The River Incident of 1982

I wrote this a few years ago for some of my pilot friends. Ryan and KJ said I should share it with the Truth Squad. It’s a lesson in stupidity and arrogance (mine) as well as skill and bravery (not mine). Chuck has now retired from his real estate business. If anyone knows him, please pass along my thanks again.

I just made a phone call to a man I met only once, in 1982.

I tracked him down through the FAA Airman Database, then put some Google magic on it, and found him in Colorado. We had not talked since that September day 28 years ago, but I've thought of him often, and as we approach Christmas, and I'm enjoying the wonder of a 10-month old granddaughter, I wanted to thank him for saving my life. 

Without him, five people would have died that day.

I was the brand-new editor of Alaska magazine -- had been there a few months -- when I got a call from someone who was going to run Devil's Canyon on the Susitna River in a jet boat and did I want to ride along.

I called Jim Rearden, the outdoor editor of Alaska magazine. Jim had been in the state for decades and knew every inch of it through his work with Alaska Fish and Game.

"Don't even set foot in that boat," said Jim.  

But, this young guy from Washington State (his family owned the boat company) had run tough rivers all over the country, so like the 31-year old fool that I was, I agreed to go.

Along with the driver and me were the driver's father and sister, and a reporter from the Anchorage Times. We Rivermet in Talkeetna, to launch the boat for the hour-run up the Susitna River to the rapids at Devil's Canyon. A friend of the boat driver decided to hire a local helicopter company to take him up to watch the run. A local TV crew hitched a ride in the Jet Ranger.

As the pilot of the chopper was walking to the helicopter, the owner of the outfit called to him, telling him to hook up a cargo net -- just in case.

As planned, we rendezvoused on a sand bar just downstream of the rapids. The chopper sat down there, and after the boat driver refueled from drums, the pilot -- Chuck Leathers -- called us all over for a little pow-wow.

"Now, I know that no one is going into the water," he said, "but just in case, here's what we will do. You guys in the back of the chopper, you'll have to reach out and unhook the bungee cords holding the net onto that shelf. Drop the net to the INSIDE, so it hangs directly below the chopper, not over the skid.

"If you are in the water, we'll just drag the net over, and you can just hang on while we drag you to shore. But, we aren't going to need that, of course."

Ten minutes later the helicopter was hovering above the nastiest piece of water you've ever seen, and we were approaching it in the boat. This is a bad stretch (it had never been run), and to make it worse, it was at flood stage. (Yes, I'm stupid.) We rounded a curve and came face-to-face with a 10-foot standing wave, which was about like a waterfall. The driver powered back while we looked at it. We held power against the swift (25 mph) current, looking for a path. Within seconds, the hydraulic backflow had caught the boat, and it was drifting to the standing wave. Greg (the driver) hammered 350hp of jet engine to get us out of there, but it was too late.

The video from the helicopter is almost comical. It's lightly raining, and there is mist forming on the camera lens. You can see the boat "hovering" below this wall of water, and the cameraman makes one swipe on the lens to clean it. When his hand comes away (less than two seconds), there is no boat. Just an empty river. Three or four beats later, the bow of the boat pops up like a whale breaching, makes a 90-degree pivot, and slips below the water. It was never found. 

Two more beats and you see little objects popping to the surface. That's us in the water.

I was in the rear of the boat, shooting photos (of course). We were all wearing life jackets, and I was wearing wool pants, shirt, and jacket. When we hit the wall (or it hit us), I spun to put my back to the wall, and as I did, I saw the windshield explode, rip off, and smash me into the railing at the rear of the boat.

Then, I was in the water, tumbling over and over and over, thinking, "Oh sh**, oh sh**, oh sh**." The water was about 40 degrees, full of glacial silt, moving incredibly fast. At the time, I was a no-kidding really good swimmer and SCUBA diver, and I could make no progress trying to get to the bank. 

Oh, did I mention that we were in a gorge, and there were steep, vertical walls on both sides? 

I had my camera bag over one shoulder and across my chest. I could not get rid of it. As I was swept away, I put my feet downstream to fend off boulders, but the water was so high I didn't hit any. I was going so fast that I didn't ride over the standing waves, but just punched through them. It was only seconds, and I was getting cold, fast.

Strange what your mind does.  My wristwatch was a Rolex Submariner I had gotten for high school graduation in 1969. The band came unclasped in the violence of the sinking, so as I'm being pummeled and swept into Alaska, I reach over and fasten it back on my wrist!  The continuous thrashing unclasps it again, and it is flopping around loosely on my left wrist, so in the middle of this maelstrom, I reach over, take off the watch, and put it into my pants pocket.

Go figure.

To add to the adventure, I was extremely nearsighted and lost my glasses as I was slammed out of the end of the boat, so I could see nothing clearly farther than my elbow.

About this time, I become aware of the sound of the helicopter above. I rolled over on my back (Hey, I was just along for the ride at that point), and saw this big, beautiful bird above me. Chuck dragged the cargo net to me, and I grabbed it for all my life. He picked me out of the water, but I could barely hang on. Wet, heavy clothes, a camera bag full of gear and water, and ice-cold fingers made it nearly impossible. I wanted to let go, but I couldn't see what was below me -- water or rocks?! When I felt myself being dragged through the water again, I let go, and found myself in a back eddy, next to a tiny sand bar (5 feet across). 

I crawled onto the rocks and sat against the rock wall as the helicopter pulled up and went away. 

Only the sounds of rushing water were heard. I couldn't see anyone else. I was trapped between the rock wall I knew I couldn't climb, and the frigid rushing water I knew I couldn't survive. And, hypothermia was just around the corner. We were 40 miles from Talkeetna. But, the helicopter pilot knew where I was.

Even that didn't look good, because there did not appear to be room for him to pick me up.  I was almost against the wall, and it looked like there would not be room for the rotors. I was afraid I'd have to get back into the river for him to be able to get me.

A half-hour passed, and I heard the chopper return. Chuck Leathers (a name right out of central casting) stuck one skid on the sand bar, the rotors nearly cutting leaves from the bushes growing out of the walls, and I dived into the open door.

I was the only person in the aircraft other than Chuck. As he lifted off, he yelled back to me, "HOW MANY PEOPLE WERE IN THAT BOAT?"

"FIVE!" I hollered.

"THEN WE GOT THEM ALL."

One by one, Chuck had pulled each person to the side of the river, dropping them off, and then headed downstream to get another. As we were flushed down this horizontal waterfall, he flew his helicopter between skyscrapers of granite, delicately plucking us from sure death.

The others were banged worse than I, but none had serious injuries. 

I'm glad I was able to find Chuck and have a nice conversation with him. He's a real estate agent in Dillon, Colorado, and he now flies as a private pilot (fixed-wing). 

As I watched my granddaughter crawl around the floor and thought about how much I have enjoyed life since September of 1982, it seemed appropriate to thank the man who made it possible.

Thank you, Chuck Leathers. You'll always be a hero to me. ~ Tom

Tom Gresham
Author, outdoorsman, gun rights activist, and firearms enthusiast for more than five decades, Tom Gresham hosts Tom Gresham's Gun Talk, the first nationally-syndicated radio show about guns and the shooting sports, and is also the producer and co-host of the Guns & Gear, GunVenture and First Person Defender television series.