In the wake of 2 boating accidents on the Eagle River this summer, the Anchorage Fire Department is issuing a warning to those who use the river:
Always wear a life jacket.
That reminder comes after a Wasilla mother's life was -- in all probability --- saved by her life vest, wet suit and helmet when she was ejected from her raft over the weekend (Saturday).
Young Mark Patrick, of Palmer, dove into the water after his mother after she was thrown from their raft. It came to a sudden stop in the swift current when it got hung-up on a rock formation called, "The Dragon's Teeth." But despite his efforts, he couldn't reach her.
She was washed half a mile downstream before she could manage to drag herself ashore -- even though she's a strong swimmer.
She was later picked-up by the Anchorage Fire Department water-rescue squad, unhurt. "They knew what they were doing," says Senior Captain Jeff Bayless of the A.F.D. of Patrick, his mother and his father. "They were 'dressed to play', as we would say. They had wetsuits, life jackets, helmets. And if you're gonna ride this river, those are all good things to have."
On the Eagle River, tt was at least the second time this season that good safety-planning likely averted a tragedy. Back on June 20th, 3 young people were rescued when their canoe overturned in rapidly-moving water on the river. One of the youngsters, Thacher Slagel, had told his mother Tamara -- before the trip -- to call State Troopers if the group remained out of touch for more than 4 hours.
When he Thacher and his friends failed to call at the appointed time, she called authorities and the 3 youngsters were rescued.
That's the other part of being safe, says Kelli Toth of the Alaska Office of Boating Safety, giving notice before you head out. "That's so important to be able to tell people where you're going," she says. And then she adds that you also need to tell them, "when you're going to come back."
That kind of common-sense planning made all the difference in Thacher's case. .
There are two other factors to consider says Captain Allan Kara of Station 11 of the Anchorage Fire Department in Eagle River. They are the current and the cold. Both can decieve you. Water removes heat from your body 25 times faster than air of the same temperature, he says. And that can quickly incapacitate you.
"The temperature (of Alaskan Waters)", says Captain Kara, "usually ranges around 50 degrees -- which is ice cold," he adds. "And when you get submerged in that cold water, it's difficult to breathe."
Captain Kara speaks from experience. As part of his rescue-training, he's routinely immersed in cold water. Muscles quickly become weak and uncoordinated in the cold, and it becomes impossible to swim without a life jacket.
The other problem is the current, he says. A 12-mile-per-hour current exerts a force on the human body of 500 pounds -- when you're immersed up to your neck. That kind of force is utterly incapacitating, and if you're not wearing a life jacket you won't be able to keep your head above water if you become pinned against a rock.
Today (Sunday) Captain Kara estimated the current in parts of the Eagle River was, indeed, moving at about 12 miles per hour. The river was only half a foot below flood stage at the time.
He attributes the swift, cold waters to the wet summer, and the snowy winter we've had. The snowpack is still feeding Alaska's river systems.
Usually there are half a dozen incidents on the Eagle River during the summer. So far this year there have been 3 or 4.
If you're going to enjoy the river, then the Fire Department urges you never to venture out on it without a wetsuit, helmet and life vest.