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The deadliest state of all

  • Author: Craig Medred
  • Updated: September 27, 2016
  • Published May 31, 2011

Alaska killed Ryan H. Stratton at the start of the Memorial Day weekend. He was 30 years old. Alaska State Troopers said he was drinking at a party with friends when they decided to take a canoe out on little Olnes Pond just north of Fairbanks. Troopers later blamed the alcohol for his death, but that was not what killed him.

Stratton, according to a trooper report, "fell out of a canoe and into the water at Olnes Pond. The male sank under water without resurfacing."

This doesn't happen in May in Oklahoma where the water is warm. It happens all too often in all months in Alaska where the water is usually cold.

No one knows about this better than Jeff Johnson, the director of the state Division of Boating Safety. Every year, people fall in the water in Alaska, sink out of sight and never come up due to something called "cold water shock." It is the best reason, Johnson said, to wear a personal flotation device. Stratton was not wearing a PFD. A PFD, Johnson noted, will "keep you alive at least until you die of hypothermia."

Hypothermia -- death by cold -- is something many fear in Alaska. But even in the worst of conditions, it usually takes hours to kill. Cold water shock (sometimes called cold water immersion) can kill in minutes. It is almost always the cause when people go under and fail to come up. Either the shock of hitting the water causes a heart attack, or they gasp because of the cold, inhale water, cough, inhale more water -- and in that way drown.

Alaska is now one of four states where accidental death is the third leading cause of death, according to the National Safety Council, which calls such deaths a "silent epidemic." And among the leaders of death by accident--Arizona, Mississippi, New Mexico and Alaska--Alaska's accidental death rate of between 54 and 57 people per 100,000 each year is the leader.

Alaska can kill with water in ways uncommon elsewhere, but it is only one of the ways the 49th state kills. It has all the standard means now common to urban America: motor-vehicle accidents, airplane crashes, shootings and suicides. And yet the old ways still play their part here more than in most of the rest of the nation.

The reasons why are simple. Much of the state remains remote, often making emergency medical treatment a long way away. The mountains are bigger and wilder and thus more dangerous; same for the tides of the oceans surrounding the 49th state. The weather for its part is ferocious, in many and unique ways -- some of the Interior is now in flames from lightning strikes. No one has died in a forest fire yet this year, but they could.

And then there are the animals -- moose and bears, mainly. The moose have tried to kill two people in the last two weeks. The bears have yet to kill anyone, but one came close in an attack near Nome.

Meanwhile, the body count for Alaska-style accidents has begun early and grown fast this year:

  • Seven climbers have died so far in falls or avalanche on Mount McKinley.
  • Five clam diggers perished in a Cook Inlet boating accident (the deadliest in a generation there).
  • An infant drowned over the Memorial Day holiday after falling off a dock into the 40-degree water of Big Lake just north of Wasilla.
  • It could have been worse. The near misses were frightening.

  • A moose stomped a girl riding a bike on a trail in Anchorage, and another moose nearly killed a woman tending to a trail across her property near Palmer.
  • An attacking grizzly bear came within one last bite of killing a man near Nome.
  • A whole gang of teenagers nearly drowned in the Matanuska River on Friday. It was one of those incidents so strange it had Alaska written all over it. They drove out onto a gravel bar for a little party. The weather was warm. The glaciers were melting. The men found themselves on an island. They called for help.

    "Troopers," according to a state report, "arrived on the scene ... (and) determined that the water was too deep to cross by wading; the decision was made to use the Palmer Alaska Wildlife Troopers jet boat to retrieve the stranded party."

    Troopers at first suspected the kids drove out onto an existing island and got into trouble after the water came up, but an investigation concluded "that no stream crossing had occurred. Water levels had risen dramatically the night before due to high temperatures and increased runoff."

    This is not an unusual phenomenon in Alaska's glaciated river drainages. Hot weather can sometimes bring worse flooding than rain.

    It is one of those up-is-down, down-is-up paradoxes that makes Alaska the deadliest state in the nation.

    Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com

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