Accident Database

Report ID# 3658

  • Swim into Strainer
  • Cold Water
  • Other

Accident Description

 2 dead as canoe capsizes in Eagle River

By Michelle Theriault Boots, Anchorage Daily News

Published: August 8th, 2012

Two women are dead after their canoe capsized on Eagle River on Wednesday afternoon, police and fire officials said. A third man riding in the canoe was rescued from a logjam in the river and a man kayaking with the group was unharmed, according to an Anchorage Police Department spokesman. As of Wednesday evening, police had not released the names or any details about the two women or the two survivors.

Police received a 911 call from a witness about 4 p.m. saying that three people were in a canoe that flipped, said police spokesman Lt. Dave Parker. The man who had been in the canoe was rescued after getting caught on debris in the middle of the river, Parker said. A fourth person kayaking with the group was able to get out of the river without injury, said Jodie Hettrick of the Anchorage Fire Department.

Fire department responders pulled the bodies of the women from the river with the help of an Alaska State Troopers helicopter, Hettrick said. Fire officials believe all of the people in the group were wearing personal flotation devices, contrary to an earlier report from police based on a witness' account. The bodies were recovered with personal flotation devices on them, Hettrick said.

Investigators are still trying to piece together exactly what happened and how far the paddlers had traveled before the canoe flipped. They believe a large logjam in the river just below a spot parallel to mile 7.4 of Eagle River Road may have been a factor, Hettrick said. The bodies were recovered in the area of the logjam. It appears that the surviving canoe passenger was able to get up onto the debris while the women may have been trapped underneath or near it, she said. "If you get trapped inside a logjam, a flotation device doesn't help because it won't keep your body above the water." The water is high and fast and conditions on Eagle River are dangerous, she said.

Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at or 257-4344.

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Canoeists who died in Eagle River had arrived in state that same day

Two women who drowned in Eagle River on Wednesday after their canoe overturned have been identified as Fern Johnson, 60, of Plains, Mont., and her friend Carol Heater, 48, of Kalispell, Mont.

By Michelle Theriault Boots, Anchorage Daily News

Published: Aug. 10, 2012

A canoe that capsized on Eagle River Wednesday killing two Montana women struck a logjam, police said Thursday. The women were identified as Fern Johnson, 60, of Plains, Mont., and her friend, 48-year-old Carol Heater of Kalispell, Mont. Fern Johnson's husband, Robert Johnson, also went into the water but survived and was rescued.

On Thursday, Anchorage police offered more detail about the accident and rescue: The two Johnsons and Heater had arrived on Wednesday for a vacation visiting friends in Alaska. The three Montanans decided to paddle downriver with their friend Robert Voris, a resident of Eagle River. The visitors rode in a canoe while Voris used a kayak, according police spokesman Lt. Dave Parker. It's not clear where they launched their boats. All four wore personal flotation devices.

At about 3 p.m. the group encountered a large logjam, Parker said. The canoe went up against the logjam in an area of slower current, he said. When the canoeists tried to paddle away from the logjam to the east bank of the river, they found themselves caught in a faster current and the canoe overturned. Fern Johnson and Heater were pushed by the current under the debris despite the flotation devices. Robert Johnson was able to pull himself up onto the logjam. "His first reaction was to look for his wife and their friend," Parker said. "He tried to pull them out of the water." He couldn't do it. 

A witness who saw at least part of the incident unfold -- police aren't sure who it was -- called 911. Firefighters were on the scene quickly. Police said they aren't sure how but Johnson made it to shore. Voris, in the kayak, was able to get to shore. Neither of the men were taken to the hospital for treatment, Parker said.

Firefighters sent swimmers into the river Wednesday evening to recover the two bodies. The Alaska State Troopers used a helicopter to help transport them to the shore. Reached at his home in Eagle River on Thursday, Voris said he was too distraught to speak to a reporter about the incident or the two women. T

he Daily Inter Lake newspaper, which serves Kalispell and northwest Montana, reported that Johnson had worked at the Clark Fork Valley Hospital and was president of the Plains Women's Club, which does charitable works around Plains, a town of about 1,000 people. On Thursday, a receptionist at the Clark Fork Valley Hospital said the hospice department, where Fern Johnson worked as a volunteer manager, was closed for the day while employees dealt with the news of her death. The Inter Lake reported that Heater was a program manager at the Sleep Medicine Center in Kalispell. The center's answering machine had a message Thursday saying the clinic was closed for the day, citing an emergency. 

Park rangers, paddlers and Eagle River residents agree that glacially-fed Eagle River is unpredictable and potentially treacherous for paddlers. Fire and police officials are called to rescues on the river at least a few times every summer. Others boaters have narrowly avoided disaster after hitting logjams on the river.

In June, a trooper helicopter rescued three people after their canoe hit a log and overturned. Asta Spurgis, executive director of the Eagle River Nature Center, hasn't canoed the river for years but says it pays to have a healthy respect for it. "You have to be very experienced," she said. "There are times where you definitely need good skills to make sure not to hit a sweeper." (A sweeper can be a tree or branches submerged in or leaning far enough into the river to tangle a boat or knock someone out of one.)

A hard-shell canoe is one of the more precarious ways to paddle a river like Eagle River, said Mark Cohen, the owner of Alaska Raft and Kayak in Anchorage. "It's just not as forgiving," he said. "Inflatables (like rafts) are much more forgiving and more stable." Police have not said how much canoeing experience they believe the Montanans had or the exact size or model of their canoe.

Eagle River has patches of flat, easy water as well as serious rapids and is popular with a broad spectrum of paddlers and floaters, said Chugach State Park superintendent Tom Harrison. But it, like all of Anchorage's vast backyard park, is a wild place, packed with beauty and recreation opportunities but also inherent dangers -- from avalanches to blistering pushki to cliffs to river logjams, he said. It would be impossible to find or warn the public about all of them, Harrison said.

The park largely leaves the river alone. Rangers don't clear debris or sweepers, he said. On Thursday, Harrison did send a ranger to check out the logjam, which appears to extend all the way across the river. The park will post an informational sign nearby, he said. "Obviously when something tragic like this happens in the park we say, let's look at this." Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at or 257-4344.

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