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Thread: Careful...The Chena gets cold in October

  1. #1
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    Default Careful...The Chena gets cold in October

    Me and a buddy of mine bought Alpacka Rafts this fall and were able to take them out a couple of times. The second trip had to have been the weekend before the Chena completely froze over in late October. Since we had just bought the rafts and were still excited over the prospect of trying them out, we decided what the hell. I knew that the middle and lower river is relatively gentle and, with freeze up happening, thought that the waters would be even more calm. I was right and wrong.
    We decided to float from the 2nd bridge (mile 38 I think) down to the Rose Hip Campground on Chena Hot Springs Road. The map and river guide said that the float would take 6-7 hours. (Not true in late October) It was really a great float, beautiful and unlike anything that I have ever seen. The water was really calm in all parts of the river with the exception of the ice bottle necks that occasionally came along. It was neat to be in the midst of all the ice floating in the river and the views were outstanding. We really didn't account for the bottle necks beforehand. There were several places that we had to take out and portage around. I didn't really mind as it was a good chance to stretch after having sat in the boat for a couple of hours.
    Anyway, at one point the ice was really thick on the right hand bank and a tree had fallen protruding about a quarter of the way into the river on the left. This left about a 4 foot gap in which all of the force of the river was bearing down to navigate through. I couldn't get out of my boat on either side of the river! By the time I realized that I could be in trouble, I ran into the fallen tree, the water flipped my 4 pound packraft in the blink of an eye, and I was in the water with no PFD. After swimming to the bank in the 0 degree weather, I realized that I had about an hour and a half of daylight, in which to find our take out point and get to my truck. This would have been impossible in the dark, so if I were to have built a fire, it would have meant staying there all night without the necessary gear.
    I should have had enough time to float before dark, and worn a PFD. I didn't do either and it made the experience extremely difficult. I always heard these tales of caution, but didn't pay attention. The facts are that One: If I had been alone, I probably would have died, Two: if we had had enough time, I could have built a fire and thawed out before pressing on, and Three: probably shouldn't have been out there in the first place. The river was extremely slow that time year. With the portages and ice maneuvering, we were a good 3 hours behind schedule in the supposed 6-7 hour float time.

    So next time my dumb ass will be more careful!!

    Be careful and happy rafting!

  2. #2
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    Good story and a caution to all of us that at times when we want to go for it, thinking it will be ok, it's not, and the consequences can be fatal. I'm glad you survived. There is probably a physics lesson in this too but the important thing is you survived, learned a few things, and shared your experience. Luck had nothing to do with it or those of us that have no luck would be dead all the time.

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    Good story! Glad it ended O.K. Thanks for sharing.

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    Moderator hunt_ak's Avatar
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    Wow, so after being soaking wet in 0 temps, you made it back to an ice cold pickup, drove home and slowly got warm? I'm interested in a bit more detail of the aftermath. What did you do? Why? Anything different (other than the obvious stated above)?

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    Wow, let this be a lesson to us all!

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    Quote Originally Posted by hunt_ak View Post
    Wow, so after being soaking wet in 0° temps, you made it back to an ice cold pickup, drove home and slowly got warm? I'm interested in a bit more detail of the aftermath. What did you do? Why? Anything different (other than the obvious stated above)?
    Well to be perfectly honest, I panicked at first. I knew I could really be in some bad trouble. My initial reaction was to stop and build a fire, then I realized that it was going to be dark in about an hour or so. We hadn't really seen the river next to our take out at night before, so it would have been close to impossible to recognize where to get out if we had arrived after sun down. Another problem was the fact that this was our first time on this particular float, so we weren't sure exactly how much time or distance we needed to cover. This lead me to decide that it would be best to get back in the raft and haul ass. This would better my chances of getting out before dark and the paddling gave me enough blood flow to keep my core warm.

    After I got back in the raft, I was soaked up to the neck with a pool of water trapped in my waders. (That's another thing I forgot to mention. Bad idea wearing waders. Even if I am fishing, I will take the time next time to put my waders on after each stop) Little did I know before hand that I would be outside for another 2.5 hours. It was incomprehensibly cold. I remember accessing my situation several times. It was hard to realize how cold I was or whether or not I was in serious trouble yet. After the fact, my buddy told me that I was stuttering and leaving sentences unfinished leaving thoughts just hanging in the air.

    About an hour and 45 minutes after I had started paddling again after falling in, it was closed to being dark and I luckily saw an access road that joined Chena Hot Springs Rd. Thankfully, we decided to take out here instead of taking the chance of finding the take out. We stowed our gear on the riverbank and headed to the road. However, what I didn't know was that it was a gruesome never-ending 30 minute hike back to the road. This was the worst part of the whole ordeal. My blue jeans and shirt were completely frozen making each step a chore. By the time I reached the road I was shaking uncontrollably and not processing my thoughts clearly.

