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When Alaska adventure turns deadly: Guides recount how 2 women died on rafting trip in Arctic refuge

  • Author: Tegan Hanlon
  • Updated: June 24, 2016
  • Published June 24, 2016

Last week, two women in their 60s were paddling in a long, blue, inflatable canoe on a remote Alaska river when they fell into the quick current and floated away.

Cheryl Minnehan and Karen Todd did not survive.

Their 12-day guided trip through the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge ended on day eight. Their two guides and the six other paying guests left on a helicopter a day later — June 16, a Thursday —the same day the women's bodies were found downriver.

No one knows exactly what happened. No one saw them fall into the cold water. No one was able to rescue them, even though they tried, said Dan Oberlatz, the 47-year-old guide who owns Alaska Alpine Adventures, the company that ran the 12-day trip.

It all happened so fast.


Traveling to remote Alaska

The trip started June 8.

Oberlatz and another guide, Nick Allen, met their eight guests in Fairbanks. One of the guests was Oberlatz's mother and three were her friends, including 69-year-old Cheryl Minnehan and 67-year-old Karen Todd, both retired.

"This was my second trip I had done with these gals," Oberlatz said in an interview Thursday in Anchorage. "They were fun and funny and absolutely loved to travel."

Alaska Alpine Adventures owner Dan Oberlatz, left, and lead guide Nick Allen were guiding a trip on the Kongakut River last week when two women capsized their 16-foot SOAR inflatable canoe and died. The fatalities were the first for Alaska Alpine Adventures since the company was founded in 1998, said Oberlatz, who noted the victims were family friends. (Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News)

He described Todd, of Sparks, Nevada, as a strong, witty and thoughtful woman whose last trip was to Antarctica. Minnehan, of Elk Grove, California, was both kind and tough. "Just a sweetheart, but tough as nails," he said.

The group of 10 had orientation, dinner and then spent the night in the Interior city before flying to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on Alaska's North Slope. The refuge spans an area estimated at about the size of South Carolina and, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, gets about 1,000 visitors a year.

Together, Oberlatz's group planned to paddle about 75 miles of the Kongakut River, stopping to camp and hike within the refuge. On Alaska Alpine Adventures' website, the company described the pace of the $5,495-per-person trip as "fairly leisurely."

Before it began, each person signed paperwork acknowledging the trip's risks — the greatest one being death.


Unbridled wilderness

The group got into the water for the first time on June 10, close to an airstrip and a few miles from Drain Creek. It's a popular spot for rafters to launch into the Kongakut River, Oberlatz said.

They had four 16-foot inflatable canoes, which the Anchorage-based adventure company refers to as "rafts." Each held two people. In the first one was guide Allen and a guest.

"People have run the Grand Canyon in these canoes," said Oberlatz, who traveled in the back in a wider oar raft that carried supplies and another guest. He said the inflatable canoes are easy to maneuver, comparable to paddling a two-person kayak.

Inflatable canoes like this one are the boats that Alaska Alpine Adventures uses on their Kongakut River trip. The personal flotation devices are also the same. This photo was made on the Matanuska River. (Photo courtesy Alaska Alpine Adventures)

To use one and join the 12-day trip, Oberlatz said, people don't need rafting or canoeing experience. The company provides them with gear and instruction. Before the group paddled into the river on June 10, they had a 90-minute orientation.

"Part of the orientation is, What happens if you go swimming? It's the full run-down," Oberlatz said. And at the end, he said, the guides tell the group, "If you feel uncomfortable, you do not need to get in the boat."

On June 10, everyone got in. They paddled down the river that snakes through tundra, as well as willows and alders. The next day, they went hiking and saw caribou, Dall sheep and a grizzly bear. It was the untouched, unbridled Alaska wilderness, as advertised.

"Everybody is excited to be in the Arctic," Oberlatz said. "And now, of course, we're jelling as a team."

They spent another day paddling. Then they prepared for the rapids.


The rapids

The group went hiking on June 13. And then it rained.

People retreated into their tents. The river rose. A tributary creek they camped near went from crystal-clear water that one could easily cross on foot to a "full-on raging torrent," Oberlatz said.

By the following morning, on June 14, the rain had stopped but the group didn't move. They sat. They waited. They needed the water level to go back down, because their next challenge was maneuvering through about two miles of whitewater — through an area referred to as "the gorge" or "the canyon," the most technical part of the trip.

After a day of waiting, Oberlatz said, he and Allen determined the river looked manageable. It was probably up about 6 inches from when they arrived, before the rain.

"We thought, 'OK, this is a good day to go,' " he said. It was June 15, which would become the trip's final day.

It was the first day that Minnehan and Todd shared an inflatable canoe. Minnehan had previously traveled in the raft with Oberlatz but the women decided to switch spots, Oberlatz said.

They had a safety briefing and around 12:30 p.m., they got into the river.

The first raft left carrying Allen, the other guide and a guest.

Then, two guests left on one raft.

Minnehan and Todd left in raft three.

Two guests paddled away in the fourth raft.

Last were Oberlatz and a guest.

Oberlatz said he watched as the groups ahead of him glided through the first set of rapids, about a mile downriver.

Then came the second set of rapids that followed a left-hand turn in the river.

He couldn't see them.

Neither could Allen, a 34-year-old lead guide.


The fall

Allen had gotten out of his raft farther down the river, after traveling for about 15 minutes. He had found a calm eddy on the left-hand side and directed the guests in so they could regroup.

