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Accident Description

The Nenana River in the vicinity of road access to Denali National Park is a big-water river, usually pushing around 5000 to 18,000 cfs. The rapids run by the commercial outfitters are pool-drop, Class II big water, with several Class III rapids in the lower sections. In deference to the age of their clients, they run the safest lines through the bigger rapids.  In very high water a few of the drops reach Class IV, but the commercials then either cancel their trips, take added precautions, or add a maximum age for participants. Virtually all the bigger hydraulics flush swimmers and boats out immediately. It’s glacial-fed, so water temperatures are low. Right after breakup the water can be just above freezing, while during July and August it reminds me of Maine ocean water in June.

I know the section of the Nenana just upstream of the confluence with the Yanert River well. It consists of a sharp right hand turn with a bad reactionary pocket on the extreme left, a broad ledge about 20 or 30 feet across the middle, and a shallow chute by a gravel bar on the right.  At most flows this section is solid Class III because avoiding the ledge requires a strong right ferry through three-foot waves that is made more difficult by a large pourover in the middle. Except at low flows, the ledge creates a decent hole that kayakers play. But at very low flows, which we had this year due to a late spring and cool, dry weather, the ledge produces a nasty keeper, and the sneak next to the gravel bar narrows down to about five feet. The flow at the accident site is estimated because the Alaska River Forecast Center gauge is below the confluence of the Yanert, an important tributary, as well as Riley Creek and other streams. My estimate, based on ten years experience on the river, is between 2000 and 3000 cfs.

The majority of the commercial raft business comes through large tour companies operating in the Denali Park area. They cater to well-heeled tourists who travel with bus, railroad, or cruise ship packages. They attract a large number of older clients. Because the outfitters on the Nenana have an excellent safety record and the run itself is not difficult, the rafting package is sold as a safe way to see the Denali Park area.

The accident on May 29, 1999 occurred when an oar rig dropped into the hydraulic below the ledge. It recirculated right-side-up for about 20 minutes while the guide, with the help of other commercial and private boaters, tried to extract it.  During this recirculation a number of guests fell out. One man attempted to hold on to his wife's life vest as they were pummeled, but could not. After the raft was finally extracted, clients were helicoptered from the scene. The air temperature was a chilly 38o, and the water was probably colder. Nine people were treated for hypothermia. 

SOURCE: Jeff Duncan via Email


Rafting outfit halts tours after deaths

Tuesday June 01, 1999

By JOLIE LEWIS Staff Writer

A rafting company has suspended tours on the Nenana River after two 75-year-old women died when they fell off a raft during a guided tour near Denali National Park and Preserve on Saturday night. Eloise Hubbard and Doris North, both from Georgia, apparently drowned, Alaska State Troopers said. “It looks like it’s an unforeseeable, unfortunate, natural disaster— being in a situation where they couldn’t control the water or the raft in the water,” said Healy trooper Bill Tyler. The accident happened during the second week of the rafting season on the gentler of two routes used by local companies, a so-called scenic tour traversing 13 miles along the eastern edge of the park.

About three or four miles into the trip, the 18-foot inflatable raft carrying seven people hit a rough swell that pitched the two women from their seats, said Michael Cobbold, a risk manager at Denali Park Resorts. Family members said Hubbard’s husband, Bruce, tried to hold onto her life jacket. She was wearing a life vest, but did not know how to swim. “He held as long as he could, and said all of a sudden, the water just pulled her away. She was just out of sight immediately,” said son-in-law George Lipscomb, reached Monday at the Hubbards’ home in Doraville, Ga.

Alaska Raft Adventures, owned by Denali Park Resorts, suspended operations indefinitely as they investigate, manager Bob Seney said Saturday. He said it was the company’s first accident in its 10 years in the business. Owners of other area rafting companies are continuing trips but are concerned the accident might hurt business. John Hill, one of five owners of the Denali Outdoor Center, said Saturday’s deaths brought the number of commercial rafting fatalities on the Nenana to four in 15 years—a figure he said is low compared to other places. He and colleagues said they outfit customers appropriately for the glacial-fed river, often issuing dry suits. “The river is a safe river. It’s grade three on a scale of one to six,” Hill said. “Accidents are bound to happen anywhere. Statistically, this is a very safe river.”

