Two men duck hunting around Prince William Sound Saturday afternoon flipped their canoe in a lagoon, and everyone involved says the young son of one of them saved their lives with a quick call for help.
A water taxi dropped off Rick Merizon of Chugiak, brother-in-law Michael Meyer, and Meyer's son, Beck, on Thursday at a U.S. Forest Service cabin at Harrison Lagoon, a protected cove about 34 miles from Whittier.
Merizon, 39, said in an interview on Sunday evening that he's been duck hunting around the Sound numerous times, and that Meyer, who was visiting from Minnesota, has been his Alaska hunting companion before.
"We always take a water taxi out to one of these cabins, and use the canoe just to navigate very short distances, very close to shore," Merizon said. They hunt from land, he said.
On Saturday afternoon, Beck, 11, shot a duck from shore, said Mike Bender, who owns and runs Lazy Otter Charters, the Whittier-based water taxi service that dropped the group off and later would be key in the rescue.
The men launched the canoe to retrieve the downed bird. Their life jackets were in the cabin. They didn't take time to put them on. The duck was so close, maybe 50 feet from shore. Beck stayed behind.
Merizon used his paddle to try to scoop up the bird.
"In the act of reaching for the duck in the water, the boat tipped," Merizon said. Both men tumbled out. The canoe filled up with water in what seemed like two seconds, he said.
Usually, Merizon said, they bring a dog to fetch ducks but decided it was too cold and wouldn't be humane.
They shouted to Beck to get the satellite phone and call 911.
It takes several steps to make a call on a satellite phone. Either Beck remembered how or read the laminated instructions in the phone case.
At 3:23 p.m., the Coast Guard got the call.
"We were just thrilled that the young man in the cabin had the ... thinking skills to call 911 and report what had happened as quickly as he did," said Coast Guard spokeswoman Sara Francis. "Reporting to another authority that can help is essential in a situation like this and ultimately saved their lives."
The Coast Guard launched a helicopter from Kodiak and diverted its 110-foot cutter, the Long Island, from elsewhere in Prince William Sound.
Sometime before 4 p.m. someone alerted Lazy Otter Charters that the men needed help -- the boy might have mentioned that's who dropped them off, said Bender, the water taxi operator. He was in Anchorage but high-tailed it to Whittier.
"They held the tunnel for me," he said, referring to the one-way tunnel to Whittier that only opens in each direction every hour.
He called one of his boat captains, Josh Duffus, to ready a fast boat, the Qayak Chief. Duffus had spent the week in a wilderness first aid training course, where he worked on a rescue scenario involving hypothermia. A Whittier police officer and another Whittier resident jumped on as well.
The boy was calm and stayed on the line talking to the Coast Guard, making sure they knew where the group was, said Bender, who was listening in on his radio.
Meanwhile, Merizon and Meyer were cold to the bone, struggling and fading.
The air temperature was 39 degrees and the water was just nearly as cold, Francis said. "Cold water shock and immersion are more harmful and cause more deaths than drowning."
The men, both of whom Bender described as very fit, didn't have the strength to lift the canoe and empty it while in the water, Merizon said.
The tide was rushing into the narrow channel. They couldn't get back to the cabin. They hung onto the canoe and let the current carry them to a distant shore, he said. Beck couldn't see them anymore. He didn't know if his father and uncle were OK.
Merizon thinks they were in the water for maybe an hour, maybe more. They certainly were wet for much longer.
Staying with the boat probably saved them, Bender said. People too often think they can swim to shore.
It was around 6 p.m. when Bender and his group arrived in Harrison Lagoon. The Coast Guard cutter had just gotten there too. It was hard to spot the men at first. Their canoe was green and they were wearing camouflage jackets. The helicopter was called off the rescue.
The men had relaunched the canoe but weren't making any progress -- they were headed away from the cabin, Bender said. Merizon's body had seized up. He couldn't move or speak. Meyer seemed to be doing a little better but still was very cold. Merizon said he doesn't remember the rescue at all.
The Qayak Chief is a 40-foot landing craft, and they pulled down its ramp and hefted the canoe, with the men still in it, aboard. That vessel is much faster than the bigger Coast Guard cutter, so the group decided it would take the men back to Whittier.
They cut the men out of their wet clothes and got them into dry jackets and sleeping bags. Coast Guard crew members including a medic traveled with them on the landing craft. The Coast Guard collected Beck.
By 7:20 p.m., they were back in Whittier, where an ambulance from Girdwood was waiting to rush the men to the hospital to be checked over. Merizon said he's sore and banged up. His fingers are numb.
Merizon woke up in the ambulance. He felt everything at once. "Relieved, embarrassed, sad, scared."
The worst of it was the men's failure to put on life jackets, he said.
"It was just a stupid, stupid thing that I guarantee I will never repeat," he said.
He knows better. He's been a sea kayak instructor. He works as the small game biologist for the state Department of Fish and Game, though the trip was recreational, unconnected with his job.
"It can happen in a flash and before you know what's going on, you're in the water," Bender said. "Wear your life jacket every single time."
Other things went right. They kept hold of the canoe and paddles. They had a sat phone -- which Bender says he recommends to everyone going out after Labor Day, when there are far fewer other boats on the water to help. Beck acted fast, and rescuers mobilized to a remote spot quickly.
"He's the hero in this whole story," Merizon said. "He handles himself better than most mature adults I've seen in my life in crisis situations."
He said he wanted to thank his nephew and all the rescuers.
"Without them, I don't know where I'd be right now."
Reach Lisa Demer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4390.
By LISA DEMER