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Competitor dies in grueling Alaska backcountry race

Craig Medred
Rob Kehrer, pictured here during the 2013 Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic, was a 10-year competitor in the race, which is among the state's most grueling backcountry competitions. Kehrer died during the 2014 Classic while attempting to raft the Tana River. Luc Mehl photo

The inevitable has happened in the 32-year-old Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic, and 44-year-old Rob Kehrer is dead.

A 10-year veteran of what some consider the toughest wilderness challenge in the world, Kehrer died in the Tana River of Wrangell St. Elias National Park and Preserve on Saturday after apparently launching his packraft a little too soon at the end of the lower river canyon.

Friend and traveling companion Greg Mills told park rangers he saw Kehrer's boat disappear into a boil of cold, glacial water from which it never emerged. 

"As soon as Rob put in, he was swept into big, boiling hydraulic," said Peter Christian, chief ranger for the 13.2-million-acre park. Christian was part of a team that included volunteers and the Alaska Air National Guard who spent the weekend searching for Kehrer.

His body was found Sunday on a gravel bar about 4 miles below where he put his packraft in the river. Packrafts are 6- to 7-foot-long inflatable boats weighing 3 to 8 pounds. 

Despite their small size and light weight, packrafts have proven their durability across the state over the past decade and become famous for running big water when powered by the state's best paddlers.

A free-form race

A big man, always smiling, who spent a good part of his life in the Alaska wilderness, Kehrer was a competent paddler, a description that would fit most of the participants in the Wilderness Classic. A race of sorts across the wildest parts of the 49th state, the Classic each year attracts only a handful of participants, nearly all of them Alaskans familiar with the dangers of frigid waters, unforgiving climate and grizzly bears. There is no race route, and part of the challenge is finding the best way to the finish line.

Thirteen people started last year’s event on a course of more than 100 miles from Thompson Pass through the Chugach Mountains to the tiny community of McCarthy, but only five finished -- Kehrer among them. Twenty-three started this year and only nine have finished so far. Kehrer, like some others, was trying a new route using the Tana to try and avoid alder thickets so dense that last year he described them as near impassable.

"It made sense to crawl for short distances because no matter what you chose to do, it was going to be slow and expend a lot of energy," he said in a Facebook message exchange after the race last year. "Roman (Dial) was a genius last year wearing shin guards and arm guards on his forearms....The bushwhacking was awful because the density of the alders with devil’s club (and) the amount of fallen spruce trees. The height of brush made it difficult to see the ground so many times you would step into holes because of old fallen trees and such ... Also, the bugs were very unfun."

The 2013 Classic was tough, and the 2014 event got off to a bad start amid news that Cody Roman Dial -- Roman's son known simply as "R2" to many Classic participants -- was lost and missing somewhere in Costa Rica. He has still not been found.

R2 became the youngest ever to finish the race when he completed the Eureka Summit to Talkeetna course in 2004 at age 17. His father is a four-time winner, a former race organizer and a veteran of more than 10 Classics. His mother, Peggy, still holds the fastest time ever run by a woman. She did the Brooks Range course of more than 100 miles in about three days in 1993.

There was talk of canceling the Classic because of the search underway in Central America for Cody Dial, but the Alaska event went on anyway, with competitors vowing to proceed in the spirit of the Dials. They also took their $200 race fees, which normally go into a rescue fund in case of emergency, and donated the money to a fund to help Roman continue search efforts in Central America.

Then everyone headed off for Thompson Pass, thinking that at least this was the last year to deal with the Classic on what everyone agreed was a hellish course. The race is due to move, if it continues, next year. It has historically been run only three years in a row on any route to prevent regular competitors from gaining an advantage thanks to experience gained in determining the best race route from start to finish.

"We don't know what will happen with the Classic now," volunteer coordinator Luc Mehl said Monday. "The community will have to process it."

Iditarod Trail Invitational volunteer

The Classic community is small -- numbering fewer than 500 people -- but it represents the most experienced wilderness trekkers in Alaska. Kehrer was one of this group, a man perhaps more comfortable in the wilderness than the city. For many winters, Kehrer helped Bill Merchant of the Iditarod Trail Invitational pioneer the Iditarod Trail to the remote Rohn checkpoint in the Alaska Range every February.

The two men would punch the trail through Rainy Pass and down into the rugged Dalzell Gorge before Iditarod race officials, let alone Iditarod mushers, arrived. Then Kehrer would hang out in Rohn to man the checkpoint for the Invitational. Invitational competitors came to know him as the always-smiling guy who kept the checkpoint wall tent warm, made comfortable places for everyone to sleep, and kept stuffing people with food.

"Everybody who describes him talks about his big heart," Mehl said. "He really embodied the spirit of Alaska."

