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North Pole man dies after Bulldozer falls through ice en route to remote Alaska lodge

A crew hauling heavy equipment through the Alaska wilderness suffered a loss Friday afternoon when a bulldozer headed to Stephan Lake Lodge fell through pond ice, submerging the vehicle and killing the driver, Alaska State Troopers reported.

Troopers received a report at 6:20 p.m. Friday that the bulldozer had fallen through the ice on a pond between Gold Creek and Stephan Lake. Following an investigation, troopers identified the driver as 72-year-old North Pole resident Donald Kiehl, who was declared dead at the scene.

The crew of men was hauling a cat-train to the lodge for contract work. Stephan Lake Lodge, a fly-in lodge located 140 miles from Anchorage in the Talkeetna Mountains, was hired to provide remote camp services for fieldwork related to the Susitna-Watana Hydro project, a proposed dam in Southcentral Alaska that if completed would be the second-tallest in the U.S.

Following the McWilliams Gold Creek Trail, the crew was traveling through the wilderness, fighting against an abrupt Alaska spring. An employee at the lodge was granted an Alaska Department of Natural Resources permit to haul the equipment. That permit contains stipulations meant to protect against damage to vegetation by limiting the transportation of the equipment to “winter travel,” moving the tractors and fuel tanks over snowpack.

Small town Alaskans in Talkeetna and Chase raised concerns about the permit -- in late April, the ground along the proposed path was already thawing.

The trail originates in Gold Creek at Mile 263 of the Alaska Railroad. It heads eastward along the base of the Susitna Mountains then turns south and climbs onto a plateau south of the Susitna River. The trail continues to a tributary of Chunilna Creek. The route is 36 miles.

About 14 miles into the trail, the terrain is littered with black spruce and birch trees, and the route becomes difficult to travel, said Chase resident Mike Wood. The crew had attempted to cut through this area during the past week; they had turned back toward Gold Creek due to terrain concerns and time constraints.

The DNR permit is effective between April 8 and May 15 unless terminated at the state’s discretion. There’s also a performance guarantee associated with the permit. If the contractor breaks any of the permit’s stipulations, he’ll forfeit $10,000.

According to troopers, at 5:30, the crew was crossing a low mountain, and Kiehl’s D6 Caterpillar broke through the ice on an alpine lake and sank. Fellow crewmembers retrieved Kiehl from the frigid waters and attempted lifesaving measures, but they were unable to resuscitate him. 

On Sunday, Wood had traveled by snowmachine to the cat-train, which had just entered the thick tree line. Two days later, the Chase resident flew over the crew, and the equipment had moved about a quarter mile, he said.

The cat-train operators diligently worked to adhere to the permit’s restrictions. Though the equipment was kicking up small amounts of dirt, turning the snow brown and hastening snowmelt, Wood said that in his opinion the crew ultimately hadn’t violated the permit.

Kiehl was leading the expedition with two other crewmembers. Wood said the men were pleasant when he’d travel up the trail, and they’d expressed their concerns about the trail ahead.

“I feel really bad for Don. He was a nice guy,” Wood said. “They still had a long way to go from the lodge … at any rate, they were doing a good job on the trail.” 

Contact Jerzy Shedlock at jerzy(at)alaskadispatch.com