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Raging, frigid Alaska river claims another victim as soldier perishes on Klutina

Craig Medred

The gloriously warm summer of 2013 has kept the glacier-fed rivers of Alaska flowing high and fast with disastrous results. Only three weeks after a Chitina dipnetter miraculously survived being washed four miles down the raging Copper River 180 miles east of Anchorage after his motorized kayak was flipped by strong currents, a Fort Wainwright soldier is dead after the fast current of the Klutina River, a Copper tributary, sunk the riverboat in which he was a passenger.

Three others with him were lucky to survive after a cold, turbid river running near flood level first pushed their disabled boat downstream onto a rock and then drove it under water.

U.S. Army officials identified the dead man as 23-year-old helicopter mechanic Pfc. Christopher Eric Covington of Temple Hills, Md., a veteran of Afghanistan who’s been stationed in Alaska since December 2010.

On Saturday, Covington was on a fishing trip with two other soldiers, 23-year-old George Brady and 39-year-old Columbus Jones Jr., and Jones's 11-year-old son, Columbus III, according to Alaska State Troopers.

Class III whitewater

Together the group had run upriver in a jet boat to a point about eight miles from the Richardson Highway bridge. The Klutina is a Class III whitewater river. The website Riverfacts.com rates it as a difficult river to run, but that has not deterred sport fishermen attracted by strong runs of red and king salmon.

Several guide services operate out of the area around Copper Center, a small community just off the Richardson Highway near where the Klutina joins the Copper. And some anglers tow their own boats to a launch near the community, which is what the Wainwright group did.

Troopers reported they made it upriver against the fast current without difficulty, but then "Jones Jr....experienced mechanical problems and was unable to maneuver the vessel." Lacking the power to maintain position in the fast current, according to trooper reports, the boat was pushed downstream onto a rock with the inevitable result.

"The fast current...flipped the boat," according to a trooper report. "Jones and his son...were able to cling to the boat for a short time before they were separated (from it) by the current. A fishing guide in a raft saw Jones III in the water and was able to rescue him. Jones Jr. was able to reach shore safely."

Boater who perished washed 5 miles downstream 

Both men wore personal floatation devices. So, too, did Brady and Covington, but the current pushed them farther downstream.

Brady was eventually able to reach shore and was picked up by a fishing guide service. Covington, however, was pulled downstream by the current for miles. The Army reported he washed almost five miles downstream before he was found. Troopers said he was unresponsive and not breathing when "picked up by a private jet boat" about three miles upstream from the bridge.

CPR was begun and continued by the EMTs with Copper River Emergency Medical Service, which responded. But Covington was later pronounced dead at the nearby Cross Road Medical Center.

The Army said an investigation is underway. The riverboat Jones was operating is owned by the Fort Wainwright Outdoor Recreation Center, according to troopers. The center rents boats and other gear to servicemen and women in Fairbanks. Those renting boats are required to complete a boating safety class. 

Troopers said the boat remains submerged in the river, but there are plans to recover it. Covington is not the first to perish in the Klutina's fast waters. Twenty-four-year-old Krist Anderson of Fairbanks died in 1998 after the inflatable canoe he was paddling with a friend flipped. Anderson was not wearing a PFD and was seen clinging to a rock in the river. He was washed off and died.

Covington is the second person to die in a fast-water accident this year. An Englishman just down from the summit of Mount McKinley died after he was pitched out of a raft into Sixmile Creek south of Anchorage in May. The results of a trooper investigation into that accident have not been disclosed.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com