Mendenhall River raft tour capsizes

  • By Abby Lowell
  • Sunday, May 31, 2015 11:15pm
  • News

A group of tourists rafting the Mendenhall River on Thursday afternoon with a local tour company were plunged into the glacier-fed waters when their raft capsized.

It was an unexpected turn of events for the Juneau visitors, said two of those who walked away shivering, but alive.

When Nichole Hollick booked a last-minute tour Thursday, she did her homework.

Hollick, visiting from Los Angeles, arrived in Juneau’s port on the Norwegian Cruise Lines ship “Sun” and asked a booking agent about a river rafting adventure she’d seen online. The tour was offered by Juneau-based Alaska Travel Adventures, a company that has operated in the capital city for nearly 40 years.

“(The) NCL website described it was a ‘serene river float, safe for all ages,’” Hollick said.

At the counter the booking agent agreed and corroborated the online description, telling Hollick it was safe to bring even her expensive camera gear, as well as her 80-year-old grandmother.

Hollick’s grandmother declined, however, choosing instead to shop on the boat. At the time, Hollick didn’t know that would be the best decision of the day.

“We were picked up at 3:15 (p.m.),” she said, “and got a nice tour of the valley.”

When the tour group arrived at the launch point near the West Glacier trailhead, Hollick said a group of 18 young adults met them and were, apparently, running the tour. She said, as far as she could tell, there was no tour operator to be found.

The group was instructed to put on life jackets and given rain gear to wear so their street clothes wouldn’t get wet. Hollick again asked if it was OK to bring her camera on the river. The employees described the float as “slow and easy,” telling her the camera wouldn’t be a problem.

“It was about that time I started to get nervous,” Hollick said. “I mean, there wasn’t any indication there’d be a safety briefing and if we were going to get wet … that’s not what the tour described.”

Hollick’s group of eight boarded their raft, a self bailing whitewater raft large enough for her group and one guide. Hollick and her husband, Michael Haase, 43, sat on the wooden seat in the front. Behind them was a trio — two men and a woman — also seated on a wooden bench. Behind them sat the guide, on a cooler in between two oars, and behind her three more visitors on a wooden bench.

“There was no weight distribution on the raft,” Hollick said. “The two men behind me were seated next to each other with a much lighter woman on the outside.”

The guide rowed out onto Mendenhall Lake and warned of rapids.

There’s some Class II and occasionally some Class III rapids, the guide said.

Class II rapids are considered to be novice level and require minimal navigation. Class III whitewater is described as “advanced” and can be intense, powerful and features predictable rapids requiring precise boat handling in turbulent water.

Back on the water, Hollick said the safety briefing began after about five minutes.

“(The guide) said she would tell us when to stand up and when to cheer her on to help her row, and she said she’d tell us when to lean left, and when to lean right … but that was it,” Hollick said. “There was no talk about what to do or where to meet if the boat capsizes.

“For the first five minutes everything is OK,” Hollick continued. “Then the river turned left and hit an underwater stump … that’s when some water entered the boat and the guide began to look stressed. But still, there was no communication with the group.”

Downriver a mess of trees could be seen and after breaking loose of the obstruction, Hollick said the raft swung around again and got hung up on the same stump.

“That’s when more water began to pour in and the boat began to flip,” Hollick said. “People were screaming and the (rafting guide) was clearly not equipped to deal with the situation.”

Before long the group of nine were in the water.

Hollick said the boat flipped on top of her, pinning her underneath. She tried to swim out the back but got trapped. She eventually escaped out the front. When she surfaced, Hollick said she immediately looked for her husband. He was upstream swimming for a rock, which he eventually reached, rested and then hauled out onto.

Meanwhile, Hollick held on to the rope attached to the raft. An older man and his wife floated downstream from of them. The guide held onto the back of the raft, praying.

“She didn’t say anything,” Hollick said. “I could just hear her back there praying in a language I didn’t understand.”

Hollick yelled at the guide, asking for guidance. The guide told her to get to the back of the boat, but Hollick refused; there were no handholds besides the ones occupied by the guide, she said.

Alaska Travel Adventures was contacted for comment on this story but did not return a call by press time.

