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Logjam extending across Eagle River led to tragic drownings

Craig Medred

New details have emerged about the deaths of two Montana residents in a boating accident on Eagle River just outside of Alaska's largest city on Wednesday. The glacier-fed river is one of the deadliest for boaters in Southcentral Alaska.

Members of the Anchorage Fire Department who recovered the bodies of 60-year-old Fern Johnson and 48-year-old Carol Heater said the canoe in which they planned to paddle down the river was stopped by a logjam that extends across the entire width of the glacial stream only about 300 yards below a put-in at Mile 9 Eagle River Road.

No sooner had Johnson, Heater and Johnson's husband, Robert, started down the river on their first-ever Alaska paddling trip than they were in trouble, firefighters said.  Chugach State Park officials on Thursday posted the put-in to warn other floaters of the danger. Water is running through the log jam to a depth of eight or nine feet. It makes the logjam into a giant strainer that can easily trap someone beneath.

An Anchorage Fire Department Swiftwater Rescue Team member said the river's current pushed the canoe with the Johnsons and Heater aboard against the logjam. The craft was pinned there, sideways to the current, for a moment before the people on board leaned upriver. The minute they did that, the upriver gunwale on the canoe dropped; the craft almost instantly filled with water; and the people were rolled into the glacial flow just upstream from the logs.

Close upstream to a log jam, experienced Alaska paddlers say, is the most dangerous place to be on a big, glacial river. Eagle River's current almost instantly drove Fern and Carol into the logs, and then pushed them under, despite the personal flotation devices they wore. They were caught beneath and drowned.

They likely could have survived, an AFD Swiftwater Rescue Team member noted, if they'd known to lean the canoe downstream onto the logs. Then, even if the canoe started to roll, there would have been a good chance of jumping out onto the top of the log jam and waiting there for help. Others, he noted, have been rescued from atop log piles after similar accidents.

Robert Johnson, in this case, did manage to somehow get up on the logs and was rescued.

Before the latest tragedy, at least a half-dozen paddlers had perished on Eagle River over the last three decades.  

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com