Two women die after canoe capsizes on Eagle River

Wednesday, August 15, 2012 - 16:25
‘Wild river’ known for log jams, debris

Two Montana women died after their canoe capsized on Eagle River near Mile 7.4 of Eagle River Road on Wednesday, Aug. 8.

Anchorage Police identified the women as Fern Johnson, 60, of Plains, Mont., and Carol Heater, 48, of Kalispell, Mont.

The two women and Johnson’s husband, Robert, were in the canoe when it tipped over, said APD spokesman Lt. Dave Parker. The Montana residents were vacationing in Alaska and had only arrived in the state earlier in the day Wednesday, he said.

Parker said the trio put their boat up against a logjam in slow-moving water, but the canoe overturned when they tried to paddle to the east bank and were caught in faster current.

The two women were trapped beneath the logjam, Parker said, while Robert Johnson was able to climb onto the debris in the middle of the river and survive the incident.

The Montana residents were traveling with Eagle River’s Bob Voris, who was in a kayak. Voris was not injured, Parker said.

Everyone involved was wearing life jackets, Parker said.

Eagle River is well known for “strainers” — large objects that prevent the passage of smaller objects but allow the continued flow of water; “sweepers” — fallen trees or trees still rooted on shore with far-reaching branches hanging over the river; and logjams, said Chugach State Park Superintendent Tom Harrison.

“It’s a wild river,” he said. “It’s very dynamic and it’s constantly changing.”

A park ranger posted a sign near where the incident occurred warning paddlers of the logjam, which extends the width of the river, Harrison said.

Due to the volume of logjams on the river, it would be nearly impossible to warn the public about each of them, he said.

Harrison said rangers will continue to monitor the river, but he didn’t feel safe sending a crew to remove the logjam. Plus, there’s no telling what — if any — affect removing the logjam would have, he said.

“It’s like pickup sticks,” Harrison said.

Harrison said the park doesn’t clear strainers or sweepers from the river — which sees a wide variety of user groups. The proper precautions need to be taken before entering the river or any part of Alaska’s wilderness, he said.

The area where the canoe capsized is a natural catching point for logs, Harrison said. Many people use kayaks or rafts to traverse that section of the river for more stability, he said.

This year’s high water level coupled with the always-cold temperatures from glacial melt makes Eagle River even more treacherous, Harrison said.

“There’s a lot of dangers,” he said. “There’s a lot of sections of the river that have a lot of challenges and obstacles.”

The Alaska State Troopers, Anchorage Fire Department and APD worked together to recover the victims and rescue Robert Johnson, Parker said.

This is the fourth rescue call the Anchorage Fire Department has responded to on Eagle River this year, said assistant fire chief Erich Scheuemann.


Contact Mike Nesper at 694-2727 or

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