People can see all sorts of things through the telescopes in the observatory room of the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center: an up-close view of the glacier, icebergs on the glacier-fed lake and wildlife roaming the mountainsides.
What one person saw on Friday saved a life.
An unidentified tourist, who is now being described as an “angel,” happened to be scanning Mendenhall Lake through a telescope — and saw a man flip over in his kayak and splash into the lake. The tourist informed a visitor center employee, who instantly recognized it as an emergency and informed her boss, who called 911.
“I was just going around talking to visitors when one man just came to me and said, ‘Hey, I see a kayaker that has flipped over in the lake,’” Nicole Tyra, a Visitor Center employee, said in an interview Tuesday. “I immediately rushed to the scope, tried to find him and saw exactly that: one person in the kayak, and another person in the water.”
Because the tourist witnessed the incident and reported it immediately, Capital City Fire/Rescue was able to reach the man in the water, Robert Eison Sharclane, just in time. It turned out that Sharclane was unable to get back into his kayak since it was taking on water and sinking, and he was unable to make it to shore from where he was in the middle of the lake.
The 39-year-old father from Juneau, who was kayaking with his 7-year-old son at the time, was just beginning to black out from the onset of hypothermia when CCFR pulled him from the frigid 37-degree water.
“I was deciding what my last words were going to be to my son,” he said. “Those were the thoughts that were going through my mind.”
‘Wow, this is really happening’
In an interview with the Empire on Tuesday, Sharclane said the day began as a fun adventure with his 7-year-old son Eison. The father and son had planned on kayaking to the Mendenhall Glacier ice caves since it was a sunny day.
They nixed the ice cave itinerary because they ended up taking their time kayaking and going on land and exploring at every chance. They stopped near a seagull rookery and had a picnic.
On their return trek back to shore, about 5:30 p.m., they ran into trouble.
Sharclane said the wind began blowing hard after they passed a peninsula, and the water became choppy. The lake even had white-capped waves.
“I was very surprised at the weather on the lake,” he said, noting that he hikes around the area all the time and the water always appears as smooth as glass on sunny days. “I expected a flat calm situation that day.”
After almost tipping a few times, a gust of wind and a wave hit him simultaneously. It probably wouldn’t have been a problem except that Sharclane, at 6’3” and 236 pounds, was in a kayak that was too small for his frame. He had borrowed it from a friend and could barely fit in it, a huge mistake, he realized in hindsight.
“There was maybe an inch on either side of me; I kind of barely squeezed in it,” he said.
The effect was that the kayak was too top-heavy and tippy for him.
He began tipping over slowly from the force of the wave that crashed into him and from the wind.
“I thought, ‘Wow, this is really happening,’” he recalled.
In the water
Sharclane hit the water, and it was so shockingly cold he couldn’t breathe. Still in the kayak, he lost the glasses on his face and reached for them before they floated away.
He tried to do a practiced maneuver with his oar that would turn his kayak right-side up. It didn’t work. The kayak was filling up with water since he didn’t have a spray skirt. Later, when CCFR recovered the kayak, they found the bulkhead between the cockpit and the aft section of the kayak had blown out, which allowed a large amount of water to enter the aft section.
Sharclane managed to squeeze himself out of the kayak underwater and popped up to the surface, buoyed by his life preserver vest. He was hardly able to move due to the shock of the low water temperature, but he began immediately untying his sinking kayak from his son’s kayak. He had tethered them together earlier because his son didn’t have enough strength to battle the weather and paddle all the way back to Skater’s Cabin on his own.
What should have been an easy knot to untie — a bowline — was suddenly difficult. Sharclane had to tread water while holding up the rear end of his water-logged kayak to untie the knot, which was made even more difficult by the cold.
“My fingers weren’t cooperating,” he said.
He finally untethered the kayaks and ditched his. The wind and water carried it several hundred feet from him within minutes. He then attempted to swim to shore, which he guessed was a couple hundred yards away.
But he was also towing his son’s kayak. In his right hand, he held onto his son’s kayak with a rope, and with his left arm, he paddled. He didn’t make much headway.
“I stopped every once in a while to see if I saw anybody around,” Sharclane said. “I asked him, ‘Do you see anybody, do you see anybody?’ He was panicking and he was crying.”
Praying for help
A devout Christian, Sharclane said he prayed the entire time.
“I remember thinking, ‘God, you’re going to have to rescue me. I’m out here all alone, after swimming for a while with a lot of effort.”
There came a point when he realized the shore was too far away. He was having trouble keeping his head above water, and waves kept crashing into him and washing over his head. He began gasping involuntarily and was inhaling water. After a while, he couldn’t feel his arms or legs.
“My legs just felt like somebody was holding a blow torch to them, that’s the only way I can think to describe it,” he said. “I felt like they were on fire. It was a like a phantom type of feeling because even though I was kicking my legs, I couldn’t feel them. They had turned into dead weight.”
Soon, his life preserver was the only thing keeping him afloat. He said he felt like he wasn’t in his body anymore. He said he felt “like a shell.”
“It was getting to the point where I was looking around and I was confused with God, and I was saying, ‘Jesus, how come you haven’t rescued me yet?’ Because I felt like I had barely anything left in me. I felt so sad and I thought, ‘Please, don’t let me die in front of my son. Please don’t let him witness this’.”
