This is a photo of Paul Jose Rodriguez Jr. shared by a friend who said he sent the photo to her the day he was reported missing on July 11. (Courtesy / JoAnna Pilapil)

This is a photo of Paul Jose Rodriguez Jr. shared by a friend who said he sent the photo to her the day he was reported missing on July 11. (Courtesy / JoAnna Pilapil)

Safety concerns put search for body of man who drowned kayaking at Mendenhall Lake on hold

Officials waiting for release of water from ice dam, which may have killed Paul Rodriguez Jr.

The search for the body of Paul Jose Rodriguez Jr., who drowned while kayaking near the Mendenhall Glacier about two weeks ago, is on hold for what’s expected to be a few more days as officials wait for an expected release of water from an ice dam above the face of the glacier, the local supervisor of the Alaska Wildlife Troopers said Wednesday.

Rodriguez, 43, was reported missing July 11 and, following an extensive multi-agency search of Mendenhall Lake and Mendenhall River, a camera attached to a helmet that belonged to Rodriguez was found July 19 that revealed he drowned. While the search for his body continued afterward, officials are now waiting for a location known as Suicide Basin to release waters that since 2011 have periodically resulted in glacier lake outburst floods into the lake and river below.

“We’re not putting anybody downstream of that until after the release happens,” said Sgt. Robert Welch, supervisor of the Alaska Wildlife Troopers in Juneau, which is responsible for the search. “We don’t want to have the searchers in danger.”

A release is expected within a few days, based on observations from National Weather Service forecasters and U.S. Geological Survey officials monitoring the side basin, Welch said. He said it appears water flowing from the basin appears to have been what resulted in Rodriguez’s death.

“If it were anywhere else on the lake it wouldn’t really be a problem,” Welch said, referring to search efforts. “But because the feature that caused him to tip over and end up in the water itself was the river that comes out from that basin area — and so he’s right where those currents will be — any search effort will be right where all the major flow of the river will come out and enter the lake.”

A status report posted Monday at the National Weather Services’s website states “the basin level has exceeded the level at which a release occurred in 2022.”

“The basin is filling at about one meter per day with the current level approximately 429 meters,” the report notes. “From a UAS drone survey last year the top of the ice dam was around 433 meters. That value may be lower this year, but it should be close. With the rate of rise of one meter per day, water in the basin would begin to overtop the ice dam this week. The basin can begin to drain before getting to this level.”

Welch said a dive team from Anchorage equipped with a remote-operated vehicle that has sonar scan capabilities will be brought in when the search resumes.

“We’re holding out hope that there’s a possibility in being able to make a recovery, but we don’t know that that will actually happen,” he said.

• Contact Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com or (907) 957-2306.

A map shows the location of Suicide Basin above the face of the Mendenhall Glacier, which since 2011 has released glacier lake outburst floods into Mendenhall Lake and Mendenhall River. An Alaska Wildlife Troopers official said Wednesday it appears water flow from the basin caused the death of Paul Jose Rodriguez Jr., who drowned while kayaking near the glacier about two weeks ago, and officials are waiting for another expected release before resuming the search for his body for safety reasons. (Map by the National Weather Service)

A map shows the location of Suicide Basin above the face of the Mendenhall Glacier, which since 2011 has released glacier lake outburst floods into Mendenhall Lake and Mendenhall River. An Alaska Wildlife Troopers official said Wednesday it appears water flow from the basin caused the death of Paul Jose Rodriguez Jr., who drowned while kayaking near the glacier about two weeks ago, and officials are waiting for another expected release before resuming the search for his body for safety reasons. (Map by the National Weather Service)

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