Kehrer, a big man of more than 200 pounds, was never going to win the Classic. He knew that, but still enjoyed the challenge of every race, and he regularly embraced the opportunities to help out others struggling across the wilderness. Last year, he happened on the packraft of Steve Duby after Duby flipped it, lost it, and swam the Tasnuna River on the first day of the competition.

Kehrer made sure to tie the raft up on a gravel bar where someone continuing downstream couldn't miss it. Duby, a school teacher in the remote village of Nulato on the Yukon River, was working his way downstream trying to figure out the best way to abandon the race when he came upon the raft. He got in and eventually became the first to finish the 2013 Classic, thanks to Kehrer's help.

Other competitors in the water

Swimming is something a lot of people do in the Classic. Mehl said seven people used the Tana River route this year and at least two of them ending up swimming before Kehrer -- both in dangerous Class IV whitewater upstream from where Mills and Kehrer put in. Both got out OK. Kehrer and Mills intentionally avoided that stretch of the river.

"They actually put in below the worst of the gnarly," Mehl said. "They walked way out of their way. Rob's always been afraid of water, though he's swum a bunch."

The Classic is a competition that normally rewards good judgment, route-finding and sometimes fire-making abilities more than paddling efficiency. Fire is a lifesaver in a situations where people face deadly hypothermia. At least one past Classic participant might well have died on a different route through the Wrangells more than 20 years ago after a raft accident left him washed up the bank of the Nizina River. Another competitor happened along and started a fire to save him from death by exposure.

How Kehrer died is unknown. He could have drowned or been killed by hypothermia after washing out of the whirlpool, but Christian said there is no indication that he was conscious when he washed up on the gravel bar.

After Kehrer disappeared, "Greg (Mills) got safely past the hole, grabbed up all the gear" that had come loose from Kehrer's raft and was floating downstream, Christian said. Mills then went to shore to start searching for his buddy.

"He ran up the bank hoping he'd find him and never did," Christian said.

Searchers in a Park Service helicopter and in Pavehawk helicopters of the famed Alaska Air National Guard’s 210th Rescue Squadron from Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson spent hours airborne over the weekend before they were able to locate Kehrer's body, the ranger said. Kehrer was wearing dark rain gear and a dark personal flotation device.

Mehl, who talked to Mills after the accident, said he believes Kehrer's boat was flipped by a powerful, boiling eddy along a cliff where the Tana makes a 90-degree bend. The late Dr. Andrew Embick of Valdez warns of these "powerful, boiling eddies" in his book "Fast & Cold: A Guide to Alaska whitewater." The Tana canyon in 1988 claimed the lives of 44-year-old Larry Holmstrom, his 21-year-old daughter Maria and 31-year-old Ron Eagle while they filmed an episode of "Jay Hammond's Alaska."

Hammond, now deceased, was a two-term Alaska governor and the first governor to host a TV show about Alaska. He, too, went into the water in 1988, but was pulled safely back aboard a raft rowed by Paul Claus of Ultima Thule Outfitters. A legendary Alaska Bush pilot, Claus runs a lodge not far from the Tana. He was the first person Mills called on a satellite phone after the accident, and Claus began an aerial search for Kehrer almost immediately. He saw nothing.

"We didn't get a call until the next day on Sunday," Christian said. "But there's probably nothing anyone could have done anyway." 

Kehrer's wife, Tamra, was in McCarthy waiting for her husband and other race finishers when she was notified of her husband's death. Mehl said she had friends with her and was hanging on.

Everyone who enters the Alaska Wilderness Classic knows the dangers. The liability waiver has for years contained very blunt language informing Classic competitors about the risk of death, but dealing with it is hard for family members who wait for the event to finish. Fifty-seven-year-old Anchorage surgeon Dr. John Lapkass, a husband and father who has completed more Classic races than anyone, almost died on a course in the Fortymile River country of Interior Alaska in 2010. He suffered internal bleeding during the race, but was able to make a satellite phone call for a helicopter, which picked him up and flew him to surgery in Anchorage.

‘On your own’

As the race blog warned again this year, as it has in other years, "it is important to emphasize again that the Classic is dangerous. If you participate, you must know how to self-rescue. Self-rescue does not mean that you know how to dial a sat phone for a rescue. Self-rescue means that you know how to stabilize serious injuries enough that you can walk (or crawl) dozens of miles to a possible fly-out zone.  You are on your own and you have to take care of yourself. Most people will never acquire the experience necessary to run a Classic. In fact, if you're reading this blog, you probably shouldn't even consider doing it."

Nobody, however, expected that the first to perish would be someone like Kehrer. He was, friends say, among the best of the best at Alaska wilderness travel, and he still didn't make it home.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com