Sharclane was beginning to lose his eyesight, as he described it, and was blacking out. He kicked up one last time.
“That’s when I saw that rescue boat off in the distance,” he remembered. “A dark colored rescue boat. I saw it moving pretty fast.”
He managed to tell his son to wave his paddle in the air for rescuers to see them, but there was no need. The rescuers zipped toward them and were there in a matter of seconds.
Sharclane recalled hearing the voice of one of the rescuers.
“That’s when I kind of just relaxed,” he said, “because I felt someone just grab me really strongly.”
CCFR Fire Marshal Dan Jager, who ran the rescue operation from the shore at Skater’s Cabin, estimated Sharclane had been in the water for 20 minutes by the time CCFR reached him. Sharclane had been in the middle of the lake about a mile and a half from the cabin.
“It was a bit of a boat trip to get out there,” Jager noted.
When rescuers got to him, Sharclane was so severely hypothermic he couldn’t move. Firefighter Louis Tagaban jumped in the water and helped him into the boat.
The rescue boat crew — Tagaban, Cpt. Roy Johnston, paramedic Paul Kelly and engineer Craig Brown — then took off his wet clothes and began rubbing him dry with cotton towels.
“I remember one of the guys saying, ‘I’m not trying to get fresh with you,’” Sharclane chuckled.
The towels hurt so bad, he noted, that it felt like they were scrubbing him with steel wool.
Rescuers then stood him up, placed him in a warm wool suit and inserted an IV to warm him up. An ambulance was waiting for him at the cabin, and he was rushed to Bartlett Regional Hospital.
Sharclane said at the hospital, he was placed into a plastic air blanket that pumps warm air in. Miraculously, he was healthy enough to be released from the hospital later that night.
Jager said Sharclane was incredibly lucky that CCFR got there in time.
“He’s a very lucky person,” Jager said. “A kid still has a dad.”
The Visitor Center
About 25 people were gathered in the visitor center at the time and watched the entire episode from the telescopes.
“It was a frightening moment,” said Tyra, the employee who was informed of the incident by the unknown tourist. “We were praying in the Observatory Room just hoping the rescue people would get there as fast as possible.”
Tyra and her boss, Laurie Craig, stayed on the phone with 911 dispatchers as CCFR rushed to the scene. They helped the boat get to the right location.
Tyra said it was incredible that the tourist witnessed the kayak overturn. She explained that even with the telescope, the kayak only looked like “a tiny dot” from their vantage point.
“That was absolutely miraculous,” she said. “He was an angel. We’re so lucky that he saw the person and informed me so quickly and just helped pass the word along.”
She said she never got the tourist’s name.
“I thanked him twice, and I went to thank him again, and he was gone,” she said.
Craig, the lead naturalist at the visitor center, also marvelled at circumstances leading to the 911 call.
“What are the chances that he saw that?” she asked rhetorically, adding. “Many angels at work that night, I think. That’s what someone told me, and I think that’s an apt expression.”
A cautionary tale
Sharclane is well aware of the mistakes he made on the water. He said he hopes his story can help others from getting into similar trouble.
John Neary, the director of the Visitor Center, said one important thing that can be gleaned from the story is that Mendenhall Lake can be “deceptively windy and choppy” on nice days when the sun comes out and it’s warm.
“These katabatic winds are common in glacial areas where air is cooled over the ice sheet, becomes dense, and spills into the warmer valleys below, especially in the afternoons,” Neary said. “This is quite different than what you’d expect over marine waters, for example.”
Neary also pointed out that towing another kayak is challenging even in good conditions and with familiar gear.
“The tow rope should be affixed to the towing paddler, not the towing kayak, and a quick release buckle on the towing rope pouch allows more control,” he said.
Also noteworthy, he added, is that swimming to shore may not have been the best course of action in this case since the water is so cold and thrashing accelerates heat loss.
“A much better choice is to hoist the upper body as high out of the cold water as possible onto the other kayak and await rescue, or if that is not possible, to hang on to the other craft, even affixing oneself to the rescue craft with a rope in a stable position,” he said.
Sharclane said he has limited kayaking experience. When he did kayak in Hoonah and elsewhere, he was in a wider, larger vehicle.
“A person should not go out in a kayak that they’re not very suited to,” he said.
Sharclane hates to admit it, but he had a cellphone on him the whole time. It was in a waterproof pack on his back. He simply forgot about it in the intense moments in the water.
“I just wasn’t thinking when I was in the water,” he said.
Sharclane expressed deep gratitude for the CCFR members who rescued him. Other CCFR members who helped in the rescue operation include firefighter Scott Lockie, engineer John Adams, special teams member Kim Mahar and U.S. Forest Service Officer Mike Mills.
He also thanked the visitor center employees for quickly calling 911, and for helping coordinate the rescue operation.
“I’m beyond thankful,” he said. “I can’t tell you how appreciate — I almost died. It’s been a very emotional trip for me, these last couple days.”
He said he believes it’s an act of God that an unidentified tourist happened to swing his telescope to the far left, away from the glacier, to witness the kayak flip over.
“I believe God had that guy focusing on me through that telescope,” he said. “Whether it’s an angel or a tourist, who knows?”
• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.