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In rural Alaska, have we become desensitized to high death rates?

Craig Medred
Loren Holmes photo

While the nation's media was in July focused on the old and alarming problem of suicide in rural Alaska, two men died violent deaths in Kwethluk in Western Alaska.

Kwethluk is a village of only 740 just off the Kuskokwim River about 400 miles nearly due west from Anchorage, the state's largest city. The per capita death rate for two people in the small village of Kwethluk would translate into the equivalent death of 800 people in Anchorage.

It would take the sequential crashes of four Boeing 737s at Anchorage's international airport to reach that sort of number. Such accidents would be hard to miss. The deaths in Western Alaska, on the other hand, were easy to miss.

The death of George Maxie, 25, on July 24 was worth seven lines in the Anchorage media. KTUU Channel 2 News reported "a Kwethluk man who was reported missing Tuesday from a boat that partially swamped was found drowned Wednesday, according to Alaska State Troopers.'' The story noted "Maxie and his girlfriend had been traveling from Bethel to Kwethluk when the boat ran out of gas and was swamped in Napaskiak Slough."

The story wasn't much different when Yako Fisher, 34, turned up dead about a week later.

The Anchorage Daily News gave the story 10 short lines. "Alaska State Troopers say a 34-year-old Kwethluk man has been found in a river in western Alaska,'' read the first. There followed a summary of one of the many dispatches about death and crime that Alaska State Troopers post on the Internet every day.

"Fisher and his wife had traveled by boat to go berry picking,'' it was reported. "She was at the cabin, and he was last seen Friday heading downstream in his boat. The boat was located later that day. Troopers say in a web posting that heavy rains and high winds hampered search efforts Saturday and part of Sunday. His body was found Sunday afternoon not far from his boat."

As is the case with almost every accidental death in rural Alaska these days, both of these stories noted that "alcohol was a contributing factor" or "troopers believe alcohol was involved" in the deaths. It is this sort of drumbeat that has led some to the simple conclusion that the solution to all the problems of rural Alaska is to do away with alcohol, as if that were possible. America tried that once. The experiment was called Prohibition, and it was a miserable failure. It mainly served to make outlaws out of tens of thousands of Americans.

The situation isn't all that different in Alaska's dry villages. There is no doubt that voting to ban alcohol helped some of them, as it did some cities in America during Prohibition. There is also no doubt the bans have made outlaws out of a bunch of people. Some because they have a drinking habit. Others because declaring booze to be contraband and driving up its price makes smuggling an attractive business proposition in communities lacking economic opportunities.

Which is really neither here nor there, because while alcohol might have contributed to the deaths of Maxie and Fisher, it wasn't what killed them. It was the land, or more accurately, the water that killed both people.

It was the same land that killed college-educated Christopher McCandless, a young man with issues lionized in author Jon Krakuer's best-selling book "Into the Wild'' and now revered by some as some sort of mythical, modern-day seeker of wisdom, though no one can quite explain what wisdom McCandless sought in a deserted and decaying bus abandoned along a road that itself had been abandoned north of Denali National Park and Preserve.

McCandless ended up dead there because he couldn't figure out how to get across the raging Teklanika River. Maxie and Fisher died because they ended up in two other Alaska rivers and couldn't get out before they drowned. It happens often. Alaska usually leads the nations in per capita boating deaths, and in general sets a frightening standard for accidental death rates.

For the 10 years prior to 2010, the Centers for Disease Control reported back in April of this year, Alaska Natives helped lead the way for the number of "unintentional injury deaths'' in the U.S. Their 2009 death rate stood at  23.8 per 100,000. That's more than double the national level of 11 per 100,000, and it is somewhat skewed by the fact that in Alaska the majority of those accidental deaths happen in rural areas, in places like Kwethluk.

Rural Alaskans "die in accidents at a rate 3.7 times the U.S. average .... Accidents kill far more Alaskans than suicides and homicides" researchers Matt Berman and Linda Leask from the Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER) at the University of Alaska reported almost two decades ago.

Hardly anyone notices, though -- except friends and families -- because deaths come in "accidents." And accidents are just accidents, right, and if there is more to it than that,  well, it's just "the Demon Rum." The CDC report in April suggested that with effort a significant number of accidental deaths could be prevented, but it takes some sort of effort.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com