Alaska News

Canoeists who died in Eagle River had arrived in state that same day

A canoe that capsized on Eagle River Wednesday killing two Montana women struck a logjam, police said Thursday.

The women were identified as Fern Johnson, 60, of Plains, Mont., and her friend, 48-year-old Carol Heater of Kalispell, Mont. Fern Johnson's husband, Robert Johnson, also went into the water but survived and was rescued.

On Thursday, Anchorage police offered more detail about the accident and rescue:

The two Johnsons and Heater had arrived on Wednesday for a vacation visiting friends in Alaska.

The three Montanans decided to paddle downriver with their friend Robert Voris, a resident of Eagle River. The visitors rode in a canoe while Voris used a kayak, according police spokesman Lt. Dave Parker. It's not clear where they launched their boats. All four wore personal flotation devices.

At about 3 p.m. the group encountered a large logjam, Parker said.

The canoe went up against the logjam in an area of slower current, he said. When the canoeists tried to paddle away from the logjam to the east bank of the river, they found themselves caught in a faster current and the canoe overturned.


Fern Johnson and Heater were pushed by the current under the debris despite the flotation devices. Robert Johnson was able to pull himself up onto the logjam.

"His first reaction was to look for his wife and their friend," Parker said. "He tried to pull them out of the water."

He couldn't do it.

A witness who saw at least part of the incident unfold -- police aren't sure who it was -- called 911. Firefighters were on the scene quickly.

Police said they aren't sure how but Johnson made it to shore. Voris, in the kayak, was able to get to shore. Neither of the men were taken to the hospital for treatment, Parker said.

Firefighters sent swimmers into the river Wednesday evening to recover the two bodies. The Alaska State Troopers used a helicopter to help transport them to the shore.

Reached at his home in Eagle River on Thursday, Voris said he was too distraught to speak to a reporter about the incident or the two women.

The Daily Inter Lake newspaper, which serves Kalispell and northwest Montana, reported that Johnson had worked at the Clark Fork Valley Hospital and was president of the Plains Women's Club, which does charitable works around Plains, a town of about 1,000 people.

On Thursday, a receptionist at the Clark Fork Valley Hospital said the hospice department, where Fern Johnson worked as a volunteer manager, was closed for the day while employees dealt with the news of her death.

The Inter Lake reported that Heater was a program manager at the Sleep Medicine Center in Kalispell. The center's answering machine had a message Thursday saying the clinic was closed for the day, citing an emergency.

Park rangers, paddlers and Eagle River residents agree that glacially-fed Eagle River is unpredictable and potentially treacherous for paddlers.

Fire and police officials are called to rescues on the river at least a few times every summer. Others boaters have narrowly avoided disaster after hitting logjams on the river.

In June, a trooper helicopter rescued three people after their canoe hit a log and overturned.

Asta Spurgis, executive director of the Eagle River Nature Center, hasn't canoed the river for years but says it pays to have a healthy respect for it.

"You have to be very experienced," she said. "There are times where you definitely need good skills to make sure not to hit a sweeper." (A sweeper can be a tree or branches submerged in or leaning far enough into the river to tangle a boat or knock someone out of one.)

A hard-shell canoe is one of the more precarious ways to paddle a river like Eagle River, said Mark Cohen, the owner of Alaska Raft and Kayak in Anchorage.

"It's just not as forgiving," he said. "Inflatables (like rafts) are much more forgiving and more stable."


Police have not said how much canoeing experience they believe the Montanans had or the exact size or model of their canoe.

Eagle River has patches of flat, easy water as well as serious rapids and is popular with a broad spectrum of paddlers and floaters, said Chugach State Park superintendent Tom Harrison.

But it, like all of Anchorage's vast backyard park, is a wild place, packed with beauty and recreation opportunities but also inherent dangers -- from avalanches to blistering pushki to cliffs to river logjams, he said.

It would be impossible to find or warn the public about all of them, Harrison said.

The park largely leaves the river alone. Rangers don't clear debris or sweepers, he said.

On Thursday, Harrison did send a ranger to check out the logjam, which appears to extend all the way across the river. The park will post an informational sign nearby, he said.

"Obviously when something tragic like this happens in the park we say, let's look at this."

Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at or 257-4344.



Anchorage Daily News

Michelle Theriault Boots

Michelle Theriault Boots is a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. She focuses on in-depth stories about the intersection of public policy and Alaskans' lives. Before joining the ADN in 2012, she worked at daily newspapers up and down the West Coast and earned a master's degree from the University of Oregon.