First came one raft. Together, the four people prepared for a possible rescue. It's protocol, Allen said.

Oberlatz said rapids they had just gone through were about Class III.

American Whitewater describes Class III rapids as intermediate in difficulty, containing "moderate, irregular waves which may be difficult to avoid and which can swamp an open canoe." Strong eddies and powerful currents can be encountered, but injuries while swimming are rare. People can usually rescue themselves if they fall into the water, but group assistance may be required, according to the national membership organization that represents whitewater enthusiasts, river conservationists and local paddling clubs.

Next, Allen saw Minnehan and Todd.

The women weren't in their raft.

They floated downriver wearing their bright orange life jackets as well as dry pants and splash tops, designed to protect them from the chill of the cold water. The water temperature was between 45 and 50 degrees that day and the river was moving between 7 and 8 mph, Oberlatz said.

Allen and a guest had one chance to reach the women with throw bags. They tossed out the rope.

Oberlatz said Todd swam aggressively toward it but Minnehan was too far away. Neither could grab hold of the lifeline.

"They just kept floating away," Oberlatz said. "You get one shot with a throw bag."


A rescue attempt

Allen stayed with the guests as Oberlatz paddled downriver.

He scanned for the two bright orange life jackets but he could see only one. He passed the women's overturned raft, and said he saw nothing. He chased the one life jacket as it floated farther and farther away.

"I don't know which person I was chasing because they were too far downstream at this point," Oberlatz said.

The river made a 90-degree turn to the right.

"I'm powering forward," Oberlatz said. "I'm pushing my oars."

Then a 90-degree turn to the left forced the water to pile up into a cliff. There he saw one of the women trapped in a fast-moving hydraulic.

"She was pinned up against the cliff," he said. "She would be carried under and back up and under and back up, and I started sobbing. At the same time I'm like, 'I have to keep my sh– together. I have to make good decisions.' "

This was one of his mother's friends. This was a friend of the woman still in his raft. She was sobbing too, he said.

Oberlatz said he pulled the raft to the side of the river so he could try to get a better view and figure out the best way to rescue the woman. But just as he did that, she came out of the circulating water, face down and motionless. Carried by the current, the body continued down the river.

"So now I'm just freaking out," Oberlatz said. He repeated to himself, "Dan, you have to make good decisions. You have to make good decisions."


'Don't put anyone else in the river'

Now, Oberlatz had to determine what to do next.

He had started Alaska Alpine Adventures with a friend in 1998 and at one point lived year-round in Alaska's Lake Clark National Park. Now, the company is based out of a South Anchorage office and employs 19 people, a majority of them guides who must be at least trained as wilderness first responders and go through annual company training that, in part, takes place on the Matanuska River. Those who guide rafting trips must also go through swiftwater rescue training, he said.

Before June 15, no one had died on one of the company's trip.

On June 15, Oberlatz was out of his raft on the bank of the Kongakut River and had just watched a guest's body wash downriver. A bluff between him and Allen severed their radio connection, he said. He ran about 100 yards to the top and told Allen, "Don't put anyone else in the river."

He said he ran back to the raft, got on the satellite phone and called the Anchorage office.

They needed help.


Eight rescued

Oberlatz ran downriver with his binoculars, looking for the other orange life jacket. He saw nothing.

"We don't know whether anyone could have survived but our hopes are diminishing and we're waiting on a rescue," he said. He went back to the group.

The eight people remaining eventually gathered together, hiking toward each other over land. They set up a large tarp. They spent the night there. They waited for someone — anyone — to come.

"We started grieving under that tarp," Oberlatz said.


Rescue mission trouble

Away from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a rescue mission was underway and it was not without hiccups.

The North Slope Borough received a report of the capsized raft on the Kongakut River, about 75 miles south of Kaktovik and more than 350 miles east of Barrow, shortly before 2 p.m. on June 15, said John Boyle, a borough spokesman.

Around 2:30 p.m., the borough requested additional help from the Alaska Rescue Coordination Center on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage, said Alaska National Guard spokeswoman Lt. Col. Candis Olmstead.

The center requested support from the Alaska Air National Guard. But the alert crew at Eielson Air Force Base in Fairbanks was nearing the end of a 14-hour shift; under aviation regulations, Olmstead said, they could not fly again until 5 a.m. the next day.

A crew from Anchorage was sent to Eielson and left from there in a helicopter. But a crew member on that flight had a medical emergency and they had to turn back to Fairbanks, Olmstead said.

Oberlatz, Allen and the six guests were eventually picked up by a North Slope Borough helicopter at about 4 a.m. on June 16. They left behind almost everything they had. They were flown to Deadhorse and later Fairbanks, splitting up to head home, Oberlatz said.

Minnehan's and Todd's bodies were recovered around 9:45 a.m. that morning by the Eielson-based Guard crew, who had left once they could fly. The crew found the women about 2 miles apart and several miles downriver from the rapids.

On Thursday, Oberlatz said he continues to waver between sobbing and "full-on panic attacks." Oberlatz said he wants to do right by the families. He said the company plans to review the incident and see if they could have done anything better.

As the owner of an adventure company, he said, he must toe the line between risk and accommodating people who want to see untouched Alaska, who want to "experience it in the most honest and real of ways."

"That's my passion. It's why we started our business," he said. "It's what keeps me coming back."

Reporter Chris Klint contributed to this story.