    I was able to flag a car down and hitch a ride back to my truck which was 2 miles away. If we had not taken out where we did, I would have been flirting with some serious danger. Like you said, my truck was cold but it warmed up soon enough. We were able to get the gear and I finally arrived back home in Fairbanks about 2 hours later. The idea of being "warm" was still foreign to me at this point. I'll never forget turning my monitor stove up full blast and also using my axillary electric heater at full capacity. After my cabin had reached about 85 degrees, I had the time of my life over a bowl of popcorn and a movie! Over the next couple of weeks I was pretty sick. I was running a fever and my neighbor who is a nurse told me that I had walking pneumonia. I didn't really care how bad I felt during that time, because I was really just thankful to be ok.

    I really have to thank my friend here. Without his help, my only option would have been to wait it out over night over a fire. His help was paramount to me getting home safe. The best decision that I made throughout this whole day was not going out alone.

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    Moderator stid2677's Avatar
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    Thanks for sharing you story. People should always keep share dry clothes in a dry bag anytime they are on the water. Mishaps can happen in a blink of an eye. The upper Chena has put the hurt on a lot of people, have rescued two different parties on that same stretch.
    I think because it is close to town, many underestimate the danger it can present.

    Here are a couple photos of a canoe that was caught under a log jam and ripped in half. The two pieces were miles apart.





    Glad you made it safe and a lesson for us all!!!

    Steve
    "I refuse to let the things I can't do stop me from doing the things I can"
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    Thanks for the reply, SB. Give us a little more perspective on the pickle you were in!!

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    We float the upper chena multiple times every year and when the kids were young my wife could not understand my intensity.
    One year I made 5 floats on that stretch and had to cut sweepers out on every trip.
    You never know what is around the bend.
    It seems people find security in small rivers, I do not.
    The hazards of pins and foot entrapment are greater on smaller water I feel.
    Not to mention if you have not truly known of the power of even a small bit of water it easy not to fear.
    Be ready
    Look ahead
    Have a ball.

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    Quote Originally Posted by oyster View Post
    Not to mention if you have not truly known of the power of even a small bit of water it easy not to fear.
    Very true. I think a lot of people, myself included, take it for granted that if the river is small and well visited then there is a limited risk for danger. It was amazing how fast that "calm" water flipped my boat.

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    This is really great that you are willing to share this as there is a learning lesson for all. Did you have a belt pulled tight on your waders?I've swam with my simms and was surprised how little water I took on. Never wear Blue jeans or other cotton on the water.
    Poly wrung out isn't to bad but wet blue jeans ick! As was said I like to have a dry bag with sweater and warm clothes plus a fleese blanket just in case anyone needs it. Really I wish I had a dry suit. I don't pack raft but think that would be a must have for me if I did.

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    Quote Originally Posted by power drifter View Post
    I've swam with my simms and was surprised how little water I took on.
    I was actually wearing Simms as well. The belt prevented most of the water from flooding in but I would say about a gallon or so got in there. The blue jeans were fleece lined and the warmest pants that I had. Next time I'll have to figure something else out because that was a nightmare. I appreciate the advice, and believe you me that I'll be packing extra clothes next time. Another problem that I forgot to mention earlier was that my wader clips froze solid to my boots. So, it took about an hour after I had started the truck to even change clothes. The waders were a bad idea in this temperature. I think if it had been the summer, then it would be a different story.

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    Quote Originally Posted by sbthomas81 View Post
    Well to be perfectly honest, I panicked at first. I knew I could really be in some bad trouble.
    Resilience is an amazing thing. As with many other survival stories, you did almost every possible thing wrong, yet still survived to tell us about it. Thank you for sharing the details in post #6 without bravado, which makes it a good chance for all of us to learn from your experience.

    I remember accessing my situation several times. It was hard to realize how cold I was or whether or not I was in serious trouble yet. After the fact, my buddy told me that I was stuttering and leaving sentences unfinished leaving thoughts just hanging in the air.
    It's quite common for victims of hypothermia to recall assessing the situation calmly, while already too far gone to make good decisions. When your buddy heard your stuttering and unfinished thoughts, he should have taken over.

    Thankfully, we decided to take out here instead of taking the chance of finding the take out. We stowed our gear on the riverbank and headed to the road.
    I'm curious about your thoughts and any discussion at the take out. Obviously you didn't know how much further it would be, but you'd already accomplished your primary goal of getting down the river that night; did you two consider the possibility of stopping to warm up at the take-out before hiking back to the truck?

    I really have to thank my friend here. Without his help, my only option would have been to wait it out over night over a fire. His help was paramount to me getting home safe.
    No offense (it's always easier to evaluate things in hindsight), but it sounds like your friend made some serious errors in judgment, by following the decisions of someone who was already hypothermic, by not getting you in front of a fire for the night, and again by not getting you in front of a fire at the take-out before going to get the truck.

    Quote Originally Posted by sbthomas81 View Post
    I was actually wearing Simms as well. The belt prevented most of the water from flooding in but I would say about a gallon or so got in there.
    Honestly, those belted waders probably saved your life. If you'd been in jeans without the waders, you probably wouldn't have made it, but the waders allowed you to warm that gallon of water sitting closest to your legs in an enclosed space, which is not nearly as good as dry insulation but is still much better than losing that heat.
    Inspiration is simply the momentary cessation of stupidity.

