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ADVENTURE

The men the river swallowed

A father and son embark on a rafting trip down a languid Alaskan river. It's June, but they encounter a riverwide shelf of ice. The river, J. Michael Kennedy writes, is about to teach them a life-or-death lesson.

September 16, 2003|J. Michael Kennedy | Times Staff Writer

IT'S THE OUTDOOR MOMENT YOU'RE SUPPOSED to anticipate but can't -- the one that turns an outing into an adventure or a tragedy. One second Blake Stanfield, 38, and his father, Neil, were basking in the pleasures of wilderness. The next they were in glacier-cold water trying to gulp air as the current sucked them under the slab of ice that covered the Koyukuk River as far downstream as they could see.

The raft trip had been Blake's idea, a way to celebrate Neil's 65th birthday in a setting they both relished -- a roadless landscape where caribou herds roam and the snowcapped, treeless mountains of the Brooks Range soar in the distance.

The father and son had always been close, and part of that bond had been the outdoors. Wilderness was a familiar place for them. From the time Blake was 7, they had been backpacking partners, and Blake would eventually take up mountaineering and rock climbing.

Blake's path to Alaska had seemed predestined, though his career did not. While in college, he hopped a ferry and toured the state's southern reaches. Back in Oklahoma he earned a degree in finance and made a living as an auditor until one day an epiphany identified his true calling. Belatedly, he entered medical school, and in his third year found a residency program in Alaska. He moved to Anchorage, then to the small town of Seward, where he married and started a family. His father, who dabbled in commercial real estate in Oklahoma City, didn't need much persuading to head north for a river trip.

They had begun their journey on a gravel bar, dropped off by a bush pilot. In no hurry, they decided to spend a night. The first rapids would be four or five days downriver, but safety was still a concern, so Blake used the extra time to rearrange their gear, making such small decisions as slipping his knife and the Windmill lighter he had bought for $45 a few years earlier into his shorts pocket.

They put in the following afternoon. As it happened, they were the first rafters of the season, and the only evidence of other life was the bear, wolf and caribou prints dotting the muddy shore. With Blake at the oars of their cataraft -- an aluminum frame strapped to two inflated pontoons -- they drifted lazily down the north fork of the Koyukuk in the near-endless summer light. The river was languid and wide -- 100 feet or more where they put in.

The main channel cut a winding course that obscured and then revealed the wild beauty that lay around each turn. The two noted sheets of ice clinging to both sides of the river, but paid them no mind because it was June, and because they'd seen nothing alarming when they flew upriver from Bettles, just above the Arctic Circle, a tiny outpost with an airstrip, trading post and ranger station. Nor were they concerned when the river gradually narrowed and the ice began to thicken on both banks. Then they rounded what looked like just another bend and saw the river-wide shelf of ice blocking their path.

The current was too swift to fight back upstream. Neither man said a word as, in a blink, the boat slammed into the ice and flipped.

Suddenly they were under the rock-hard slab, with jagged blocks of frozen river scraping skin from their faces and scalps, with only a thin layer of air offering quick breaths as the current swept them along. Neither knows how long they were under because, as Blake put it, "Time stops when stuff like this happens."

At one point, they popped into an opening in the river, just long enough for Blake to tell his father he was sorry for getting him into such trouble. Then the river dragged them under another frozen slab, and this time the air pocket had vanished.

Blake's lungs were bursting. He couldn't see his father in the dim, green light that seeped through the ice ceiling. He wondered in those last moments how death would overtake him. Would he breathe in water and drown? Or would he black out and be spared those last terrible moments?

And then, in the last seconds of breath, they cleared the ice shelf. Blake gasped for air as he swam for the bank, scrambled ashore and raced barefoot downstream, chasing after his father, whose head bobbed in the distance. Slowly, he gained on Neil, who had inexplicably stopped moving, having latched onto a block of ice that lay just under the surface. Neil could hear Blake yelling frantically, but his son's words were lost in the roar of the river.

Neil eased off the ice block and tried to scramble up the riverbank but the current dragged him down. As he began swimming in exhaustion for the shore, Blake leaned out, offering a 10-foot spruce branch. Neil grasped it and emerged from the river in the first stages of hypothermia.

"I was shivering uncontrollably," he recalled.

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