Paddleboarder recounts dramatic Eklutna Lake rescue

Thursday, September 21, 2017 - 13:40
  • A swamped kayak floats in Eklutna Lake on Aug. 26, 2017. The occupants, who spent more than 40 minutes in the water after their kayak was overturned by wind and waves, were rescued and returned to shore. (Photo courtesy Andrew Cunningham)
  • Kayaks line the shore of Eklutna Lake on Aug. 28, 2017. (Star photo by Kirsten Swann)

Swamped by wind and waves nearly a mile from shore, four kayakers spent more than 40 minutes in the glacier-fed waters of Eklutna Lake before rescuers pulled them to shore the evening of Aug. 26, according to witnesses and first responders.

All four kayakers – three men and a woman – were taken to Mat-Su Regional Medical Center, were some were treated for hypothermia, according to the Chugiak Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department. But with park rangers out of radio range at the time of the incident, the CVFRD more than 20 minutes away by road, things could have unfolded much differently. According to the Municipality of Anchorage, the temperature of the lake varies between about 39 degrees in winter to about 52 degrees at its warmest. In water that cold, experts say hypothermia can be expected to begin within an hour or less.

“This one was kind of scary,” said Tom Harrison, Chugach State Park superintendent. “Fortunately someone heard them, and fortunately somebody was able to get to them.”

It happened partly by chance.

When Anchorage resident Andrew Cunningham slid his standup paddleboard into the lake Saturday afternoon, he said, the water was choppy with whitecaps and waves were crashing against the shore. Bound for the Kokanee Creek Cabin — a public use cabin about 3.75 miles down the lake — he might have turned back if he hadn’t traveled so far to get there in the first place, he said. He pushed off. There was nobody else in sight, he said.

So when he came across the first tandem kayak, swamped and empty far out in the middle of the lake, he knew something was wrong.

“My head was on a swivel,” he said. “My first thought was, ‘Where are they?!’”

With no other people in view, he worried the kayakers had drowned. Hopefully, he thought, the kayak had simply drifted away from a campsite on shore. He paddled closer. That’s when he saw the second tandem kayak, and the two kayakers in the water beside it, wearing life jackets but soaked and cold and hanging on for dear life. They had been in the water for a while, they said. They’d lost sight of their companions.

While the woman was still able to swim, the man – her father – struggled to keep his head above the water and clung to the standup paddleboard for support, Cunningham said. They started paddling. Between the wind and the waves and the added weight, it took nearly an hour to reach the shore, Cunningham said.

By that time, a crowd had gathered on the beach, he said. An employee of Lifetime Adventures, the local bike and boat rental business, had gone out to rescue the other two stranded kayakers as soon as he learned about the incident, according to Lifetime Adventures owner Dan McDonough, who was not at Eklutna Saturday. McDonough said the kayakers had rented the boats for a day excursion on the lake, and while the weather was fine when they departed, the winds picked up once they were on the water. They were unaccompanied by a guide.

By the time rangers and the CVFRD arrived at the lake Saturday evening, the last kayakers were emerging from the water, according to CVFRD Chief Tim Benningfield. They were treated at the scene and loaded into a waiting ambulance.

Eklutna Lake boating incidents don’t always end that way. In 2005, a man from Washington drowned after his canoe capsized not far from shore. In 2016, an airman stationed at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson died after his kayak overturned in the lake. By some twist of fate, Aug. 26 was different.

It was Cunningham’s first time paddling Eklutna Lake, he said. He never made it out to the Kokanee Creek Cabin Aug. 26, he said, but that’s ok – he’ll be back.

“I was just grateful that I had gone out there,” he said.

Contact Star reporter Kirsten Swann at kirsten.swann@alaskastar.com.

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