creek was able to pull one of the bodies to shore.  The other was swept down stream, and despite a two day search effort by the Alaska State Troopers, was never recovered and assumed washed out to sea. The water level for Six Mile Creek at the time was above normal levels.  It's believed that these were the eighth and ninth deaths on this Alaska whitewater river.

June 20, 1994  A Danish man, Ole Shmidt (about 50), was killed when the raft he was riding hit a sweeper and flipped on the Talachulitna River (IV). Shmidt was part of a group of eight Danish men in two 12' paddle rafts who were on a fishing trip. The first raft got by the sweeper and did not see the second raft flip. Three of the four men were able to climb back in the raft, but Shmidt could not be found. His body was later recovered by another boater. The Talachulitna River was running high at the time, and it appears that none of the men were wearing PFD's.

June 6, 1993  Jonathan Lanier Hayes (22), of Girdwood, Alaska died when the raft he was riding flipped in the first canyon of the East Fork of Six Mile Creek. Three men and two women were in the paddle raft at the time of the accident. Hayes was wearing a low floatation PFD, no helmet, or wet/dry suit.  The other members of the group had to be rescued by two local kayakers who were scouting this section of the canyon and witnessed the flip, by the Girdwood Fire Department, and two rescue helicopters. Hayes was pulled from the river by the kayakers and given CPR until a medical team arrived. He was pronounced dead at Providence Hospital in Anchorage. One of the survivors sustained a broken nose. All were inexperienced paddlers and were not wearing helmets. The water level was high and commercial outfitters had suspended operations on the creek at the time of the accident.

August 30, 1992  Andre Meyer (43) from Switzerland was killed while rafting through Devil's Canyon (class VI) of the Susitna River. He was one of three people rafting the river in a small raft. The accident occurred in Devil Creek Rapid. The other two survived without injuries. Meyer's body was recovered about 30 miles down stream by a group of German kayakers that just happen to be on the river at the same time (these were the first groups known to have run this river in six years). The river was running about 13,500 cfs at the time of the accident.

July 4, 1992   David Brockett (29) from Oregon was killed while rafting the Lowe River (class III) near Valdez.  This accident occurred in the Keystone Canyon of the Lowe. Brockett was rafting with two other friends when their raft flipped. The other two made it shore and Brockett was found down stream on a sandbar by another raft. After six hours of attempted resuscitation, he was pronounced dead at Valdez Community Hospital.

June 12, 1991  Tom McAssey (40) of Peters Creek, Alaska  was killed while kayaking the class V Little Susitna River. He was an experienced Class V kayaker and a Little Susitna veteran. He flipped in the Death Ferry rapid while paddling with a friend.  McAssey came out of his kayak and was seen holding his kayak and paddle when he then hit a boulder in the river and lost his gear. He wasn't able to reach shore due to the lack of eddies in this section. His companion tried to get to him and noticed he was unconscious. McAssey continued downstream unresponsive and still hitting several more boulders. He was finally recovered about 15 minutes farther downstream. Troopers and an ambulance were quickly on the scene but were unable to revive McAssey. He was wearing a PFD and helmet.

July 12, 1990   Jessie Vasarias (72) of Massachusetts was killed when the raft she was riding flipped on the Nenana River.    She was riding in a commercial raft when it flipped in the "Iceworm" rapid. Vasarias and seven other fell into the 35 degree water of the Nenana. It was estimated that she had spent five to ten minutes in the water before she was pulled ashore unconscious. She was revived and flown by helicopter to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital where she later died.

August 6, 1988   Larry Holmstrom (44), Maria Holmstrom (21), and Ronald Eagle (31) all from Alaska, were killed while rafting the the remote Tana River (IV). They were part of a group of seven people riding in a lone 16' raft.  Included in the group was former Alaska governor, Jay Hammond.  The group was filming a segment for "Jay Hammond's Alaska" television show. Four members of the raft fell into the water when the raft hit the big water rapids of the Tana.  One was quickly pulled back in, however,  Eagle and Maria Holmstrom were recovered less than ten minutes later unconscious in the water.  Larry Holmstrom's body was recovered the next day when rescuers arrived on the scene. While everyone on board were wearing life jackets, none were wearing helmets, and those that died were not wearing drysuits.  It appears that the victims drowned as a result of hypothermea and cold water shock.

May 15, 1988  Sgt. Dean M. Pfeiffer, 26, of Ft. Wainwright was killed on Fortymile River when the raft he was riding in flipped. He was on a bear hunting trip with another soldier. The two were traveling on the the North Fork of Fortymile. Pfeiffer's body was found 40 miles downriver, and his companion was found safe by troopers.

July 13, 1986  An unidentified Anchorage woman was killed on Eagle River when the canoe she was riding swamped and smashed against a rock. The accident happened in the Campground Rapids of Eagle River. The companion she was riding with was able to make it to shore. A rafter, who arrived after shortly the accident occured, jumped into the frigid waters in an attempt to locate the woman but was unsuccesful. The next day, rescue personel were still unable to find the body.

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Updated June 9, 1999