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Out Alive: Caught by a Strainer

A kayaker struggles to stay afloat when a tangle of trees pins her boat.

The Victim Judy Joiner, 59, fights for her life on August 20, 2011, in Alaska’s Gates of the Arctic National Park.

I only lost control for an instant, but the fast-moving water swung my boat sideways and within seconds, the current glued me to a submerged barrier of downed trees. I was living every kayaker’s nightmare: a bramble of branches or a fallen tree (aka a strainer) acts like a sieve, trapping a boat as building water pressure pushes it underwater—sometimes with the boater still inside. Within seconds, most of my 13-foot inflatable kayak—and half my body—was immersed in the 55°F river. Would the current trap me against the wall of 2-inch-thick branches? My mind reeled. Am I going to die?

About a week earlier, my husband Ralph and I joined two friends, Barb and Henry, for a 10-day trip of a lifetime along a remote stretch of the Koyukuk River, deep in Alaska’s Brooks Range. A ranger at Gates of the Arctic National Park warned us the river was running high and fast, but we weren’t fazed. We had chosen the Koyukuk because of its “family friendly” reputation. Though we expected to encounter swiftwater on our 113-mile route, the river’s average drop is fewer than 8 feet per mile—nothing compared to 30- to 50-foot-per-mile whitewater runs—so we expected plenty of lazy-river-style paddling.

On day one, we realized we’d underestimated the wet summer’s impact on the current. Within hours of setting out, Barb and Henry’s canoe capsized and they lost both their paddles. (Luckily, they had one spare and we were able to jury-rig a second out of driftwood.) Their scary swim was a wake-up call for all of us; we grew anxious about unanticipated rapids, the fast-moving flow, and our route’s remoteness. But over the next week, we navigated the river’s upper reaches conservatively, with few incidents.

On day eight my luck changed. I was eyeing two paths around a small island and veered toward one with the hidden strainer. As I realized my mistake, the river sucked me toward the blockage. Within seconds, I broadsided it. I thought my limbs would get stuck in the loosely spaced branches if I climbed atop the strainer, so instead of trying that standard escape tactic, I grabbed a bough overhead and hoped that I could pull my boat from the tangle. I leaned hard to the kayak’s high side, trying to keep the upstream edge from getting pushed under, but I was no match for the force of the current. Within seconds, my legs were almost completely submerged.

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