Capital City Fire/Rescue personnel respond to a overturned canoe at Mendenhall Lake on Friday, July 20, 2018. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Capital City Fire/Rescue personnel respond to a overturned canoe at Mendenhall Lake on Friday, July 20, 2018. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Five passengers safe after canoe flips at glacier

Guides acted quickly to salvage situation, responders say

As part of their honeymoon, Adam and Gianna Kersch took a canoe tour to the Mendenhall Glacier on Friday afternoon.

They were part of a group of five passengers on the Liquid Alaska Tours canoe, with two guides at the helm. The sunny day was perfect for pictures and sightseeing, but the conditions on the water took a dangerous turn at around 1 p.m.

A strong wind came off the glacier as they returned toward shore, Adam Kersch recalled, and without warning the canoe flipped.

“All of a sudden, we were in the water,” Kersch said.

The water was shockingly cold, Kersch said, but the guides acted quickly. They flipped the canoe back to its upright position and started bailing water out as rapidly as they could and started pulling people back into the canoe.

The passengers got back in the canoe one by one, starting to paddle as people in the water kicked their legs to help propel the boat toward shore. Kersch, visiting from Davis, California, said he was the last one brought back into the boat and the frigid water was starting to make it difficult for him to breathe.

“The guides were phenomenal,” Kersch said. “They were just really great at directing us. And then after that, it was just thinking, ‘How long is it going to be before we get to shore? How much longer am I going to have to be in the water?’”

One of the guides called 911, and responders got on their way. U.S. Forest Service Officer Dave Zuniga was the first person to the scene, and talked to people from another tour company, Alaska Travel Adventures.

Zuniga said the people at ATA didn’t hesitate at all and sent a boat out to try and help the imperiled canoers. By the time the ATA boat arrived out there, Zuniga said, the guides had already gotten the canoe back on shore and the people all safely out of the water.

“They did a great job,” Zuniga said of the guides.

The two guides declined interview requests afterward as they continued to take care of the passengers.

The ATA boat brought the canoers safely back to the West Glacier trailhead parking lot, where Zuniga and Capital City Fire/Rescue waited to provide medical treatment. CCFR personnel wrapped the passengers in blankets and gave them hand-warmers once they were on the beach and even took one woman into an ambulance to monitor her condition.

Nobody ended up having to go to the hospital, CCFR Assistant Chief Tod Chambers said at the scene, as they were all shivering but not severely injured. Chambers and Zuniga both said it’s been a long time since they’ve seen a boat overturn near the glacier.

“Everything worked smoothly today,” Zuniga said. “ATA was able to respond without incident and they were already on the way back by the time the fire department launched their boat. Everything worked out great.”


• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at 523-2271 or amccarthy@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @akmccarthy.


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