North Pole man dies after bulldozer sinks in Su Valley lake

Casey Grove

A man helping build a remote camp in support of a massive dam project on the Susitna River is dead after his bulldozer went into an icy alpine lake Friday in the Talkeetna Mountains.

Donald Kiehl, a 72-year-old North Pole resident, was moving machinery to the Stephan Lake Lodge, troopers said in a statement. The wilderness lodge, which sits about 50 miles northeast of Talkeetna next to the Nelchina Public Use Area, is under contract to build a camp to support the Susitna-Watana Hydroelectric Project, which aims to build the second tallest dam in the United States, according to the Alaska Energy Authority.

A state permit issued by the Department of Natural Resources allowing bulldozers and other heavy equipment to drive over state land to the lodge was set to expire May 15. The permit requires adequate snow and ice cover to protect vegetation, lakes and waterways. According to the Alaska Public Radio Network, the lodge's owner plans to build an airstrip at the lodge.

Kiehl and the rest of the crew were going over a low mountain somewhere between Gold Creek -- where local residents say the Alaska Railroad unloaded the equipment -- and Stephan Lake about 5:30 p.m. Friday, troopers said. The bulldozer Kiehl drove, a Caterpillar D6, went into a lake or pond, breaking through ice. The roughly 18-ton piece of machinery sank in the water, and Kiehl's coworkers pulled him out, troopers said.

The crew's attempts to resuscitate Kiehl were unsuccessful. Troopers flew to the scene in a helicopter operating in the area, according to the troopers' statement Saturday. The state medical examiner asked for Kiehl's body to be sent to Anchorage for an autopsy. The troopers' statement said foul play is not suspected. Their investigation into Kiehl's death continues.

The Susitna dam is expected to be 750 feet tall and cost in the range of $5 billion to build. The Stephan Lake Lodge is under contract to provide lodging in support of the dam project, Alaska Energy Authority spokeswoman Emily Ford said.

"The work crew involved in this accident was working directly for the lodge," Ford said. "We are deeply saddened by this tragic accident. Our thoughts and prayers are with Mr. Kiehl's family and coworkers. The project team and all of our contractors remain committed to safety as our highest priority."

Richard Leo, board president of the Coalition for Susitna Dam Alternatives, said the fatal bulldozer accident shows the state is trying to rush construction of the dam, which his group opposes.

"We thought it was risky to attempt it this time of year," Leo said. "We're mourning this person who died, Don Kiehl, and it is a tragedy. But these are the kinds of things that happen when the project is being pushed so fast and so hard."

Asked about the timing of the operation Kiehl was working on, Ford referred questions to the state Department of Natural Resources. Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Bluemink said that if the workers needed more time to finish moving the equipment, the permit holder could have asked for an extension.

There was no need to rush to meet the permit deadline, Bluemink said in an email Saturday.

"DNR staff did have field observation yesterday related to the permit, and it appears that everything was going as expected," she said.

A longtime friend of Kiehl and his family, Heather Heineken, said Kiehl was an experienced heavy equipment operator who mostly worked on setting up camps for remote projects, including mines. The news that Kiehl had died hit hard for his two sons and his daughter, Heineken said. Everyone was shocked, and Kiehl's death had not really sunk in yet Saturday, even after the troopers' death notification, she said.

"We haven't seen anything that proves it, if that makes any sense. We're used to not hearing for him for weeks on end," Heineken said.


Reach Casey Grove at or 257-4589.