Alaska hunting buddies recount harrowing near-death rafting accident

Casey Grove

Before Anchorage resident Mike Vogel and his hunting buddy Melvin "Red" Iler almost died twice while floating the Gerstle River last weekend in Interior Alaska, Vogel shot a Dall sheep.

They flipped the raft twice, and the sheep they bagged ended up in the frigid water, along with the men themselves. Vogel, 56, and Iler, 62, were saved by their flotation vests, they said, and a will to live that pushed Iler to hike more than nine hours to summon a military helicopter to rescue Vogel.

"My cup's always half full. I knew we were going to get out of there somehow. As long as I could stand, I was going to keep going," Iler told the Daily News on Friday. "I wasn't going to let him die up there. It's just what had to happen."

Vogel had drawn a permit to hunt the area, something he and Iler, who lives in Oregon, had talked about since February, the men said. A pilot dropped them and their gear off Aug. 4, and Vogel and Iler set up camp on the Gerstle Glacier's moraine. A week of hiking into the rugged mountains and scouting for sheep paid off: They shot and field-dressed a ram with a 37-inch rack on opening day, Aug. 10.

"We'd been in there a week, we got a sheep, and we couldn't hunt anything else. It was time to go," Vogel said.

They loaded the sheep and their gear into their raft and launched the morning of Aug. 11.

They knew about the rapids a mile or two downriver from their camp. They had scouted the river when the flew in and they made a plan: Get out of the raft and use ropes to line it around the rough water.

But that's not what happened. Hot weather in the Interior was melting the glacier fast. Already risky, the river was running higher and more powerful than usual.

"Because the current was so strong, I couldn't get the boat over to where we needed to get over," Vogel said.

The raft shot through the rapids. Vogel couldn't hold on for long. He went flying into the water, his body bouncing off the rocks. He grabbed the raft's side and hung on as Iler tried to gain control. They hit a boulder. Iler figures that's when Vogel got his left pinky finger caught between their cargo platform and the rock. The tip of the finger was gone,

"We were sideways, backward and everything else," Iler said. "The current tore his pants off. So he was basically going down there in socks and shorts, just taking a beating. There was nothing I could do."

Iler freed them from the boulder, and they eventually beached the raft. Vogel's skin was "snow white," and he was shaking uncontrollably, Iler said.

"At that point, you're thinking about people that you care about, that matter to you, and you're thinking you might not see them again," Vogel said.


They lost a lot of things. Their food was gone. But the men had a lighter that produced a flame and a sleeping bag that Iler dried out. He started a fire for Vogel, put his friend inside the sleeping bag and tried his best to bandage Vogel's finger. Iler also repaired five holes in the raft and inflated it.

In the morning, they set out again on the river. In the cool of night, with the sun no longer baking the glacier, the water had dropped about a foot, Iler said.

"We got out in the main channel, and I'll tell you, that Gertle just has a bad attitude. We hit some big, bad water," Iler said. "Had I known the real attitude of that river, I never would've rafted it. She's nasty. I mean, she's a brutal one."

This time they made it about 10 or 12 miles on the river miles before the overpowering current pushed them into a tree leaning over the water.

"So in we went, underneath a sweeper, and most people don't survive going underneath a sweeper," Vogel said. "Somehow, the boat, and both Red and I got spit out."

"And we flipped upside down and backwards," Iler said. "I was underwater for quite a while, but that life preserver is what saved me. I was trying to sink, but it wouldn't let me. It just held my head up."

The water swept them downstream to an island. They got out of the water, but both men were hypothermic. Iler lost his coat and the lighter inside. There was another lighter in the raft, but they would have to right the raft to get it. That seemed impossible, Iler said.

"I had a real hard time talking. My jaw wouldn't work," Iler said. "Neither one of us could hardly stand, and we had to tip that boat over. We just told each other, 'We have to do this. We don't have a choice.' "

Vogel and Iler found the strength to upend the raft, get in the pack and start a fire with the lighters inside. Both men used the same words often -- "we had no other choice" -- in describing their ordeal. Vogel said that was how they decided Iler needed to hike to the Alaska Highway to get help the next morning.

