After a successful day of dip netting on Alaska's Copper River, Chitna resident David Bruss was hauling his catch of red salmon across the turbulent water on Wednesday in a motorized kayak. In an instant, his load shifted, the boat flipped and Bruss was neck-deep in the 40-degree water.
The sudden shock of cold glacial water made breathing difficult, and the ripping current of river that drains Copper Glacier repeatedly smacked his face as he struggled to keep his head above the surface.
The Copper River's famous salmon runs make it a popular destination for anglers and dip-netters. But the river's strong currents can catch fishermen off guard, as they did Wednesday evening to Bruss.
Luckily, the 57-year-old was wearing a life jacket, and after being carried downstream for 20 minutes, a local charter guide spotted Bruss' arm partially raised from the roiling river and came to the rescue.
Saving submerged fishermen is nothing new for Bruss. He's pulled Alaskans from sinking and flaming ships, even rescuing an Alaska State Trooper on one occasion, he said. For him, floating down the Copper River and hoping for a rescue proved to be a wakeup call.
"It taught me to never become complacent on the water, no matter how many times you've been out there," Bruss said.
Bobbing for miles
Dip netting on the banks of the Copper River was so productive Wednesday that Bruss decided to haul a load of salmon across the river on his Mokai, a motorized kayak. He stacked fish in the lightweight kayak around 7 p.m. and started across, something he'd done many times without difficulty. But this time, he found himself wedged in an eddy, and the kayak's weight suddenly shifted right to left.
The vessel flipped, throwing Bruss into the river. He was prepared, having fastened on his life vest. Bobbing up and down for miles, he only had brief moments when he could catch breaths of air as the roiling river submerged the fishermen time after time. He wondered how much time had passed since he began scooping salmon with family friends earlier in the day.
"I knew there were private boats on the river all day long, but it was getting late," he said. "I knew the fishing charters were done for the day, too."
Was anyone still on the water? If so, would they see him?
"But what I didn't know was my friends had called 911," he said.
Alaska State Troopers contacted at least two local charters, including Sam MacCallister's Copper River Charters and Mark Hem's Hem Charters. MacCallister rushed upriver with two crew members, he said. Hem's boat was already searching.
The Chitina resident's journey downriver lasted more than 20 minutes and, according to the charter that eventually spotted him, covered four miles.
Bruss struggled to keep his head above water in Wood Canyon, a turbulent 7-mile stretch. He knew it would be impossible to reach the riverbank in that area, where fast-moving currents push water against the canyon walls. While Bruss' life jacket probably saved his life, the Chitna man's knowledge of the river helped, too.
"He didn't exert all of his energy trying to get to the banks," MacCallister said.
Bruss simply tried to stay pointing forward, so he could spot approaching boats, the first of which was Hem's vessel. The river guide was closer to the banks, Bruss recalled, probably because "they were conducting a body recovery, as chances of a rescue were slim."
As Hem's boat passed, Bruss' strength began to wane.
Partially lift one hand
By now, Bruss was numb. He no longer had the strength to face downstream. The best he could manage was trying to keep his head raised so waves weren't constantly hitting him in the face.
He nearly gave up.
But MacCallister kept searching. And as MacCallister came around a bend in Woods Canyon he spotted Bruss' head in the water. The floating fisherman feebly raised an arm out of the river.
"They were headed straight for me," Bruss said. "I was so exhausted, and I couldn't really see, but I managed to partially lift one hand."
MacCallister's two deckhands pulled Bruss from the water, and the dip-netter actually tried to help them. Relieved but beaten, Bruss told the three men he wouldn't have survived much longer.
The men took Bruss to O'Brien Creek, where EMTs were standing by -- but Bruss refused medical assistance, troopers reported. A day after the event, Bruss is left with a feeling of bewilderment. Having seen many dire, water-related rescues, he's puzzled that after spending most of his adult life running a halibut charter in Valdez, he was able to survive.
Using the Mokai on the Copper River is now out of the question, Bruss has decided. He knows, too, that without a life jacket he would have perished.
He's eternally grateful to Hem and MacCallister. He's also grateful to his family friends, all in their 20s, who carried cellphones and got the search launched. Technology, old and new, saved Bruss' life.
Contact Jerzy Shedlock at jerzy(at)alaskadispatch.com
Alaska Dispatch Publishing