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Gashed, battered and beaten, motorized kayak barely survives turbid Copper River

Craig Medred
Lucky to have survived a dunking in the cold waters of Alaska's wild Copper River, Dave Bruss of Chitina is now contemplating the bashed hull of his motorized, rat-hunting kayak. Sam Beebe / cc via flickr

Lucky to have survived a dunking in the fast, cold waters of the Copper River earlier this month, Dave Bruss of Chitina, Alaska is now contemplating the bashed hull of his motorized, rat-hunting kayak and wondering what sort of hell it went through.

Only one thing would explain the damage.

"It must have gone into a whirlpool and got sucked under," he said. "It looks like it went through a washing machine. It had to go have gone underwater, but the thing floats like a cork."

 Bruss's motorized kayak is an odd craft called a "Mokai." Made in Newburgh, N.Y., the boat pairs a water-pushing jet to a small, inboard, four-cycle motor inside a supposedly unsinkable kayak-shaped hull.

"Only MOKAI can take you to those remote upstream locations for fishing, hunting and exploring," boasts the company's website. "...River hazards are no match for our lightweight, durable polyethylene boat.”

Muskrat hunting 

Inspired by an advertisement in an Alaska fishing magazine pitching the lightweight and shallow water capabilities of the Mokai, Bruss bought one  -- not for river adventures but for rat hunting, as in muskrats.

Bruss lives in eastern Alaska not far from the Canadian border. This is one of the more remote road-connected areas in the state. He is a sometimes charter boat skipper in the port town of Valdez 120 road miles to the south. There are not many jobs in Chitina, a one-time rail-stop community now home to fewer than 150 year-round residents.

The railroad is long gone, and the community is probably most famous for an old bumper sticker that read simple "Where the hell is Chitina." Hunting muskrats is a way to make a few dollars if you live in a place like this.

"For 40 years," Bruss said, "I used a canoe."

Then he stumbled on the Mokai. It will go anywhere a canoe will go while burning precious little fuel. Costwise, the hunter said, it's cheaper to gas the Mokai than pay for enough food calories to refuel himself after a night spent rat hunting in the canoe.

'I couldn't invent a better boat'

"I can run that thing all night long," he said, "and I've used a quart of gas. This is what I was always looking for. I couldn't invent a better boat."

But, he added, rat hunting is "not the same as trying to haul fish on the Copper River," which is what he was doing July 3 when he suffered an ugly accident only a couple hundred yards downstream from a popular, wilderness parking lot at a place called simply O'Brien Creek. 

O'Brien Creek each summer attracts a small army of Alaskans with oversize landing nets. These people are called "dipnetters," and they come to the Copper River to scoop salmon out of the brown glacial flow. That's what Bruss and friends were doing just upstream from Wood Canyon, where the Copper turns from a fast-running, braided glacial stream into a tightly funneled raging torrent.

The river boils through the canyon at 7 to 10 mph, forming deep whirlpools and huge eddies along the rock walls. Bruss knew well the danger of these whirlpools and eddies, but he was upstream of them on what is normally a more placid stretch of the river with gravel bars.

He figured he could safely push the Mokai into service as a fish-hauling craft. It seemed safe enough. He was just running a couple hundred yards downriver and then chugging a couple hundred yards straight back upriver. It wasn't like he was making a dangerous ferry across the turbulent stream.

'Too much weight'

With the Copper running high, everything was OK right up until the time it wasn't.

"I'd already hauled a couple of loads of fish with the thing," Bruss said. He went back for a third and friends loaded the boat.

"I don't even known how many (fish) I had in it," he said. "(But) there was too much weight on the back. That's the problem with these things. You just can't haul stuff with them.

"I had a plastic container I kind of strapped on top of the engine. That's what flipped me. If I'd have put all those fish in a plastic bag and put them between my legs...."

Hindsight being a lot better than foresight, he realizes now that getting the center of gravity in the boat down below the waterline might have saved him from a dangerous swim. As it was, Bruss motored out into the current, hit a strong eddy line, and could only hang on as the currents combined to push the bow of the Mokai downstream and the stern upstream.

After the currents spun the boat sideways, it rolled. Bruss went into the water. Unable to make shore, he washed down into Wood Canyon, where he was eventually rescued by a jet-boat company that drops off and picks up dipnetters. Bruss was wise to be wearing a personal flotation device (PFD) when he went into he water, but admits he's still lucky to be alive.

If he'd gone wherever the Mokai went, he's sure he'd be dead.

"It's the weirdest thing," he said. "I got separated from it. I never saw it the whole time it was floating down the river."

'Beat to smithereens' 

But as he was being rescued, he said, "it sort of popped up right next to the jet boat that found me. It was trashed. It's just beat to smithereens."

The only possible explanation, he said, is that it got pulled to the bottom of the river and banged around on rocks. Those rocks are 50 to 60 feet deep in the water.

"It must have taken a different course than I did," he said. "Had I tried to stay on it the whole time, I would have gone where it went -- and it clearly went underwater. It is thoroughly gashed and gouged everywhere."

The boat is molded out of plastic, so it is almost indestructible. But Bruss said the river did a good job of trying to destroy it. There are gashes running bow to stern, gashes running stern to bow, and gashes running gunwale to gunwale.

"I've run that thing aground hard several times," Bruss said. "I've put scratches in the bottom, but I have never done anything to the bottom of it running it into things at full speed to match the gouges that Mokai has to it right now. If it was aluminum, it would look like a crushed pop can.

'Literally a miracle'

"I asked the guys in the jetboat when they came to find me if they'd seen it. They said 'No, we never saw it.' And then it popped up. It's literally a miracle I didn't go through what it went through."

Bruss had to fight to keep his head above water as he floated downstream. He said he tried to get to the canyon walls to get out, but the currents kept forcing him back to the main channel, which leaves him doubting the idea his Mokai could have been banged off the canyon walls.

"It would have followed the same path as me," he said. "It wouldn't have touched the (canyon walls.) It had to have gone underwater."

How long it might have been submerged no one will ever know. But the most amazing thing, Bruss said, is that the Mokai is salvageable.

"I'm probably going to have replace the control cables and everything," he said. "They still work but there is so much (glacial) silt in there that they're gritty and stiff. There's no way to clean that out.

"(But) it's still usable. Structurally, it's just fine. It's not any weaker than it was. It's just really ugly."

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com