Chris Batin, a Fairbanksan who has been rafting and kayaking for more than 25 years, said taking elderly people on white-water trips should not be a problem as long as customers know what they are getting into and as long as guides exercise common sense. He also said companies might be wise to consider establishing simple tests to make sure customers are strong enough to hold onto the rafts. “A guide makes a decision to go through a bunch of rapids ... or skirt around it,” Batin said. “It’s always, always, always best to err on the side of maybe-not-so-great-an-experience.” Alaska Raft Adventures, which operates under Denali Park Resorts, took five boats of people onto the river for an evening trip Saturday.

The “Wilderness Run,” in contrast to a white-water canyon excursion lower on the Nenana, features low-end rapids rated at Class II. Brochures indicate the last daily trip leaves at 6 p.m. and usually lasts about three hours. The accident was reported to troopers at 11 p.m. What exactly happened before that remains unclear. Cobbold promised in a brief interview Sunday that Denali Park Resorts would make more information about what happened available Monday as they investigated. Spokesmen for the company could not be reached Monday for comment, however.

Local rafting guides refer to the place where the accident happened as the “ledge hole at the Yanert,” a river feature located at the confluence of the Yanert Fork and the Nenana, about five miles upstream from the Riley Creek Bridge near the road entrance to Denali. In that spot, the water tumbles over the uniform edge of a rock, dropping and splashing back up in a recirculating vertical swirl known in rafting lingo as a “hole,” said longtime river guide Bill “Buckwheat” Overington of the Denali Outdoor Center. As river levels dropped with recent cold weather, the hole has become accentuated. The turbulent water can catch the side of a raft and hold it in the rapid, Overington said. The temperature Saturday night was about 38 degrees, with the wind blowing 6 to 7 mph.

Tod Levesh, a Denali park ranger, estimated the temperature of the glacier-fed water at 34 to 38 degrees. All but Hubbard and North were able to stay aboard the raft Saturday night when the raft hit a rough spot, Cobbold said. Passengers from two trailing rafts stopped to help. People on scene were able to pull the two bodies from the river prior to the arrival of rescuers, troopers said. Eighteen people were shuttled from the scene by a local helicopter company and were checked out at a nearby airstrip by medics from the Tri-Valley Volunteer Fire Department and Denali rangers. Nine were treated for hypothermia, troopers said.

Bruce Hubbard, 75, was airlifted by U.S. Army helicopter to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital as a precautionary measure because he suffers from a heart condition and diabetes, Trooper Tyler said. He was released from the hospital Sunday morning and returned home to Doraville on Monday.

The Hubbards and North, a widow from Decatur, Ga., were among a large party of senior citizens from that state touring Alaska together, many of them involved in a local church group called Young In Heart. Eloise Hubbard was described by her son-in-law as an energetic, healthy woman who kept an immaculate house and was an active member of the Briarlake Baptist Church and the Young In Heart group. She spent most of her life fearing water after a near-drowning as a child, but had gotten comfortable around boats in recent years.

Lipscomb said there has been an outpouring of support from friends and families of both drowning victims. “I guess we’ve probably seen 600 people since yesterday, constantly in and out, and bringing food,” he said, adding that his mother-in-law touched a lot of lives. “When there was a need, she was always there. ... She’s never made an enemy that I know of.” A reverend from the group of Georgians touring Alaska led a memorial service for Hubbard and North on Sunday morning before they departed for their next destination. An attempt to reach the tourists in Seward on Monday was unsuccessful.

The Associated Press contributed to this report


Outside investigator to probe raft tragedy

Wednesday June 02, 1999

By T.A. BADGER Associated Press Writer

ANCHORAGE—The Nenana River rafting company whose accident killed two elderly women over the weekend has hired an Outside investigator to determine the tragedy’s cause. Alaska Raft Adventure’s probe will include interviews with two guides aboard the raft when it got caught in rough water and tossed the women into the near-freezing river, company manager Bob Seney said Tuesday. Eloise Hubbard, 75, of Doraville, Ga., and Doris North, 74, of Decatur, Ga., died late Saturday during a 13-mile trip on the river where it forms the eastern border of Denali National Park and Preserve. Alaska State Troopers believe both women drowned.

