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Fancy wristwatch saves Alaskan hunter's life... or does it?

Craig Medred
PRNewsFoto/Breitling

This is a story about what happened when one man encountered discomfort in the Alaska wilderness while wearing a $5,000 wristwatch, and how his misadventure became a life-and-death matter when a public relations company for the timepiece of the rich and famous tried to cook up an internet sensation.

Thirty-nine-year-old Mark Spencer from Anchorage had the pricey watch strapped on his left wrist when a caribou hunting trip down the Susitna River in August went awry. The watch in question, to be exact, was a Breitling Emergency watch, which isn't your grandfather's Timex. "The Emergency," according to the Breitling website, "is an instrument watch with built-in microtransmitter broadcasting on the 121.5 MHz aircraft emergency frequency. Following a crash or a forced landing, for example, the Emergency will send a signal on which rescuers can home in."

Spencer turned on his Emergency on Aug. 14 along the south slope of the Alaska Range after first turning on a personal locator beacon to call for help. What follows is the official summary of what happened next from the Rescue Coordination Center in Anchorage (with all the acronyms spelled out to make it easier on the average reader):

(Search) mission opened in response to a 406 Mhz personal locator beacon activation 115 nautical miles northeast of Anchorage, Alaska. Alaska State Troopers requested assistance to rescue three hunters stranded and separated after their boat struck a bridge and sank. The 210th and 212th Rescue Squadrons of the Alaska Air National Guard were tasked and responded with an HH-60 Pavehawk helicopter and pararescuemen teams. The 210th/212th rescue squadrons located two hunters, and they refused help. Alaska State Troopers met up with the third hunter who had hiked to a lodge and activated his personal locator beacon. He also refused help. The 210th Rescue Squadron with the 212th Rescue PJs (pararescuemen) on board flew one sortie for 2.7 hours on this mission.

Normally, this is where the story would end: Someone turned on a rescue beacon, and the elite rescue teams of the 210th and 212th flew north from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson on the outskirts of Anchorage to conduct what turned out to be a wild goose chase. Some government money got spent -- wasted some would argue -- but at the end of the day the rescue crews wrote it all off as good, real-world training for what they do. There are no indications anyone in officialdom gave it a second thought.

Trooper online dispatches, which record all kinds of law-enforcement minutiae around the state, didn't even mention this mid-August search-and-rescue operation -- what troopers call a “SAR” mission. The dispatches for that month note some other SARs and the fact someone got caught sport fishing without a license "in their possession" near Valdez on Aug. 14. But no one thought to note the rescue crews scrambling toward a remote spot on the Denali Highway. A spokesman for the National Guard contacted by Alaska Dispatch in October remembered hearing something about the sortie at the time, but didn't bother to mention it to anyone in the media because nothing happened.

Yes, Spencer activated not one but two rescue beacons -- an odd occurrence in the 49th state, where most people don't carry rescue beacons -- but that didn't strike anyone as newsworthy because, well, there was no rescue. The call was, if anything, a false alarm.

Enter the tony watch on Spencer's wrist, the Swiss-based Breitling watch company, and a Beverly Hills, Calif., company called Centigrade, which just happens to do the public relations for Breitling.

'Great PR'

Centigrade got the internet buzzing this week with a report headlined, "Breitling Watch Saves The Life Of Stranded Hunter"

The California-based Sacramento Bee -- mothership to the Anchorage Daily News -- was among the first to pick up the story and leverage it onto Google News as news, though the Bee was careful to attach to this tale a note that the story was only a reprint from a public relations firm. "This section contains unedited press releases distributed by PR Newswire,” the Bee warned, "These releases reflect the views of the issuing entity and are not reviewed or edited by the Sacramento Bee staff."

Almost every media outlet online sometimes seems to do this these days (Alaska Dispatch also used to run PR Newswire, but hasn't published its press releases since the end of 2011). The unedited press releases are often identified as such, at least by most reputable news organizations. The barely edited press releases, not so much.

"This Guy's Watch Saved His Life" headlined StyleBistro.com in a rewrite of the press release attributed to associate editor Lindsay Shallon. StyleBristo is a website launched in 2006 with the stated goal of “bringing high-quality, deeply engaging content to the largest possible audience." It now claims to reach 30 million people.

"After 48 treacherous hours of being stranded in the Alaskan wilderness, grizzly bear hunter Mark Spencer made it out alive to tell the tale -- and it's all thanks to that timepiece on his wrist," Shallon told those 30 million. "The watch is no ordinary time-teller, though. It's a Breitling -- a luxury range of chronometer-certified wristwear that comes equipped with a built-in homing signal.

"Once he realized he was done and lost, Spencer activated a micro-transmitter in his watch by unfolding, get this, a mini-antenna out from the depths of his bling. The antenna's distress signal alerted a rescue team nearby, who was able to swoop in with a helicopter and save the hunter.

"'Breitling is the number one piece of equipment I always bring with me,' said Spencer in a statement. 'Even if I lose everything, I will always have my watch. That gives me and my family peace of mind.'

"How's that for some good PR?” Shallon added.

Great PR. Now, if only it were true....

Anatomy of a non-rescue

Spencer could not be reached for comment. He did not answer messages sent to him on his Facebook page, the profile photo of which featured the testicles of a dog. A woman with whom Spencer had made acquaintance (it was unclear whether personal or professional) offered Spencer's personal email address; he did not respond to a message sent there either. His phone number is unlisted.