Hollick estimated they floated roughly 1/8 mile before finding a shallow gravel bar, upon which everyone sought refuge — everyone except her husband.

Water in the Mendenhall River hovers between 41 and 43 degrees Fahrenheit this time of year, according to Eran Hood, professor of Environmental Sciences at the University of Alaska Southeast.

Hood, who has studied temperatures in the river for years, said glacial meltwater will actually create colder water temperatures in downstream water bodies than those of the ocean, which hovers between 55 and 57 degrees on the surface this time of year.

The effect of glacial runoff is like adding ice cubes to a glass of water. Back on the gravel, Hollick said it was like “full-scale panic.” Their raft was nowhere in sight.

“The guide asked if we were all alright and then people began taking off their socks and shoes,” Hollick said.

Much of the Mendenhall River’s waterfront is dotted with private property and the adjacent homeowners had come out of their home and said they had seen a man on the shore.

“Minutes went by,” Hollick said, “and there was still no direction from the guide.”

A raft from the tour floated down and stopped, passing along a first aid kit and one space blanket, which was wrapped around two men who needed it.

“An older lady was turning blue and having trouble breathing,” Hollick said, “so they passed her a dry jacket, and one to me.”

More rafts from the party showed up and they indicated Alaska Travel Adventures had been notified. It was then, according to first responders, that an incident command center was established to begin the process of locating all the involved parties.

Meanwhile upstream, Haase had made his way to the riverbank and made his way through a Juneau resident’s back yard.

As luck would have it, Haase was located by retired Capital City Fire and Rescue member Kim Mahar, who still volunteers with the team as needed. Mahar had heard the call come in and decided to assist. He’s participated in these types of rescues in the past. After 27 years, he knows parties can easily get spread out along the river.

“I went down River Road, and I found a guy walking up the end of River Road with a camera in his hand and a life jacket on and looking to be all wet. He was all by himself,” Mahar said. “He was totally with it. He wasn’t hurt. He was fine, he was concerned about his wife, and that was it.”

After being unable to reach the incident commander, Mahar called 911 and a police officer was sent to pick up Haase.

Back in the shade on the gravel bar, the group waited. Hollick had no idea her husband was safe.

Mahar, however, was on his way. He followed the River Trail that wound along the river’s edge and located an Alaska Travel Adventures employee who “was in the process of gathering up the folks on the side of the rocks that wanted to walk out instead of take a raft down (the river).” The guide asked Mahar for help and he proceeded to contact the seven wet tourists and their guide. Hollick said he immediately took control. The stranded group hiked out through the forest, many with bare feet.

Mahar led them to the waiting CCFR EMS personnel at the command center, which had relocated closer to the site. According to a report from CCFR, “on arrival, persons were out of the water but were cold and wet. Patients were checked for injuries and provided first aid. One patient was provided basic life support and transported to Bartlett Regional Hospital for further care.”

Ed Quinto, Assistant Chief of Operations with CCFR, said out of the eight visitors, “seven refused transportation, (but) one male was taken to Bartlett Regional Hospital for lower back pain, as he was pinned against the raft” during the incident. Quinto was unable to give the man’s age.

Hollick said she was anxious to reach the response vehicles and immediately spotted Haase in the back of an ambulance wearing nothing but a towel and his underwear. “I ran across the gravel barefoot and got in the ambulance with him,” she said.

She too refused care from the paramedics; the day was wearing on and she just wanted to get back to her grandmother.

Although all those on the raft that flipped were cold and wet, Mahar said hypothermia was never a concern for him as the weather was warm and they were all moving, albeit with a bit of difficulty due to the heavy rain gear they were wearing.

The Empire was unable to locate a description of the tour on the NCL website, however, the Alaska Travel Adventures website describes the tour as being led by “an experienced guide” who will guide visitors down a “six-mile route (that) combines meandering stretches with Class II and III whitewater — just enough to add to the excitement and is appropriate for all ages.”

Hollick estimated she and her husband lost roughly $7,000 worth of camera gear, lenses and a cell phone.

In Juneau, this isn’t the first time an incident of this nature has happened on the Mendenhall River. According to Empire archives, eight tourists were hospitalized in 2009 after an Alaska Travel Adventures raft flipped in high water due to heavy rains.

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