Haines paddlers say dry suits, satellite phone may have been difference between life and death

Three peopole hold their paddles and pose in front of a small cabin in front of some mountains
Kayla Shutes (left), Shannon Stevens and Erik Stevens have rafted most weekends this summer around the Chilkat Valley (Erik Stevens)

A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter crew rescued three Haines paddlers on Sunday along the Tsirku River, east of Klukwan in Southeast Alaska.

One of the paddlers said dry suits and a satellite phone may have made the difference between life and death.

The group had planned to spend a beautiful three-day weekend packrafting. They took a helicopter ride to explore the Tsirku Glacier, near the Canadian border.

“Then we had a long, long float out, most of the Tsirku River,” said paddler Erik Stevens. “And the vast majority of it was really just perfect — spectacular scenery, and the river was great. It was clean. We were having a really great time.”

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But on day three of the trip, just as they were at the end, things began to unravel.

“I mean, we were within one minute of making it to the car,” said Stevens. “At the speed the river was flowing, we would’ve been to the car in one minute if we hadn’t hit trouble at that spot.”.

Stevens was in a one-man raft. His sister, Shannon, and his girlfriend, Kayla Shutes, were in inflatable kayaks. As they approached the end of the Little Salmon River, there was a blind corner, but Stevens said he’d run this part of the river before.

“I probably should have gotten out on the other side of the river and really taken care to scout out that blind corner, but I was too complacent, didn’t do that,” he said. “So we floated around the corner and were really surprised to find a very, very strong, very fast current from the Tsirku was coming at us sideways and pushing directly into some cliffs and forming a big whirlpool and a big rapid there.”

He made it through the rapids. But his sister flipped.

Shutes said he tried to help her, but then she got sucked into a strainer — a fallen tree that can be a deadly river hazard. In moments, the two women scrambled to the cliffs and surfaced about 100 feet apart. Stevens made it to a sand bar across the river.

“At this point, Shannon was screaming,” he said. “And I thought she was drowning. It sounded like she was drowning, or about to be sucked under a log. So I was just running — not running, because I was dragging a 60-pound boat upstream. I was going as fast as I could to try to get up there and see if I could help.”

A screen grab from the Coast Guard video shows Kayla Shutes where she is stranded, holding on to the cliffs (Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)

The two women couldn’t see each other. Stevens yelled across, and through the roar of the rapids was able to shout and let them know they were both alive.

“They were basically clinging to a steep hillside with cliffs around them, and they couldn’t go uphill because it was too steep. They tried that, and they would just slide back down into the river. And they couldn’t go side to the side because it was just sheer cliff on either side, and deep water and rapids. So they were just stuck,” he said.

Shutes lost her paddle, so it was nearly impossible to maneuver her kayak. Shannon Stevens’ kayak was stuck upside down in the log jam and getting thrashed by the current, which carried most of their gear downstream.

Luckily, Erik Stevens said, they had a satellite phone.

They called friends for help but didn’t get an answer, and it was getting late, so he called SOS.

Stevens said he hoped it worked.

“It really seemed to me like a situation where I didn’t see how they could get the helicopter in there and get them,” he said.

A Sitka-based Coast Guard crew arrived at about 10:30 p.m. in an MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter. A rescue swimmer first lifted Stevens to safety.

But getting the two women proved more difficult.

“The helicopter is trying to get in close enough to the bank but there’s steep overhanging trees, and there’s dead fall and the rotor wash is so strong it was knocking chunks of trees down,” said Stevens. “There were dead branches falling all around the girls. I mean it was very, very dangerous, very chaotic.”

Stevens said the rescuer later told the group he had to swim ashore through the river and described climbing up the bank.

“He said he was just praying there was some solid land over there because everything was just crumbling,” he said.

The three were transported to the Haines Airport, where friends were waiting. Though cold and shaken, they weren’t injured.

“It was just a huge relief,” Stevens said.

Stevens said they were lucky and well prepared, all wearing dry suits and helmets. He said the biggest lesson was to have a satellite phone on your person, not in a boat that could be swept away.

The marker shows where the Little Salmon River meets the Tsirku River (via Google Maps)

Though the Little Salmon River might have been a familiar and easy float in past years, he urged everyone to avoid it right now because of the currents at the confluence with the Tsirku River.

“The rest of the Tsirku is probably fine,” Stevens said. “You know, if you were going to that spot from the main Tsirku, you’d probably go right around it and not even notice it. But it’s coming in from the Little Salmon, that’s the problem.”

The three paddlers are hope to recover their camping gear and boats. They’re asking anyone who might see anything wash ashore to get in touch. But, Stevens said, it’ll be a while until he gets back on the water again.