A fishing trip to Soldotna in July 2014 turned to a long nightmare for a Minnesota man, ending only with kindness from a Soldotna couple.
Dale Prechel, a Minnesota resident, had come up to stay at a friend’s fish camp off Funny River Road near Soldotna for a fishing trip at the invitation of a longtime friend. An avid fisherman, he’d long hoped to come to Alaska but hadn’t made it before. The trip was a chance to drop a line in the Kenai River for salmon and into Cook Inlet for halibut.
That part of the trip went fine. It was that night that things went wrong, said Prechel’s wife Jackie.
The light stretches late into the night in the Kenai Peninsula summers, but it was dark when Dale woke in the middle of the night and went to find the bathroom. Upon finding a door blocked, he reached for another one, which led outside, where it was dark and chilly. Wearing only a pair of underwear, he figured he wouldn’t be outside for long.
He took about five steps forward and, to his surprise, tumbled forward off the bluff toward the Kenai River.
Then 61, the fall — which he later estimated at about 40 feet — left him bruised and unconscious at the bottom of the hill, Jackie wrote in a narrative of the incident sent to the Clarion.
“When Dale awoke, he was not sure where he was or what time it was,” she wrote. “It was dark and the silence was deafening. He was cold, confused, and, more than likely, in shock.”
Even in July, Alaska can be chilly. The average highs in July are in the low 60s and the lows can get down to the mid-40s. Residents on Funny River Road, which runs up against the vast Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, often report sightings of brown and black bears, particularly in the summers when the salmon are running in the rivers. Dale had been warned about the potential for bear encounters in the area, especially close to the rivers, Jackie wrote.
He tried to climb back up the bluff, but it was too slippery; instead, he walked a ways down the river to where he could climb back up on a flatter area and look for help. Approaching the house, he knocked on the door, hoping to ask for help and find out where he was. The owner, a woman, answered but didn’t open the door, Jackie wrote.
“Dale backed away from the door, so as not to scare her, but come on — who wouldn’t be scared of a man standing in his underwear with blood all over him in the middle of the night, saying, ‘Please, I need help’?” Jackie wrote.
The woman told him he needed to leave and closed the door, and Dale tried to decide where to go. Barefoot on a gravel road, the shards of rock tore up his feet and left him raw and bleeding, Jackie wrote. He walked down the road for an uncertain amount of time, cold and unsure of where he was, unable to see any houses or people.
Finally, he approached another house, hesitating for fear the owners would turn him away again. But the cold and pain in his feet drove him to the porch and he knocked, “standing in a pool of blood,” Jackie wrote.
Ruth Knorr, a 40-year resident of the Funny River area, answered the door. She remembers Dale stuttering out a request for help before she brought him inside.
“He was really disoriented,” she said. “Anyway, he did remember his wife’s telephone number. I called her and she told me where he was staying, and so then I took him home over there.”
Knorr got her husband, Bob, and their daughter joined them, dressed the wounds on Dale’s feet and got some of Bob’s spare clothes. By the time they called Jackie in Minnesota, it was about 4:30 a.m. Piecing together the story, they figured out Dale had been wandering around outside looking for help for about two hours.
Jackie remembers Dale as very confused on the phone.
“I picked up the phone at 7:30 a.m. in Minnesota and on the other end of the phone was a whisper, ‘Where am I?’” she wrote. “I said, ‘What do mean, where are you? You’re in Alaska.’ (Dale said,) ‘A-LASKA! What am I doing in A-laska?’”
Ruth Knorr drove him back to the fish camp when they figured out where exactly he’d been staying, she said. He thanked her and returned the clothes the next day, returning the following year and again in July 2017, when he visited again.
Jackie wrote that she wanted to thank Ruth for caring for her husband that night.
“Ruth would tell you she is not a hero, but someone who was simply there to help a man who was hurt,” she said. “The dictionary states that a hero is someone who is admired for their noble qualities. Dale will tell you that Ruth was his guardian angel and his hero that July morning in 2014. He knows how circumstances could have been so much different if he would have met a bear or other wild animal on his long and painful walk around Soldotna.”
Reach Elizabeth Earl at firstname.lastname@example.org.