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Wild-water highways of remote Alaska keep troopers busy

Craig Medred

Life sometimes has a way of spinning a little out of control under the bright rays of the midnight sun in Alaska, and then the Alaska State Troopers are called into action. Troopers have had a busy few days on the rivers that are the rural highways of a state with precious few roads.

The action started Wednesday near the Canadian border when troopers got a call that a family from Soldotna were in trouble on a rafting trip on the Copper River -- a big, powerful and potentially dangerous glacier stream that seems to kill someone just about every year.

The water is cold and full of glacial grit. The Copper has been aptly described by some as more a slurry line to the sea than a river. So when Jeff Sires of Soldotna called troopers to report he'd received an electronic distress message from neighbors Robert and Tara Ruffner, troopers had reason to be concerned. The Ruffners were rafting the Copper with their two young daughters.

Troopers scrambled their riverboat, according to reports, while asking rangers with the National Park Service, which manages the nearby Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, to scout the river with an airplane. Before long, the Park Service spotted the family on shore approximately 9 miles downriver from Copper Center, an end-of-the-road community of fewer than 350 people. Five hours after getting the call from Sires, troopers finally reached the family by riverboat. It was then, about an hour before midnight, that state troopers discovered the whole operation was a false alarm.

"The family was camped for the night and chose to continue on their float trip without assistance,'' according to a trooper report. Footnote: Technology is our friend when it doesn't go off accidentally and lead to unnecessary search-and-rescue operations. Trooper resources are limited and sometimes there are real problems with which they must deal.

Troopers reported running into one those only three days later on another Alaska river, the Little Susitna, about 150 miles west of the Copper. This time, troopers said, they were called to respond to "a disturbance on the Little Susitna River behind the Houston Lodge with several boaters and a property owner." The Little Su, as it is commonly called, crosses the Parks Highway about 45 miles north of Anchorage, the state's largest city. A popular destination for salmon anglers, the river at Houston is barely three riverboats wide. It is also a stream that has been quiet since the Alaska Department of Fish and Game closed the silver salmon fishery because of a shortage of fish, but Troopers said they arrived to find a little excitement.

Troopers reported 57-year-old Larry C. Cole and 49-year-old Sean D. Bradley, both of Wasilla, were causing a bit of a ruckus. "An investigation revealed both Cole and Bradley were operating separate watercraft while impaired by alcohol,'' troopers said. That apparently led to an argument with a property owner along the river and the call to troopers, who reported arresting both of men for drunk driving and hauling them off to jail.

But this was just the lead in to the real river craziness on the remote Noatak River in far northern Alaska.

Troopers said they got a call for help just after midnight Saturday. "Kotzebue Troopers received several reports of a person on the Noatak river approximately 40 miles from Kotzebue shooting a high-powered rifle at people,'' a dispatch said. Kotzebue is a regional hub along the Bering Sea in northwest Alaska. Troopers maintain a post there to watch over a handful of villages that dot the vast wilderness to the north and west. One of those villages is Noatak, population 546.

According to troopers, 28-year-old Jason Booth from Noatak was on the river with others when he "got into an argument with several people in another boat that was traveling with him. After another boat came along to assist, Booth became angrier." One thing led to another, troopers reported, and pretty soon Booth got his gun out.

"...Booth took a .30-06 (caliber rifle) and shot at the boat and persons in the boat several times,'' according to a Trooper dispatch. "Nobody in the boat was struck during the shooting. After shooting at the people in the boat, Booth began to chase the other boat with his boat."

Everyone probably got lucky when Booth ran aground. "Booth was closing the distance until he was grounded on a sand bar,'' troopers reported. That allowed the people he'd been shooting at to speed off. Troopers said Booth was eventually "able to get unstuck and headed to Noatak. Once in Noatak, the Noatak Village Police Officer was able to contact Booth and placed him under arrest.''

At last report, he was in the Kotzebue Regional Jail. As is often the case in Alaska, troopers expressed the belief that alcohol helped to fuel the incident.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com