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Wasilla hunter presumed dead in Interior Alaska floods

Craig Medred
Courtesy Robert Lype Jr.

Severe fall storms continue to take a deadly toll on Alaska hunters. Less than 10 days after a 38-year-old man from Cordova slipped on a rain-soaked coastal slope and fell to his death while looking for mountain goats, a 51-year-old hunter from Wasilla has gone missing and is believed dead after trying to cross a rain-swollen creek near the Denali Highway in the Interior.

Cordova is a Prince William Sound community about 150 miles east of Anchorage, the state's largest city. The Denali Highway parallels the south slope of the Alaska Range mountains about 200 miles north of Anchorage, which has spent a goodly part of September absorbing a series of brutal North Pacific storms. High winds associated with the storms have torn up forests, while high waters from heavy rain have threatened to cut off roads to coastal towns and sent floods raging down streams and rivers from the Alaska Range south to the Kenai Peninsula.

Between 50 and 60 hunters are now reported trapped on the wrong side of one of those flooding creeks near the Denali Highway. Fifty-one-year-old Bart Barnes from Wasilla was among them until Monday when he decided to try to make it across Butte Creek on his four-wheel all-terrain vehicle. It was swept out from beneath him. Alaska State Troopers said someone at the scene later called by satellite phone to report Barnes had tried to cross the creek "and had been swept downstream and disappeared.''

Raging creek water

Renee Laseter of Anchorage, whose husband, Mark, is among the hunters trapped by the flood, said she was informed that a total of four ATV drivers tried to cross the creek. Three made it, she said; Barnes did not. The hunting party of which Laseter's husband is part has a satellite phone and has been periodically checking in with friends and family back home.

Some of the folks back in the city are worried, she said Tuesday, "but I've been up here a lot longer, 24 years. I'm kind of used to this stuff.''

She said she got a message from her husband, a mechanic for the state of Alaska, that he planned to wait out a drop in the raging water before heading home. Others seemed to be doing likewise. What happened to Barnes, she said, "scared anyone who was having wild thoughts.''

There was little anyone could do after Barnes was swept away. A trooper rescue helicopter in Anchorage tried to get to the scene only to be turned back by weather. A trooper helicopter from Fairbanks, an Interior city about 150 miles to the north, eventually made it to the scene, but according to a trooper dispatch "was not able to locate the lost man anywhere along the creek or in the adjacent Susitna River. It was determined that the victim had likely drowned.''

Butte Creek crosses the Butte Creek Trail about four miles in from the Denali Highway near the Susitna River. The trail runs another 30 miles or so beyond the crossing back into the mountains. Highly popular with caribou and moose hunters in the fall, the trail is considered relatively easy access into the Talkeetna Mountains. But this year's flooding has changed all that.

Renee said she was told the trooper helicopter that arrived on the scene did ferry out some women and children who were with hunting parties in the area. Most of the men reportedly decided to stay behind to make sure they got their equipment out. Troopers will rescue people in an emergency, but they do not retrieve all-terrain vehicles, camping equipment, firearms or other valuables.

Soaking wet

"Most of the hunters are having to stay behind because of their equipment,'' Renee said. Many of the hunters don't know each other, she added, or didn't before this. Lots of different hunting parties have collected at the choke point on the Butte trail. Some of them "do have game,'' she said, so no one is going to starve. But troopers were asked to drop some extra food.

"It's not immediately life threatening as long as they use some sense,'' Renee said. "But everything is wet or underwater, and some of them have been at creekside for six or seven days.''

Family members had been in contact with troopers since late last week, she added, but the state agency didn't see the problem as an emergency until Barnes disappeared. Hunters were, in fact, meeting Monday morning to see if they could arrange for an air taxi to supply them a food drop.

"They called yesterday (Monday) morning,'' Renee said, "and they were all getting together to talk about what their options were. While they were meeting, four decided to cross. Three made it. One didn't.''

And all of a sudden there was an emergency.

A search for Barnes' body is expected to resume after the weather improves. It took troopers days to recover the body of goat hunter Jay Hammerbacher after his fatal fall because of bad weather. 

 Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com