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Drowned Montana paddlers struggled against felled tree in Eagle River

Craig Medred

The deaths of two Montana women Wednesday on Eagle River was a tragic Alaska norm. Every experienced river runner in the 49th state learns early that whitewater will scare you, but sweepers and strainers will kill you. It was the latter that claimed the lives of 60-year-old Fern Johnson and 48-year-old Carol Heater, both new arrivals to Alaska.

Danger of sweepers and strainers on the braided, glacial rivers of the north -- rivers of a type uncommon in the Lower 48 -- is such that the Alaska Public Lands Information Center website specifically warns of it, immediately after it cautions that most water in Alaska is cold, and thus dangerous, and remote. In the event of an accident, rescue is usually a long way off.

Immediately following that caution, APLIC warns:

Watch for Sweepers, Strainers, and Log Jams

Sweepers are trees that bend low over the water or have fallen completely across. Many rivers meander through forested valleys and sweepers are common along the cut banks. Strainers are trees that have fallen into the water and their branches act as a strainer for the water flowing through them. It is nearly impossible to free yourself from a strainer, with the strong current holding you into it. Branches act as hooks and catch clothing, which leads to drowning. Sweepers and strainers are common on Class I rivers and can take a relaxed boater by surprise. Avoid sweepers and strainers at all costs. Log jams pile up on corners, deposited by spring floods and high water. The current tends to pull toward the bank and right into log jams.

Alaska tends to have rivers full of sweepers and log jams because of seasonal high and low flows on the glacial streams unique to the north. Glacier rivers drop to very low flows in the winter, but swell to high levels as glaciers melt in the summer. The pattern tends to make them wander around in their corridors, often cutting out big chunks of bank and dumping stands of trees into the water. The latter form into sweepers and strainers.

Johnson, from Plains, Mont., and Heater, from nearby Kalispell, died after they got caught in a strainer on a river that starts in the wilderness of Chugach State Park and flows toward the Anchorage bedroom-community of Eagle River. Johnson's husband, Robert, survived by scrambling atop the log jam that trapped and drowned the women.

The danger with sweepers and strainers is in being swept beneath by the power of the current. They can be particularly dangerous for people trained in river travel Outside, where people are taught to swim donwstream feet first in the event of a capsize. The position allows them to use their feet to fend off rocks while trusting their personal flotation device to keep them afloat and alive.

But feet first is absolutely the wrong way to approach a sweeper. It is not known in which position Johnson and Heater were pointed when they hit the logjam, but having a chance at survival in that situation depends on getting headed downstream head first, and then trying to swim up on the obstruction like a performing whale coming out of the pool at SeaWorld.

A statement from the Anchorage Police Department said the Johnsons, who were in the same canoe with Heater, saw the downstream danger approaching as they floated near Mile 7.4 of Eagle River Road. It is unclear if they were fully aware of the danger.

"The Johnsons and Heater put their canoe up against the jam in a slow-moving current, but as they tried to paddle to the east bank of the river they were caught in a faster current which overturned the canoe," the statement said.

The same current drove Johnson and Heater under the logs where they drowned, their PFDs unable to save them. The late Dr. Andy Embick noted the subtle danger of Eagle River while underlining the general danger of moving water in the 49th state in his 1994 book "Fast & Cold -- A guide to Alaska whitewater."

"No rivers above Class I in difficulty are event slightly suitable for novice canoeists, regardless of how well equipped," he wrote; "and this guide lists only one Class I: Eagle River's middle section on which close to a half-a-dozen deaths have occurred in the last decade." How many more have died since the book was written is unknown, but experienced kayaker Gene Schumar was killed in 1997 after flipping his kayak. He was caught beneath a sweeper. 

Most websites for river runners warn of the danger. The middle stretch of Eagle River, notes one, "is only Class I; however, one must be careful not to get caught up in the many sweepers found along the shore."

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com