Seney said the investigator would conduct interviews today and Thursday and later would compile a report for the company, which is owned by Denali Park Resorts. Seney would not identify the investigator or where the person is from. Company officials have interviewed the guides, but those statements will not be released to protect their privacy, he said. Alaska Raft Adventures has suspended operations during the investigation. Seney said it wasn’t clear when the company’s rafts would return to the Nenana. “We’ll make that determination in the next week or so,” he said.

Troopers have yet to interview the two guides in the raft, spokesman Greg Wilkinson said. After those interviews take place, a report will be written and filed with the Coast Guard, which has jurisdiction over boating accidents in U.S. waters. An autopsy will not be performed on the women, Wilkinson said. Their death certificates were expected to be signed today by the state medical examiner’s office, he said. Hubbard and North were in a raft with five other people when the craft hit a rough swirl, known as a “hole,” that ejected the women from their seats, troopers said. The other passengers in the raft, including Hubbard’s husband Bruce, remained inside.

Bruce Hubbard, who suffers from rheumatoid arthritis in his hand, wasn’t able to hang on to his wife’s life jacket and she wasn’t able to swim, according to a family member. “When he looked up, she was gone,” George Lipscomb, her son-in-law, told The Atlanta Journal and Constitution. Seney said the women later were ejected from the hole and were recovered downstream and pulled to shore. He said he didn’t know if the guides gave the women medical treatment. Troopers were alerted by a person in another raft who was carrying a cellular phone, Seney said. There was no cell phone or radio in the raft carrying Hubbard and North, and company policy does not require such equipment, he said.

Seney said he didn’t know how experienced the guides in the raft were, but he said they have met Alaska Raft Adventure’s minimum standard. There is no licensing requirement for Nenana River guides. The company’s guides are required to complete five trips on the part of the river where Hubbard and North died, and three trips on a more challenging section farther downstream. Seney said the guides also have been certified for cardiopulmonary resuscitation and basic first aid, as is required of all Alaska Raft Adventure guides.

The area of the Nenana River where the women died is considered vigorous but not dangerous, and both had taken a brief rafting course before embarking on their tour. The Hubbards and North had traveled to Alaska with their senior group, the Young in Heart Club from their church. “It’s a program that is designed to inspire (seniors) to think and stay young,” said Alan North of Lilburn, Ga., son of Doris North. The club had previously taken trips to the Canadian Rockies, Nova Scotia and Branson, Mo. Church members plan to return to Atlanta June 8. “They were enjoying themselves and that’s what we wanted,” Lipscomb said. “We don’t have any regrets about the choices they made.”


There's a section of the Neenana River near the gateway to Denali National Park in Alaska that contains class II-III family-class whitewater often rafted by tour groups. But on May 29th the river was unusually low, 3000 cfs. At these levels a bad pourover appears just upstream of the confluence with the Yanert River. These low flows are rare during the rafting season, which may explain why an 18' oar-rig boat carrying senior citizens from Georgia unwittingly dropped into the hole. The boat surfed upright for about 20 minutes, during which time several people were pitched into the water.

Eloise Hubbard and Doris North, both 75, drowned despite wearing life vests and wet suits. Mrs. Hubbard's husband tried to hold onto his wife after she fell out, but could not. The air temperature at the site was 38o, and the water was icy cold. Although the AP dispatch is not clear, the victims may have been recirculated and could have been caught under the boat for a time. The other boats on the trip missed the hole, and recovered the swimmers downstream. Rangers were called, and many of the guests were evacuated by helicopter.

ANALYSIS: (Duncan)

1. The outfitter involved in the accident. had been operating on the Nenana for ten years without serious incident. The female guide on the victim's raft was new to Alaska, but had had previous rowing experience with other commercial outfitters in the Lower 48.

2. Commercial outfitters operating in the area seldom see the low flows because they occur right after spring breakup or in the late fall. These are times of very low commercial demand. This could have caused the guide to take a less-than-optimum line.

3. The outfitter dressed their clients in thermal suits with added flotation. It’s doubtful that any additional safety gear would have prevented these deaths, as the victims were retained by the hydraulic for some time.