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Tides wait for no man on mudflats off Alaska's biggest city

Craig Medred
A man, barely responsive, is transported to an ambulance after he and his companion were rescued from the mudflats near Anchorage last year. On Sunday, Army Capt. Joseph Hugh Eros was not so fortunate and perished while hiking back from Fire Island. Loren Holmes photo

A death on the mudflats between Anchorage and Fire Island was inevitable.

Forty-two-year-old Army Capt. Joseph Hugh Eros sadly died there Sunday as he and a companion tried to beat the Cook Inlet tide. They didn't make it. Water rose around them and they had to swim.

The companion, who has not been identified, barely made the beach. Eros did not. His body was found offshore. Let the second guessing begin.

The crossing to Fire Island is dangerous. So is walking in Anchorage. The latter is arguably more dangerous. Drivers of motor vehicles cannot be counted on to follow rules. They steer dangerous weapons, but seldom think about them that way. They are sometimes distracted.

Serviceman Melvin Rush was lucky he was in a tank-like Chevrolet truck when an Anchorage Police Department patrolman distracted by his computer ran a red light and hit him in 2010. Had Rush been on foot or a bicycle, he probably would be dead for entering an intersection where the green light said "go.''

This is the danger of life in the city. The danger around the city's rim is far more predictable. Turnagain Arm tides ebb and flow on a regular schedule. People paying attention to the schedule have been trekking to Fire Island for years.

Hundreds or thousands have crossed

One of my neighbors on the Hillside used to worry about it. She'd see the people out on the mud and ask who she should call to report they were in danger. Over time, she learned they weren't in any real danger if.... if the trekkers paid careful attention to those tides.

Hundreds of people -- perhaps thousands -- have safely crossed to the island at low tide. Organized groups have done itCyclists have done it. Adult-led youth groups have done it.

I know. I have friends whose children were led across and back. The parents didn't worry about it. They knew the leaders of the expedition. They knew they wouldn't take risks. There is an hours-long-window of opportunity to hike to the island at low tide. If you're willing to sit out a cycle of the tide on the Fire Island shore, there is an hours-long window to make the trek back.

The trip gets more difficult if you try to make it out and back on the same low tide, but plenty of people have safely done that. The danger is that you cannot do it on your schedule. You must do it on the tide's schedule.

As a reporter, I thought for years about writing about all the people trekking to the island 3.5 miles offshore, but didn't. Why?  Because it didn't seem wise to encourage something that requires a certain bit of expertise to undertake, knowing that encouraging such behavior might embolden those who lack the expertise.

Anchorage already has one dangerous attraction, Flattop Mountain. Flattop has killed several and injured many more. Some of us think nothing of using it for a training run, and yet it is dangerous for others.

Mother Nature unforgiving

Why encourage visits to another dangerous attraction on the opposite and equally dangerous boundary to Alaska's largest city?

Then again, maybe, with a little more knowledge as to how to safely make the trip to Fire Island, Eros might be alive today. The tides are fast and powerful in Turnagain Arm. They stick to their schedule. You cannot try to beat them. Mother Nature is unforgiving in Alaska is this way. She has killed so many. Tides, weather and terrain must all be judged on her terms.

Low tide was at 1:30 p.m. Sunday. It was a minus 3.87 feet. The tide was flooding back rapidly by 2:30 p.m., however, and by the time an emergency call came in reporting Eros in danger at 4:30 p.m. there was a river of chilly water flowing across what had earlier been mudflats. How chilly?

The temperature of the water off Anchorage is now 57 degrees as reported  by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration at the Port of Anchorage -- not the 40 degrees being bandied about in some reports. But the time one can swim in such cold water is limited. 

"Some good swimmers can swim eight-tenths of a mile in 50-degree water before becoming hypothermic. Other people may not be able to swim 100 yards,'' according to the United States Power Squadrons, a boating safety group that educates people about hypothermia.

Had Eros spent the night on Fire Island and waited for the minus 4.38-foot tide at 2:17 p.m. on Monday he would be alive today. But he didn't. He made the sort of gamble others have made.

I, personally, came frighteningly close to putting a boat on a dangerous beach at South Inian Passage in Southeast Alaska because I tried to beat a tide. The U.S. Coast Pilot specifically warns that "heavy, dangerous tide rips occur especially at the western entrance with an ebb current and westerly or southwesterly wind." 

I ignored the pilot. I was on a schedule. I hit the west entrance on the ebb with a westerly wind building toward a gale. I was lucky to make it to the port of Elfin Cove in one piece. Very lucky.

Tides do not care about human schedules. It is a reality that must be faced anywhere they’re encountered, but especially in Alaska where they are often huge. If you decide to go to Fire Island -- and some still will, just as many climb Flattop despite the deaths over the years -- you have to pay attention to this.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com