By Jenny Neyman
The Slough of No Return off the main stem of the upper Kenai River almost lived up to its sinister name as a group of rafters ended up dunked and separated from one of their rafts Friday afternoon.
Anthony Murray, a fifth-year guide from Soldotna with Alaska Rivers Company in Cooper Landing, was taking a group of nine passengers on a float down the upper river Friday when he saw the aftermath of an accident at about 3:15 p.m. just above river mile 72.
He was paddling in the main stem of the Kenai about a mile and a half downriver of the Russian River confluence when he saw a group of five to seven people onshore who had clearly just been in the water. They had one 12-foot inflatable double-ended raft with them, but were missing another raft.
From what Murray saw, he thinks the group must have paddled their two rafts down the Slough of No Return, which branches left (if heading downstream) off the Kenai just downriver from Darcy’s Slough, across from Ray’s Beach.
It’s not a side trip Murray recommends.
“It’s got a very inviting, open entrance to it but then it kind of bottlenecks and turns. You could fit maybe a narrow craft down there but right now there is a cottonwood that’s lying across the entire width of it,” Murray said.
His guess is the rafts hit the tree.
“We floated by and saw everyone standing up on the shore,” he said. “I could see an upright raft on the tree and when I went down a little bit farther I could see an upside-down raft.”
One raft apparently flipped and got flushed under the tree, while the passengers were able to wrestle the other raft to shore.
Since no one still seemed to be in the water in need of rescuing, Murray paddled over to the flipped raft.
“We grabbed it and hauled it onto a beach and left it there for them,” he said.
The group piled into the raft they still had with them and floated downstream to their other raft, then pulled onshore to pick it up. Murray didn’t get a chance to talk to the rafters, but they did indicate they were all OK. There was one child with the party. Murray didn’t know if they had all been wearing life jackets.
Central Emergency Services said Saturday they hadn’t been called to respond to the accident. The weather that afternoon was cloudy with occasional light rain and temperatures in the mid-50s.
Murray said he doesn’t know why boaters would venture into the slough.
“Just to see a different part of the river, I guess,” he said.
The tree — a full-sized cottonwood about 3 feet in diameter — has been lying across the slough for at least two years now.
“There was a catamaran that got stuck underneath there last year and a drift boat got stuck there,” he said.
There aren’t any signs warning boaters of what lies ahead if they venture into the slough.
“The biggest danger is because that tree is there,” he said. “It’s a fairly deep channel. You would not want to be in the water in that because you would have a hard time getting out before the tree. At that point life jackets work against you and pin you against the tree.”
Murray estimates the channel at 9 to 12 feet across, but the tree makes the width a moot point. The bottleneck and turn in the channel makes the tree all the more dangerous because it’s hidden from view at the mouth of the slough.
“I’ve seen other people go down there,” he said. “I’ve seen other boats getting pulled over the grass. If you see it in time you can try to get over to the side and pull your boat up and out, but you just don’t have that much time to react.”
The moral for Murray is, if you don’t know, don’t go.
“If you’re going to head onto the water, call one of local rafting companies and get an update on where to go,” he said. “Or, if you don’t know, go where you see the majority of other boats going. Stick to where most of the water goes, typically that’s the safest route.”
Wearing a life jacket and bringing extra warm clothes in a dry bag are also important, Murray said.
Luckily, the incident didn’t end up being anything more severe than a cautionary tale and added excitement for Murray’s passengers.
“Yeah, it was something different,” he said. “That doesn’t happen every day. It was good to see everyone made it out.”