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    Nice job laying it on the line sbthomas81...baring your mistakes for all to see takes some thick skin...I usually paddle the upper Chena at least a couple of times a year....I'm amazed at how hairy the upper Chena can be after breakup flood, it changes the river every year....get a good pfd, mount a knife sheath on the outside (for cutting yourself loose) pack a small dry bag with survival gear(cell phone/GPS) so you can tell people where you are at.....But most of all carry fire starting gear in your PFD. You may end up with just you and your PFD on shore. Just build a fire and dry out....both you and your buddy got a bad case of "Get Home Itis"....There is no reason to run for your vehicle to survive....it almost killed you... You have learned some valuable lessons here, thanks for sharing....

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    Quote Originally Posted by Seraphina View Post
    When your buddy heard your stuttering and unfinished thoughts, he should have taken over.

    I'm curious about your thoughts and any discussion at the take out. Obviously you didn't know how much further it would be, but you'd already accomplished your primary goal of getting down the river that night; did you two consider the possibility of stopping to warm up at the take-out before hiking back to the truck?

    No offense (it's always easier to evaluate things in hindsight), but it sounds like your friend made some serious errors in judgment, by following the decisions of someone who was already hypothermic, by not getting you in front of a fire for the night, and again by not getting you in front of a fire at the take-out before going to get the truck.

    Honestly, those belted waders probably saved your life. If you'd been in jeans without the waders, you probably wouldn't have made it, but the waders allowed you to warm that gallon of water sitting closest to your legs in an enclosed space, which is not nearly as good as dry insulation but is still much better than losing that heat.
    To my friend's credit, neither one of us had been in a dire situation of that magnitude before. Like me, he was concerned with getting out of there before dark. He paddled ahead to try to prepare for take out and to get me out of there as soon as possible. Also, as far as "taking over", my buddy retrieved all of my gear once the boat had flipped and once we reached the access road, he gave me his jacket and helped me make it to the main road. Also, I don't think that either of us knew that I had hypothermia until afterwards.

    We had both had pretty extensive experience with that part of the river and knew that the hike could have not been more than 30 minutes. I think a fire would have been welcome, but the prospect of reaching the road in a half hour trumped taking an equal amount of time to build a fire. Once we got to the road, a car picked me up within 15 minutes. We agreed to haul ass to the road and keep me moving thus allowing my blood to flow a little instead of being idle.

    I appreciate your comments about the waders. It is ironically true that the water in my waders kept my feet warmer than the 0 degree outside temp. In several of our many recap discussions, my buddy and I have brought that up. Needless to say, however, I will not be floating the Chena River anymore in late October, despite how awesome it was before I flipped. Next time, I will also remember to pack spare clothes. If I had had a towel and extra clothes, then this whole ordeal would have been avoided almost entirely.

    Everything being said, I think that your post was insightful and you brought up some good points. It all boils down to my friend and I lacking experience in this type of situation. Understanding what we both understand now, we would have acted differently in packing for the float and in response to what had happened. I hope that readers take this seriously and do not underestimate a familiar calm and cold river like we did, because just when you think you understand your situation, it will turn on you and leave you in a heap of trouble.

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    Member DannerAK's Avatar
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    Take a Swift Water Rescue Class

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    Thanks for clarifying your situation, that answers my question.

    In case I wasn't clear, "taking over" only refers to decision making, rather than to helping each other.

    I'm not a huge fan of waders, but even a plastic garbage bag will act as a vapor barrier to hold in heat.

    It's definitely important to pack spare clothes, but you could lose your boat and drybag, so please take pipercub's advice to wear basic survival gear on your body seriously.

    (In retrospect, looking back over my life, my worst mistakes are some of my fondest outdoor memories!)
    Inspiration is simply the momentary cessation of stupidity.

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    the fact of the matter is this; we both made it out. as what's his face said, hindsight is always 20/20. shoulda, woulda and coulda is simply irrelavant; after all, it's after the fact. i've been in hairy situations, life or death, before and in my opinion if you make it out alive you at least made one right decision.

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    Not a packrafter (cats & rafts), but having watched them quite a bit, its clear they are inherently a wet ride, even just getting in and out... IMO invest in a breathable drysuit. When **** goes wrong, its the only thing that gives you a edge in AK's frigid waters.

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    the fact of the matter is this; we both made it out. as what's his face said, hindsight is always 20/20. shoulda, woulda and coulda is simply irrelavant; after all, it's after the fact. i've been in hairy situations, life or death, before and in my opinion if you make it out alive you at least made one right decision.
    Or you were just lucky...point is to learn from your experiences.... If your wilderness float, hunting trip, airplane flight, hiking/camping trip kills you, before you can build up that knowledge base (that keeps you alive long enough to gain experience)...then you should take the advice about getting trained before you go out and get killed or just through dumb luck, survive and make a fool out of yourself

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