Death at the Alaska Wilderness Classic
10-year veteran drowns crossing river
By: ERIN BERGER - Outside Magazine
Rob Kehrer was only 44 years old but had already competed 10 times in what many consider the toughest wilderness challenge in the world. On Saturday, during the 2014 Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic, Kehrer died while trying to packraft across the Tana River in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. He is the challenge's first fatality.
The challenge involves navigating more than 100 miles through some of Alaska's wildest land, and there is no route—the handful who can even consider competing must find the best way to the finish line while battling the elements. A post on the Classic Report, a blog for the event, quotes a prior race winner and Vietnam veteran who said, "The stress and intensity of the Wilderness Classic is as close as a civilian can come to experiencing actual combat."
Kehrer was among five participants who finished the 2013 Classic. This year's challenge followed the same course (it changes every three years). Kehrer decided use the Tana River as a way to avoid the nearly impassable vegetation he'd encountered the year before. Volunteer coordinator Luc Mehl said he believes Kehrer's inflatable packraft flipped in a powerful eddy when he was approaching a sharp turn in the river. Exactly how Kehrer died is still unclear; his body was found on a gravel bar Sunday.
Kehrer's death comes as another blow to the few who can step up to the Wilderness Classic challenge—as Alaska Dispatch News points out, nobody would have expected the race's first death to be someone as experienced as Kehrer. In fact, last year, when he saw fellow competitor Steve Duby flip his raft and lose it in the Tasnuna River, Kehrer tied up the raft on a visible gravel bar. Duby, who was about to abandon the challenge because of the lost raft, ended up becoming the first-place finisher thanks to Kehrer's help. "Everybody who describes him talks about his big heart," Mehl said. "He really embodied the spirit of Alaska."
Body found after fatal Tana River rafting accident
By Sierra Starks 5:26 PM August 11, 2014
The body of a Mat-Su man, declared missing after a rafting accident, was found in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. Authorities have identified the rafter as Rob Kehrer. Kehrer was last seen Saturday at 1 p.m. when he was thrown out of his packraft — a small, portable backpacking boat — on the Tana River. His rafting partner was the last to see him, according to a statement by the National Park Service.
The park’s chief ranger, Peter Christian, got the official call Sunday morning that a rafter had gone missing. “I was woken up at 7:05 a.m.,” said Christian, who directed overall search operations for this incident. “I got a call from Denali statewide dispatch.” Christian said he immediately called a district ranger in McCarthy, the closest to the Tana River. From there, the Alaska Air National Guard, pilots from Ultima Thule Lodge and local ground searchers got to work searching for the missing rafter.
At approximately 4 p.m. Sunday, An Alaska Air National Guard helicopter located Kehrer’s body about 2.5 miles downstream from where he was last seen.
Christian says even the most skilled rafters should be wary of this particular river. “The Tana River has a reputation, deservedly so, for having swift, strong water,” Christian said. “It gets light use, but it is a pretty powerful river.” At this particular time, he warns, the water in the Tana River was very high because the temperature outside has been so warm. The river is known for its difficult rapids, but as a glacial tributary of the Chitina River, hypothermia is actually the biggest danger, Christian said. “Rafters often underestimate the water,” he said, stressing that visitors should contact the rangers for current river conditions before rafting.
Kehrer’s body has since been transported to Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage. Christian says Alaska State Troopers have taken over the investigation, and the body will be taken to the Medical Examiner’s Office for an official autopsy.