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Comparing Alaska survival stories: Who's better prepared?

Craig Medred

How big is the divide between rural and urban Alaska these days? This big:

When a couple of old guys from the village of Grayling on the Yukon River sink their riverboat in a storm on frigid Interior waters, climb atop the hull, paddle it for hours to reach an island, crawl ashore, start a fire and then live on that island for days -- well, at least one of them, the other later waded back into the river, climbed atop the hull of the overturned boat and tried to paddle it back downriver to the village – few notice.

But when a kid dials up a satellite phone after his dad and a friend fall in the warmer, less isolated waters of Prince William Sound, he's hailed as a hero.

Dialing 9-1-1

No offense to 11-year-old Beck Meyer from Minnesota. What he did -- dialing 9-1-1 on a satellite phone -- was a good thing, a very good thing. But it was not exactly a difficult act despite what Alaska's largest newspaper might have reported.

"It takes several steps to make a call on a satellite phone,'' the newspaper said. "Either Beck remembered how or read the laminated instructions in the phone case."

The "steps'' there, of course, are not physical steps. The steps are keystrokes. On some satellite phones, there are a few more keystrokes required than on your average cell phone. Before you type in 9-1-1, you might -- for instance -- need to type in a personal identification code, although the newer sat phones all support 9-1-1.

"To access the 911 service, simply turn on the handset, rotate the antenna, enter the PIN number (if applicable) and register the phone,'' notes GIT Satellite News and Facts. "Press '9 1 1' and 'OK'."

Using a satellite phone is a little more difficult than a cell phone, but certainly within the capabilities of the average 11-year-old. And most people familiar with sat phones in Alaska will tell you that the reception you get once the call is placed is often better than what you can get on your cell phone in Anchorage, about 60 miles west of where Meyer's dad and his friend, Rick Merizon of Chugiak, got in trouble on Saturday.

The pair rolled a canoe while duck hunting, and like Grayling residents Edgar Rock, 52, and Michael Hamilton, 50, ended up in frigid water (but near a U.S. Forest Service cabin at Harrison Lagoon). Like Rock and Hamilton, Merizon and the elder Meyer, who were not wearing life jackets, but they had the sense to stay with the canoe, which probably saved their lives. The swamped canoe kept them afloat until it carried them close enough to a beach that their feet reached ground.

They'd rolled the craft and filled it with water while trying to retrieve a dead duck. They claimed to have left their retriever home because it would have been inhumane to ask the dog to jump into 39-degree water and swim out to get a dead waterfowl.

No fire-starting materials 

As they told their story, they were playing retriever and trying to scoop the duck out of the water with a canoe paddle when the canoe rolled, and they yelled to Beck to get the phone and call for help. He did at 3:23 p.m. Saturday. Help would arrive more than two and a half hours later. Rescue is a slow business in Alaska where distances are great and rescuers few.

While the men awaited rescue, they maneuvered the swamped canoe to shore. The wisest thing to do then would have been to go into the woods, start a big fire, warm up and dry out -- as Rock and Hamilton did. But it appears that Merizon and the elder Meyer did not have fire-starting materials. Outdoor survival expert Roman Dial, who has gone for inadvertent swims in a lot of cold water and lived to tell about it, recommends everyone traveling in the backcountry carry a small fire-starting kit in a waterproof pouch around their neck at all times.

Without the means to start a fire, the two duck hunters did the only thing they could. They emptied out their canoe and tried to paddle it back to the cabin. The Coast Guard reported it found them trying to paddle back, but losing ground against the tide. Merizon was reported to be so cold he couldn't move or speak by that point, and Meyer was very cold, too. The Coast Guard got them aboard a 40-foot landing craft and into dry clothes and sleeping bags, and then hauled them back to Whittier where an ambulance met them to haul them to the hospital in Anchorage.

Cold-water shock 

They were soon well enough to recount their ordeal to a newspaper reporter, though Merizon said his fingers were still numb. The worst of it, he said, was that the men failed to put on life jackets. Wearing a life jacket is always a good idea and could save your life. Cold-water shock often causes a gasping reaction that leads people to inhale water when they fall into the cold lakes, streams, rivers and lagoons of Alaska. People all too often get that water in their lungs, sink beneath the surface and die.

Merizon and Meyer were lucky that didn't happen to them. And lifejackets would have provided their bodies some waterproof, heat-saving insulation after they struggled ashore following their accident. But what they really needed was what Rock, the Grayling resident, recommended everyone should have:

A $1.50 butane lighter and the knowledge of how to start a fire.

A fire would not only have warmed the two canoeists, it would have provided a beacon for the Coast Guard which had to hunt for the men on the dark waters of the lagoon. Merizon, an employee of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, admits to being a bit embarrassed by how this all went down.

"It was just a stupid, stupid thing that I guarantee I will never repeat," he told the newspaper. And, of course, Beck got to be a hero.

"He's the hero in this whole story," Merizon told the newspaper. "He handles himself better than most mature adults I've seen in my life in crisis situations."

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com