HOPE — Homer resident Obadiah Jenkins had no intention of paddling during the 10th edition of the Six-Mile Creek Whitewater and Bluegrass Festival here on Saturday.
"I didn't bring a kayak, paddle or spray deck and I haven't done much boating lately," he recalled. "It was my 33rd birthday, and I had planned to just watch the events."
But friends suggested he celebrate his day by kayaking, and soon other boaters rounded up the gear he would need to float the river.
With a half-dozen other experts, Jenkins did a practice prerace run down the first canyon, rated Class IV. Paddlers rate whitewater from Class I (moving water with small waves) to Class VI (extreme "un-runnable" rivers or waterfalls; only the most experienced expert should attempt). Class IV whitewater includes long, difficult rapids, narrow passages, and turbulent water that requires precise maneuvering.
The paddlers were unaware that someone else, 64-year-old Daniel Hartung of Indian, followed several minutes behind. Hartung was in a recreational kayak designed for calm water such as lakes. Although he wore a personal flotation device, Hartung also donned a bicycle helmet and chest waders, neither suited for the rapids of Six-Mile Creek. As Hartung passed under the foot bridge that spanned the first of three progressively harder canyons on a stretch of creek popular with paddlers, he was already in trouble. Six-Mile includes some of the most challenging whitewater in Southcentral and has cost several boaters their lives over the years.
Into the water
His kayak was perpendicular to the current and he hit a partially submerged mid-channel rock. Hartung's boat flipped and he was dumped into the chilly water.
Later, during the races, at least eight kayakers were assigned as safety observers along both banks and in kayaks, ready to help rescue anyone who encountered trouble. But this early, well before the race began, these watchdogs were not yet in place.
I was perched on a cliff across the creek above the last difficult stretch of the race course and watched as Hartung floated downriver. I shouted that there was a swimmer in an attempt to alert the kayakers who had just finished their practice run and were getting out of their boats. They were around a slight bend in the river, unable to see what was happening upstream.
Hartung was swept toward a canyon wall and over a drop named Waterfall. He plunged feet-first into a slot and became entrapped by a submerged log that braced across the top of his legs. The wood held him in the maw of the river's hydraulic force as water pounded over his head, often bending him at the waist.
I shouted an alarm to the kayakers that the swimmer was pinned. Jenkins grabbed a throw bag (a floating sack with rope used in river-rescue situations) and sprinted up and over the canyon wall and then down to a ledge directly above where Hartung was stuck. Jenkins dropped the rope down to Hartung, who was able to hang on and keep his torso in a vertical position. The water pouring over his head and shoulders created a pocket in front of his face that provided just enough air to breathe.
‘Difficult to catch a breath’
Over the din of the rushing water, Hartung couldn't hear any of the instructions Jenkins shouted, but was aware that someone was trying to rescue him.
"I was draped over the log like a C," Hartung said later. "It was encouraging to see the rope and know that people were there responding."
Soon, others gathered near Jenkins, tying the throw rope off on nearby trees. Despite their efforts to pull Hartung out of river, his leg was tightly wedged underwater. By now, Hartung had been in the river more than five minutes and the cold water had weakened him. "The more I struggled, the more my head went lower. At first, I could keep my head up and breathe, but then it became difficult to catch a breath."
Entrusting the rope to others to help hold Hartung upright, Jenkins grabbed another throw rope and jumped down to a ledge 10 feet upriver of the trapped kayaker. His plan: Tie the second rope off so he could hang onto it and float down near Hartung and try to free his leg.
By now, though, the cold river water had sapped Hartung's strength. He let go of the rope, and his body doubled over, his face forced down into the current by the power of the water. He remained in that position for nearly 45 seconds.
Time was running out, and Jenkins knew it.
"I violated the first principle of rescuing: Don't endanger yourself to save someone else," he said. Knowing that Hartung was now unconscious and fully submerged, Jenkins, who was still wearing his dry suit, PFD and kayak helmet, jumped into the river. The powerful current slammed him into Hartung, and they both disappeared underwater.
"People said afterwards that Daniel was too inexperienced, didn't have the right equipment and had no business kayaking this river," Jenkins said. "As I was calculating the risks of what I was about to do, none of that mattered. It was my birthday and I just wanted that guy to have another birthday.
"My brain went into automatic mode, and I knew that if I didn't act immediately, we would be recovering a body."
In seconds, Jenkins and Hartung popped up, floating free. A few moments later, a log, probably the one that pinned Hartung to the canyon wall, floated up behind them.
"As others helped pull us from the river," Jenkins recounted, "Daniel was not breathing and had no pulse."
A crew of kayakers took turns resuscitating him.
"He was a fighter," Jenkins said. "To hang on that long in that cold water was pretty impressive. After two rounds of doing chest compressions to him on the river bank, his wife came down and talked to him. You could tell that hearing her voice helped bring him around. His pulse came back and he began breathing on his own."
In a few minutes, he regained consciousness. One of the rescuers had a satellite phone and used it to call for help. Using a deflated packraft as a gurney, they carried Hartung out of the canyon to the road and waited for the ambulance that took him to a hospital, from which he was quickly released.
Hartung was back home in Indian Valley on Monday, his body beat up from the ordeal, but happy to be alive. Jenkins has returned to his farm in Homer.
He is also nursing a sore body from the ordeal, but he's happy it ended well. Hartung has invited his rescuer to dinner this week to thank Jenkins for saving his life.
James Bennett of Soldotna is an avid kayaker who writes freelance travel and adventure stories.