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Outdoors/Adventure

‘Unforgettable’: A dream Alaska fishing trip turned into a lifesaving mission for a Wisconsin doctor and his son

  • Author: Julian Emerson, The Leader-Telegram (Eau Claire, Wis.)
  • Updated: July 31
  • Published July 31

EAU CLAIRE, Wisconsin — When John Drawbert and his 24-year-old son, Hans, planned their trip this summer to Alaska, they envisioned floating on clear blue water and catching trophy trout surrounded by lush forestland in some of the state's most scenic, remote settings.

While Drawbert, an orthopedic surgeon at OakLeaf Surgical Hospital in Altoona, Wisconsin, and his son did just that, they also found adventure of a far different sort. And thanks to Drawbert's medical training and the foresight to bring a satellite phone to the isolated region, they were able to help rescue two stranded men who may otherwise have died. Authorities say a third man is presumed dead.

On June 19, day three of their eight-day journey along American Creek in Katmai National Park and Preserve in Southwest Alaska, father and son were enjoying another day of bountiful fishing and startling scenery.

During the first two days of their outing, the Drawberts — experienced outdoorsmen who have spent time enjoying nature at many locations — caught and released lots of rainbow trout, taking in their quiet remote setting. Their guides at the Rainbow River Lodge told them they were likely the first people to travel along the American Creek this year.

"It was just what we had hoped for, beautiful quiet surroundings and lots of fish to catch," John Drawbert said.

Upon setting out on their boating trip, the Drawberts noticed the creek, which is wide enough to be considered a river, was high and flowing fast, the result of the melting of a late snowfall. Despite the fact it was late June, snow still covered the ground in some locations, and daytime highs barely topped 50 degrees.

On day three, the creek flowed even faster. As the Drawberts and their guide, Madison resident Mike Goezer, made their way along the water, they noticed that multiple gravel bars where they normally would sleep were underwater.

Suddenly, the group reached a churning rapids. They struggled to keep their raft from overturning, trying to maneuver it around rocks as whitewater sprayed them. The raft lurched and jerked this way and that and then dropped nearly 10 feet through a particularly treacherous part of the rapids.

"It was harrowing going through that rapids," John Drawbert said, crediting Goezer, a former University of Minnesota Duluth football player and an experienced former guide, with keeping their raft upright. "The water was flowing so fast. I was grateful when we made it through."

That night, after setting up camp, the trio took a break. As they gazed at the fast-flowing creek, they saw a sight that surprised them. Food cans, a propane tank and then a boat paddle floated by.

"We were surprised because we thought we were the only people in that area," John Drawbert said, noting typically only about a dozen people per year traverse the remote waterway. "When we saw those items in the water, we figured something bad had happened."

Unexpected visitor

The next morning, June 20, when Goezer and the Drawberts emerged from their tents, they discovered another startling sight. There before them sat a worn-out-looking man with a beaten, swollen face who was shivering.

"Waking up to that guy in our camp was very shocking," Hans Drawbert said.

The trio approached the man and learned his name was Argost Smith, a resident of Northern California. John Drawbert's medical training told him Smith, 76, needed help. He appeared to be suffering from hypothermia and needed to be warmed along with food and water.

As the Drawberts assisted a bleary-eyed, shivering Smith, their visitor told them a harrowing tale of how he had arrived at the campsite.

Smith said he and two friends from California were in a raft in the American Creek about one day behind the Drawberts and Goezer. One of those two was a guide, John Squires, Smith's close friend who was well-known as an experienced outdoorsman and environmentalist. He had worked as a guide for four decades, but even with Squires' expertise, the group was overmatched by the raging waters, Smith said.

They tried to reach the shore but were unsuccessful because of the swift current, Smith told the Drawberts and Goezer. As the raft hurtled downstream, Smith was knocked from the raft by a tree branch and into the water that was a chilly 40 degrees.

Smith wasn't wearing a life jacket and struggled to keep his head above water and dodge rocks as he maneuvered through the swirling current toward the raft. A moment later, the raft struck a rock and flipped, spilling Squires and Randy Viglienzone, a friend of Squires and Smith.

Smith told the Drawberts and Goezer he saw Viglienzone surface and grab the raft, managing to hold onto it for about 2 miles as it continued through the rapids. Squires emerged behind the raft and then made his way toward the shore, Smith said.

Smith battled the rapids, his body caroming from boulder to boulder as he struggled to keep from drowning. After what felt like forever he made his way to one shore, battered and bruised, but alive.

