A Kenai father, two teenage daughters and two friends set off Friday evening by boat for a weekend at a public use cabin on the north shore of Tustumena Lake. The excursion soon became far more dangerous than anyone anticipated.
The weather turned wicked. The 18-foot aluminum skiff swamped and sank. Everyone went into the frigid, glacier-fed lake, with water temperatures in the low 40s. The man and the girls wore life vests, but even that precaution wasn't enough to save them all.
The father, Ashley Udelhoven, 47, of Kenai, and one of his daughter's friends, 16-year-old Katarina Anderson of Kenai, didn't make it.
The other three girls, sisters Miranda and Hanna Udelhoven of Soldotna, and friend Athena Robinson, survived by swimming an estimated two miles to shore, then walking for hours to another public cabin where they awaited help, according to Alaska State Troopers.
At 15, Miranda Udelhoven is the oldest of the survivors. Rescuers say she rallied Hanna, 13, and Athena, 12, of Sterling, and led them to safety.
"Her being able to stay cool and levelheaded and keep those girls, the younger girls, together and moving the whole time," said Rob Barto, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service law enforcement officer who was part of the rescue.
Chris Johnson is the supervisory federal law enforcement officer for the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. He was just launching a second boat to help search when he heard the three girls were found -- on shore and alive.
"They had to have considerable drive and determination to make it that long, and seeing their father and friend not make it," Johnson said. "So it was a real testament to just a drive to live."
BIG, ROUGH LAKE
The refuge includes Tustumena Lake, which is more than 25 miles long and six miles wide. Its reputation as perilous to small craft arises from the fierce winds that blow down Tustumena Glacier and kick up big waves in a heartbeat, refuge law enforcement officers say.
The Udelhovens are a longtime Kenai family. They often recreate on the lake and are well familiar with it, the officers said.
When the group set out around 9:30 p.m. Friday, the water was calm, troopers spokeswoman Beth Ipsen said. They launched from a Kasilof River landing and were headed to the Pipe Creek cabin, on the north shore of Tustumena Lake.
"Ashley ... decided to cut across the lake to save some time. And they got about halfway across the lake when the winds picked up. Things got rough," Ipsen said. "And the girls reported there were like 9-foot waves and the boat got swamped and sank."
Barto, who helped recover both bodies and found the girls on shore, said he doesn't doubt the swells were that high.
"We had some real heavy winds here on the Kenai. We had some gusts to 45 (mph) or more. So I surely believe 9 if not bigger swells."
Troopers and federal officers launched the search around 4:30 p.m. Saturday after another boater spotted debris and a cooler floating on the lake with the name Ashley Udelhoven and a phone number written on the side. The man called his wife, who called troopers, who found out that Udelhoven and four girls had gone out the night before.
By then, some 19 hours had passed since the girls first got into the boat.
A FATHER SLIPS AWAY
After the skiff sank, one of the girls, Katarina, had trouble with her life vest. It was too big and kept slipping, Ipsen said. Udelhoven tried to help her, pulling her along with a rescue swimmer's stroke.
"Then he started getting loopy. The girls noticed that he started just talking nonsense, which was a big indicator that he was hypothermic," Ipsen said.
After a while, he fell quiet. The girls checked him and Katarina. They got no response.
"So they decided to continue on or they might all succumb to hypothermia," Ipsen said.
They made it to shore around 3 a.m. Saturday and huddled together for warmth. Miranda knew of another public use cabin, one called Nurses Cabin, and led the younger girls on a long and difficult trek there. One girl had lost both shoes during the swim and the others each had just one shoe, Barto said.
At the cabin, they made a fire, ate some food, and waited for help.
Barto and a state wildlife trooper searched by boat Saturday evening. Planes flown by troopers and the Fish and Wildlife Service checked the lake in a grid pattern.
Barto and the trooper found the girl's body floating in the water at 7:12 p.m., then a plane spotted Udelhoven's, maybe a mile away, minutes later.
Rescuers figured they were looking for three more bodies.
INSPIRATION OUT OF TRAGEDY
The girls heard the planes go by but couldn't flag them down. They ran to shore, wearing brightly colored clothing and waving a lime green flag of some sort to get the boat's attention. Just after 8 p.m., the rescuers spotted the girls.
"It was joy. There were three people standing there," Barto said. "As soon as we turned the boat, they all started to cry and hug."
The Fish and Wildlife Service pilot, who is a medic, landed the Cessna 185 floatplane and assessed the girls. The rescuers carried them over rocks in shallow water to the plane. They were flown to Soldotna and taken to Central Peninsula Hospital for treatment of hypothermia and minor injuries.
"I guess they were scraped up but still in pretty good condition," Johnson said.
Miranda had learned from her parents after years in the Alaska outdoors and on Tustumena Lake, Barto said. She knew to keep moving. She knew where to find the second cabin. She knew to signal for help with something bright.
"It's a true survival story. It's a story everyone ought to learn from," Barto said.
Reach Lisa Demer at email@example.com or 257-4390.
By LISA DEMER
Alaska Dispatch Publishing