They were not scheduled to be back until Aug. 18, so it would be almost a week before their pilot would fly over to check on them. Other aircraft were not allowed in the area for another week or so after that, Iler said.

"Just to sit there wouldn't have benefited us at all," he said.


Iler gathered firewood for Vogel. They had clean water from a nearby stream. The weather during the day had been in the 70s, but it was colder at night and they did not know how long a rescue might take -- or if Iler would survive the hike at all.

"It was the only option we had. Yes, you don't like to split up the party, but it was the only option," Vogel said. "I wished him Godspeed."

First, Iler had to get off the island, a feat that left him soaked again on the bank. Soon, though, he was on a four-wheeler trail to a trail head.

Iler's feet ached. The near-freezing water had sapped his energy and taken its toll on his toes, affecting his balance.

Then he came to a break in the trail, where the river had swept some of it away. Iler scaled "near-vertical" rocks. He later found a patch of raspberries.

"I took my pack off and got down on all fours. There wasn't a raspberry left there when I was done," Iler said.

Another stop at a blueberry patch added to Iler's endurance. He reached a road, hitched a ride with some German tourists, found Vogel's pickup and drove it to Delta Junction. An employee at the state Division of Motor Vehicles building called an Alaska State Trooper, Sgt. Jason Pugh, who met Iler and got in touch with the Alaska Air National Guard's Rescue Coordination Center.

Meantime, Vogel was still on the island in the middle of the river.

"At that point, I figured if he couldn't make it across the river, he would've been back by an hour. So I felt by the three-hour mark he probably had made it," Vogel said. "The fact that I was alive, I really believe was truly a miracle."

"Granted, I needed medical attention, but I had hope at that point," he said.

Vogel's hope intensified that night when he heard a plane circling overhead. It was an Alaska Air National Guard HC-130 looking for him using the latitude and longitude Iler gave them from his GPS.

An Air National Guard HH-60 Pave Hawk had taken off from Eielson Air Force Base, but it had a mechanical problem 45 minutes into the flight and returned to base, according to the Guard. Mechanics repaired the problem, and the helicopter reached Vogel about 8:45 p.m. Tuesday, the Guard said.

"About the time I was starting to lay down, I heard the 'whoomp, whoomp, whoomp' and I knew this was not a civilian chopper, and I knew the chopper was for me," Vogel said. "You have a tremendous amount of emotion. It's very hard to describe."


The helicopter landed within walking distance, which was not far for the injured Vogel at the time.

"And two guys come over, and the one says, 'Are you Michael Vogel?' And I said, 'Yes,' and I said, 'I'm very glad to see you.' I put up my hand. He says, 'Don't worry, we're going to get you out of here.' And they did."

In Delta, staying hours past the usual end of his shift, Trooper Pugh told Iler his friend was on the way to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital. Vogel said his rescuers started an I.V. and gave him an energy bar. According to the Guard, the helicopter flew through wildfire smoke that limited visibility to only one mile, while the HC-130 crew provided updates on the wind pushing the smoke.

Back on the ground, Vogel was driven to the hospital's emergency room, he said. The doctors and nurses worked on him into the early morning hours.

"They knew I hadn't eaten, and at 1:30 in the morning, they got me a cheeseburger and a salad," Vogel said. "Frankly, I could've eaten the table, but at that moment an American cheeseburger is what I wanted."

Iler arrived Wednesday morning to pick up his friend, and they drove south to Anchorage. Vogel still has doctor appointments, and Iler was trying to get his glasses replaced Friday.

"I'm still pretty beat up, in a lot of pain, but I'm grateful to be alive. And I'm grateful those people were in place to help me when I needed help," Vogel said.

Vogel wanted to thank his military rescuers, his doctors and the nursing staff, and the troopers for the role they played in saving his life. At the top of his thank-you list is his hunting buddy, Red Iler, who was at the center of that effort.

"He did a hell of a job," Vogel said.

Reach Casey Grove at or 257-4589.