Though Spencer might not be talking, except via press release from Centigrade, the folks at a pair of Denali Highway lodges remember much of what transpired this summer north of Anchorage, and their memories echo what is in the Rescue Coordination Center report.

"You know, I only heard bits and pieces of it," said Christine Cox at the remote Alpine Creek Lodge when reached by telephone. It was at Alpine Creek that the Trooper talked to Spencer.

"He was here," she said. "They (his hunting group) ended up getting like two huge caribou. They tried to bring them down the river, and they couldn't because they were too big for his boat."

Spencer, she said, then decided to motor back up the Susitna River to the highway alone in his outboard-powered, inflatable cataraft to get help. "He ended up puncturing one of the sides," she said, but made it to the highway bridge. "He hiked to us," she said. "He hit his beacon before he even got to us."

It is a long hike -- about 13 miles -- from the Denali Highway bridge over the Susitna to Alpine Creek. But it doesn't appear Spencer was in any real danger on the hike. Another lodge owner thinks Spencer might actually have been able to hitch a ride from the bridge all or part of the way to Alpine Creek. There is not a lot of traffic on the Denali in August, but there is regular traffic. And given the area is somewhat remote, people generally stop if someone tries to flag them down. Whether Spencer got a ride for certain is unclear, but he did not need medical attention at Alpine Creek.

When the National Guard Pavehawk helicopter arrived on the scene there, the crew talked to Spencer and then quickly flew off to check on his friends.

"The friends were fine," Cox added. "They didn't need to be rescued at that point."

Alan Echols at the even more remote Maclaren River Lodge, who could only be reached by email on "starband," a satellite internet service, confirms her memory. Echols took a riverboat down the Maclaren River to the Susitna to retrieve Spencer's hunting partners. Echols recounted a story very similar to that told at Alpine Creek.

"I did go down and pick up the two other people that were with Mark and all their gear," he wrote. "Mark had made it up to the Sue (Susitna) bridge where he hitched a ride to Alpine and called me. He did sink his boat at some point, but I was under the impression that it was pretty close to the bridge. A chopper did land and talk to the two that I picked up, but they were fine and needed all their gear brought back, so they waited for me."

From his lodge, Echols runs riverboats down the Maclaren to the Susitna to near the top of the Watana Canyon, about 20 miles below Tyone Creek. He transports hunters and anglers and sometimes takes tourists on tours. The Watana, a rock-walled slot through the Talkeetna Mountains just above Devil's Canyon, is where the river's famous whitewater begins -- something of which Centigrade made much.

"Unable to navigate the hazardous Class 6 rapids of the Susitna River, (Spencer's) float-hunting party had diverted the course of their boat to the Tyone River," its press release claims. There are no "Class 6" rapids on the Susitna. Class 6 rapids are unrunnable. The rapids of Devil's Canyon are considered Class 5+ because they have been run.

They would scare the bejeezus out of normal people, but  a significant number of kayakers have paddled downstream, and Taleektna riverboat operator Steve Mahay went upstream to the Denali Highway in a jetboat in 1985. Anchorage's Barney Griffith, now something of a mountain-running legend, made the first descent in 1976 at the age of 18, although famous Outside kayaker Walt Blackadar had run part of the canyon in 1972. Kayakers who have made the run since have described it as "being flushed down a toilet."

But these big rapids are irrelevant to Spencer's trip. There are no indications he intended to run either the Watana or Devil's canyons -- you'd be a fool to do that in a loaded, 16-foot cataraft -- and he never got closer than about 20 miles from the big water. Whether Spencer planned to try to take his cataraft up Tyone Creek, as the press release claims, is unclear.

"But the (Tyone) river route proved too shallow for their vessel," it says. "Spencer left his group and went searching for help on the glaciated Susitna River and struck a shoal tearing a hole in the vessel, sinking it in the icy waters. He had spent more than 48 treacherous hours struggling for his life among the unrelenting elements of the Alaskan backcountry."

The Tyone is shallow, but the bigger problem is that it is weed-choked. It is also about 30 miles upstream on the Tyone to Tyone Lake which connects to Lake Louise. It is about 20 miles across some big, open water on the lakes to the boat ramp on the latter off the Glenn Highway. Depending on the weather, crossing can be difficult in a proper lake or ocean boat, let alone in a cataraft.

The good news?

"Interesting article there," Echols emailed after being sent a link to what Centigrade spread across the web in the form of an apparent news story.

Interesting indeed. But maybe the good news is that none of the serious, big-time lamestream media -- The New York Times, The Washington Post, the LA Times -- appear to have picked up the report. Is it too much to hope that they recognized it for what it was -- a fiction designed to sell some pricey watches?

On the other hand, the story was getting play earlier this week at  "News Central" on WatchProSite.com; IWMagazine.com had picked it up as news; and Field and Stream.com -- the website for a once-reputable outdoor magazine -- was hyping the story and linking to it via heraldonline.com.

Heraldonline.com is the website for The Herald, a Rock Hill, S.C., newspaper owned by The McClatchy Company -- the same company that owns the Bee and the Anchorage Daily News. The Herald bylines its report on the great Alaska rescue this way: "By Breitling." There is a dateline saying, "WILTON, Conn., Oct. 2, 2012 -- /PRNewswire/," a hint that the "story" is a press release, but no warning as posted by the Bee.

Nor, obviously, has there been any attempt to fact-check any of the information despite the fact McClatchy has a newspaper in Alaska with a team of reporters.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com