The cold waters of fall have proven particularly deadly out near Portage, between the Chugach and Kenai mountain ranges. In three days, one man has been killed and another is missing and presumed dead, both apparent victims in recreational accidents on the water, according to Alaska State Troopers. The deaths follow one of the wettest Septembers in history, during which torrential rains led to evacuations and flooding from the Mat-Su to Seward.
Portage, once a community about 50 miles south of Anchorage, was abandoned after the Good Friday Earthquake of 1964 leveled it and most everything else in the area. But recreation on nearby rivers and lakes has flourished since. Chugach National Forest maintains a system of campgrounds and trails throughout Portage Valley, as well as the Begich, Boggs Visitor Center at Portage Lake, one of Alaska's top tourist destinations.
Meanwhile, the nearby Placer and Twenty Mile rivers -- which converge with Portage Creek at the head of Turnagain Arm -- are popular with anglers, hunters, river boaters, pack rafters and other paddlers.
Harold Moore, a 66-year-old Seward man, died Monday after a riverboat accident on the Twentymile. Moore was in a 16-foot aluminum boat with 55-year-old Ronald Cone and 29-year-old Nathan Cone from Anchorage when it slammed into a snag about 4 1/2 miles upriver from the Seward Highway bridge.
There are a fair number of such snags near the confluence of Glacier Creek and the Twenty Mile. According to troopers, the one the boat hit snared the lower unit on the craft's engine. With the boat so stuck, the current pushed up and over the craft, swamping it and sending all three men into the river. The Cones made it to shore, where they called 911, alerting troopers that Moore had been washed downstream.
Two troopers responded, but it took them some time to get to the scene. Troopers have no riverboat stationed in the area. They got help from Chugach National Forest staff, headquartered in Girdwood, a ski community about 10 miles down Seward Highway from Portage. As troopers and a U.S. Forest Service employee motored upriver to recover the boaters, they encountered Moore's body. Moore was wearing a flotation suit, according to a trooper report. Cause of death has not yet been determined.
A day after Moore's body was pulled from the Twenty Mile, troopers were summoned to Portage Lake to search for 50-year-old Larry Dobson, who is missing and now presumed dead. According to trooper reports, Dobson and his 51-year-old brother Dave, both residents of Sterling on the Kenai Peninsula, had paddled a canoe to the end of the lake on Monday.
Dave Dobson told troopers that he and his brother had returned from a hike in the hills that separate Portage Lake from Whittier and discovered their canoe "floating in the lake away from the shore."
Larry Dobson attempted to swim out and retrieve the canoe when, according to troopers, he "began to struggle and eventually disappeared beneath the water surface. Dave ... jumped in to try and save his brother but returned to the shoreline shortly afterward."
After his brother's disappearance, Dave Dobson told troopers that he spent the night on Portage Lake's shore. When he awoke the next morning he found the canoe had drifted back, troopers reported. Dave told troopers that he paddled back across the lake searching for his brother when he "met a family member who came looking for the overdue brothers."
Dave was taken to a hospital to be treated for hypothermia. Troopers and Forest Service officials were then notified and have been searching the lake for Larry ever since.
A trooper press release noted "the terrain on that end (south) of the lake prevented Dave Dobson from hiking back to the parking lot" from which he left by canoe. But there is a route from the south end of the lake to Whittier on Prince William Sound. Earlier this summer, a pair of hikers used that route to access Portage Lake, only to need rescuing after swimming out to a gravel island just offshore.
The glacial water was too cold to risk swimming back.
It's not clear from the trooper report whether Larry Dobson was wearing a personal flotation device. It does say his body remains missing.
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com