Seventy-one-year-old Russ Bevans from Eagles Landing along the Yentna River has a special reason to be thankful this holiday season. He is alive, and he owes it to the hard-headed persistence of a friend who would not allow the Alaska wilderness to kill Bevans.
On Monday, Bevans was snowmachining with 65-year-old neighbor Dave Luce when both sunk their snowmachines in a slough along the river. What followed was a grim ordeal to survive.
Long in the country and expert in the ways of winter travel, Luce knew that with the snowmachines sunk, and the survival gear they carried gone with them, the men had to keep moving until they found shelter. They were both soaked to their armpits. The temperature was 33 degrees. Snow mixed with rain was pouring out of the sky.
Luce was wishing he'd never left the popular lodge he runs about eight miles up the Yentna from the Susitna River confluence. It is a warm, comfortable place with a nice bar popular with snowmachiners, fat-tire winter bicyclists and the occasional dog musher.
"I feel foolish," Luce said from there by telephone Wednesday night. "I got talked into going downriver with a neighbor."
Luce had reservations about the trip. Winter was young and the ice on the Yentna was questionable, as it always is this time of year. On top of that, a massive push of warm air had swept across the state, bringing a thaw and rain to the Yentna and Susitna river valleys. But Luce figured that if he didn't go along with Bevans, the older man might go by himself.
So they hopped on their Skidoos and made the 7.5-mile run to Scary Tree, a snag on an island in the delta where the Yentna and Susitna join, to check trail conditions. The trail was fine to that point, Luce said. And that led the men to make a fateful decision to head west and check out what Luce calls the "cutoff trail." It was a bad move.
"I fell through the drink," Luce said.
When Bevans circled around to try to get to Luce to help him, his snowmachine also broke through the ice.
"You don't know what a sinking feeling it is to sit on a snowmachine" going down, Luce said. Both quickly slipped out of sight beneath the water. The men themselves were lucky to be able to haul out onto firm ice.
"Then we had to hoof it about 7.5 miles to fish camp," Luce said, "and Russ is not in good shape. It took us 15 hours to go 7.5 miles."
'Keep moving to stay warm'
The snowmachines went in the water at 1 p.m. The two men reached the nearest cabin at 3 a.m. For Luce, the hike was painfully slow. For Bevans, it was just painful.
But there was no choice.
With their survival gear sunk, with no way to start a fire in the cold, and their clothes wet, the men could walk to shelter or they could wait to die of hypothermia.
"I kept telling (Bevans) we had to keep moving to stay warm," Luce said. He would walk 100 feet, stop, turn and urge Bevans on. Luce remembers repeating over and "c'mon, c'mon, let's go. Russ c'mon. We gotta keep going."
Bevans would force himself to march to where Luce stood waiting, and then Luce would turn and walk another 100 feet down the trail. He'd turn to see Bevans visibly slumping, and then urge him on again. It was not pretty. Anyone who has ever been in a situation where they've been forced to travel this way to survive knows that. But it was necessary.
"We had a snowmachine trail to follow when you could see it," Luce said. "I had on bunny boots, so that was good. My clothes were glazed over with ice on the outside; that was good. I was fairly warm inside."
Still, the going was far from easy. Twice the men had to cross the winding Yentna. There was broken ice and bad footing. They slipped and skidded and worried about breaking an ankle, but they kept going -- Luce charging ahead then cajoling, pleading and willing Bevans to keep moving.
"By the end," Luce said, "he was going about 20 feet before he had to stop."
But they made the cabin. Not that it helped all that much at first. "We got in there, not a match to be found," Luce said. "Who leaves a cabin without matches? The first night it was cold."
Things start to warm up
He could hear helicopters traveling along the river outside. He figured someone was looking for them, but there was no way to signal.
The cabin was without a flashlight, too. He went out to the river several times in the dark hoping to be spotted, but he wasn't. It was frustrating and cold. The men shivered the night away.
Bevans "got up in the morning and he had a hard time sitting up," Luce said. The hike had about done him in, and now he'd been two days without his heart or asthma medications. But finally the men got a break. Luce found a lighter in the cabin. He used it to light the cabin's wood stove. The place started to warm up.
And not long after came the reassuring whoop-whoop-whoop of Alaska State Troopers Helo 3, flown by Mel Nading. Behind him came the pilots and pararescue jumpers of the Alaska National Guard. Trained paramedics, they treated Bevans at the scene, loaded him into a Pavehawk and flew him straight to Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage. He was treated for hypothermia and later released. He could not be reached Wednesday.
Luce, meanwhile, was flown back to his lodge by Nading, who was nice enough to buzz over the sight of the sunken snowmachine and get a GPS coordinate for Luce. He plans to go back and retrieve the sled when the ice firms up. He's a little embarrassed at being rescued. If he'd been alone, he figures he would have been able to walk home and no one would have been the wiser about the accident.
"That first night, I could have made it home by myself," Luce said, but he didn't even think about leaving Bevans. Together, they both came through fine, though they worried lots of folks along the Yentna from the Susitna on north to Skwentna.
In retrospect, it might have been a better idea if Luce had simply talked Bevans out of his idea of a snowmachine ride.
"It was a mistake," Luce said. "I guess I was probably due after 20 years."
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com.