Rapids, logjams, sweepers and more
It’s finally summer. The days are long and the weather is warm and outdoor activities are at their peak. For many this means it’s time to hit the water. More specifically, a quick jaunt down Eagle River in a canoe, kayak or raft.
But according to Anchorage Fire Department’s Mark Glatt, it’s easy to underestimate the river, easy to become compliant, to forget how a seemingly calm stretch of river can turn abrupt and swift within minutes.
Sometimes, it can even turn deadly.
Glatt, who works out of Station 11 in Eagle River, has seen his share of rescues along Eagle River. The station hosts the only designated swift water team in the department.
“If you bid into Station 11, you know you’re going to have to do swift water rescue,” Glatt said. “I think we all enjoy the water work.”
The department recently participated in swift water rescue awareness training, which prompted Glatt to educate the public on safe river practices.
“The biggest danger is underestimating your abilities,” he said.
This, he admitted, is easy to do, especially on Eagle River which, from mile mark 9.1 down to Briggs Bridge is a relatively slow, meandering river.
“It’s forgiving, a lot of times,” he said.
However, just right around the 7.5 mark, where the river forks, there’s often a logjam in the spring.
“It’s not normally considered much of a threat, but if you’re in an open boat with limited experience, it may be considered threat. That’s where those two ladies died,” he added.
Fern Johnson, 60, and Carol Heater, 48, both of Montana, died in August of 2012 when their canoe tipped over and they became trapped beneath a logjam. They were both wearing lifejackets at the time.
The river, Glatt said, is also filled with strainers (trees in the water) and sweepers (trees just above the water that can knock a person out of a boat); you can also become pinned against trees with roots pointing upstream.
Still, he said, there aren’t a lot of threats in this section of the river, at least not until you reach Briggs Bridge, right above the campgrounds rapids, where the river changes from Class 1 to Class 2. There’s a pullout near here, around the 8.8 river mile point, and a good place for inexperienced boaters to exit the river.
“What you’re getting into to is Class 3 or Class 4 below there, which is the campground rapids, and you can’t visualize them from the pullout because there’s a sharp turn in the river.”
The 8.8 river mile marker should be viewed as a warning sign, he said.
“Once you get below the 8.8 pullout, if the water’s high enough you’re committed,” he said. “You’re going to have to go through the rapids.”
If boaters opt to continue, Glatt recommends that they scout out the river.
“Pick your lines before you’re in the water,” he said.
Everyone knows they should wear a personal floatation device (PFD) wherever they’re near the water. Yet, according to Glatt, only about 80 percent do.
“Often they have it with them but they’ll be sitting on it instead,” he said.
He isn’t sure why people choose not to wear a PFD, though he’s heard excuses ranging from comfort to fashion sense to cost. Some people, he said, think it’s unnecessary because they already know how to swim. But Alaska waters are cold, and hypothermia can set in within minutes.
A vest, he said, won’t necessarily save you but will offer you more time.
“Without a vest,” he said, “you only have minutes. If even that.”
He also recommends not boating or kayaking solo and leaving a float plan before hitting the water.
Still, most of those who get in trouble on Eagle River exceeded their experience level.
“I think what happens is that they don’t believe the sign (the warning sign at the 8.8 mile marker). They’ve floated for three or four hours in relatively calm water and don’t think the river is going to get as bad as it does,” he said.
Still, with all of the potential for danger, there are few fatalities on the river, he said.
“But with the logjam, the potential has gone up,” he added.
The river sees a lot of traffic, especially on warm and sunny days. Canoers tend to float the upper portions, with more rafters and kayakers in the lower sections. Ages are mixed, though Glatt doesn’t see many families sporting kids younger than 12 years old. The kids he does see usually have on a PFD.
“There’s no reason for a child not to wear a PFD,” he said. “If you want to sacrifice yourself, that’s OK. But please, don’t sacrifice your kids.”