‘Rough shape’

Smith had survived the rapids, but his struggles were far from over. Chilled to the bone by the frigid water and so sore from striking so many rocks and swimming for so long, Smith was exhausted. However, he knew he had to go on, he told the Drawberts and Goezer. He was far from any help he knew of and needed food and drinking water. As darkness descended, Smith had another concern: grizzly bears.

This region of Alaska was thick with grizzlies, and meeting up with one along this creek was a real, and potentially deadly, possibility. His head bruised and one eye swollen after being struck by rapids rocks, Smith struggled along the dark shoreline, making his way through dense brush in the dark that scratched him. He yelled frequently to scare off any bears that might be in the vicinity.

Hour by hour overnight, Smith told the Drawberts and Goezer, he forged ahead. As the eastern sky brightened 12 hours after he was knocked from the raft, a delirious Smith stumbled upon the Drawberts' camp.

Viglienzone, 68, faced similar difficulties on the opposite side of the creek, he later told Goezer and the Drawberts. He eventually made his way to that bank, then stumbled for 6 or 7 miles on legs so beat up from hitting so many boulders in the rapids that walking was difficult.

After hours of painful hiking through the dark, as night turned to day, Viglienzone spotted the Drawbert camp across the creek. He yelled to get their attention, but they didn't hear him initially over the roar of the fast-flowing creek.

Eventually, those at the camp spotted Viglienzone, quickly packed up and made the treacherous trip across the powerful waterway. They struggled against the current and finally reached Viglienzone on the opposite shore.

"It's a good thing (Goezer) is such a big, strong guy," John Drawbert said. "He did outstanding work getting us across the river."

Just as they had done with Smith, the Drawberts and Goezer provided Viglienzone with warm, dry clothes along with food and water. Neither men knew the whereabouts of the 72-year-old Squires.

"Both men had experienced real difficulties since their raft had overturned," John Drawbert said. "They were in rough shape and had hypothermia. Viglienzone's legs were so beat up, he could hardly walk. … The fact that they made it to us is a testament to their will to live."

Rescue call

Using his satellite phone, John Drawbert contacted the Rainbow River Lodge and subsequently was connected with authorities. He reported that Smith and Viglienzone needed help and that Squires was missing.

After obtaining GPS coordinates of the group's location, law enforcement officials sent out a helicopter, and the lodge dispatched two experienced guides to reach them via boat. In the meantime, the Drawberts and Goezer used a handsaw to cut trees to clear an area for the helicopter to land in and continued to monitor the health of Smith and Viglienzone.

In addition to struggling with their physical health, the duo grappled with their emotions. They had endured life-threatening experiences, were exhausted, and, worst of all, feared their friend Squires was dead.

"They were pretty shaken up," John Drawbert said. "They were really bummed out at having lost their friend."

About six hours after the phone call, the helicopter arrived, followed closely by the guides in the boat. Rather than fly the men back to safety, the helicopter searched for Squires. The guides transported Smith and Viglienzone back to the lodge via raft.

"After what they'd been through, they weren't too eager to get back into a raft again," John Drawbert said.

Multiple news outlets confirmed the account of the search for Squires and the rescue of the two men with him. National Park Service rangers, Coast Guardsmen, Alaska State Troopers and volunteers searched for Squires by air and raft. They did not find him.

‘Unforgettable trip’

With Smith and Viglienzone headed back to safety and further medical treatment, the Drawberts and Goezer were left to continue the rest of their trip. They headed off to another fishing location along the creek, but moving from the rescue mission they had been part of proved more difficult, especially given the apparent death of Squires in a dangerous part of the creek they had just passed through. They checked in frequently with authorities to see if Squires had been found.

"It was very humbling and reminded us how serious the wilderness is up there," Hans Drawbert said. "It had me spooked a little, but we kept going and kept checking in at night to get updates on the missing man."

The trio spent four more days on the water before flying home June 25. John Drawbert said he feels fortunate to have been able to help Smith and Viglienzone, but Squires' death altered the celebratory nature of their vacation.

"We tried the best we could to compartmentalize it," he said. "But then we talked it out and discussed what had happened. It certainly affected the trip. It was tough to deal with."

Hans Drawbert said he will use the experience to prepare him for his future work. On Friday, he started medical school at Florida International University.

"I think it will remind me that life can be lost any time, in the blink of an eye, and that we should cherish it," he said.

Since his return to his Altoona home, John Drawbert has contacted Smith and Viglienzone and learned they returned to their homes in California. They also were told that Squires' wife and son flew to Alaska recently to visit the site where he went missing.

"This trip certainly didn't go the way we planned," John Drawbert said. "We felt good about being able to help those two guys and sad for the man who died. It was an unforgettable trip, that's for sure."

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