Weyhrauch expresses gratitude after ordeal

Former legislator describes his frigid fight for survival

Posted: Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Former Rep. Bruce Weyhrauch survived more than just cold water when he fell off his boat and spent the night lost on Coghlan Island.

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On Tuesday he described the clouds of mosquitoes, the misery of wet cotton, the confusion of hypothermia and the resolve that kept him alive.

"In the middle of the night, when you're wracked with chills, it's intense," Weyhrauch said. "You have to know that all things work to good.

"You have to live. You have to have attitude. You can't give up."

The 54-year-old former two-term Juneau representative was rescued Monday on the eastern side of an island that's visible from his house. He swam there after slipping on oil and falling off his boat into 43-degree waters at about 6 p.m. Sunday.

The U.S. Coast Guard launched an overnight search, and Weyhrauch was found at about 11 a.m. Monday by a team of volunteers with a chocolate Lab.

Weyhrauch and a Coast Guard official credit his Mustang float coat for keeping him alive through the ordeal.

"It's always good to have the proper flotation device," Coast Guard Petty Officer Jeremy Dawkins said. "He had his float coat on, and that's pretty much what saved him. ... It's always important to make sure you have the right size for everybody on board, and that you have it on when you're on your vessel."

A Juneau attorney and married father of three, Weyhrauch has been a boater and advocate of boating safety for years. As a state representative, he helped push through a boating safety bill that required registering boats in a government database.

When the Coast Guard was alerted to Weyhrauch's empty skiff in Auke Bay on Sunday evening, they were able to determine it was his by checking the numbers on the Alaska registration.

"You never think you're going to need those boating safety skills," Weyhrauch said. "I was within view of Fritz Cove Road and Auke Bay, but I needed to use those skills."

Weyhrauch said he still felt sore Tuesday as he described his ordeal. Swimming was difficult in the bulky float coat, and the frigid waters made his legs go numb. He was cold the moment he fell out of the skiff.

"You're freezing right away," he said. "The key thing is, you can't panic. You can't. If you do, you might as well forget it."

He quickly decided that he would swim to the island instead of waiting for a passing boater. He struggled to get to shore and could barely move by the time he did.

"I got pushed up on the beach by a wave surge," he said. "I couldn't walk. Then I had to make a decision to go into the woods to get warm or stay on the beach and wait for a pickup.

"At that moment, getting warm sounded better than waiting. So I moved into the woods. I got into the trees and the muskeg and the moss and curled up on the ground and shivered. I stayed in a tight ball until morning. There were a lot of mosquitoes, so they were keeping me awake."

In a fog of hypothermia, he took off his shoes and socks. He can't remember why, he said. When day broke, he went back to the beach to search for help. One party apparently took him for an outdoorsman on a camping trip.

"I waved at a passing motorist, who waved back," Weyhrauch said. "They kept going. It was understandable. I would have done the same thing."

Completely spent, he lay down on the beach and rested. He would get up, then lie down, looking for help. At about 11 a.m., he saw SEADOGS volunteers Kirk Radach and Stacey Poulson and dog Ki approaching him. He can't remember all the details of the rescue, saying the hypothermia put him in "a time warp."

"They huddle around you to warm you," he said. "Then the Coast Guard puts you in a wool cocoon, straps you into something. My eyes were closed."

He was transported to Bartlett Regional Hospital for treatment.

Safe at home on Tuesday, Weyhrauch expressed his appreciation for the community support. It was deeply moving, he said.

"I'm very grateful to the SEADOGS and the Coast Guard and my family and friends and everybody that brought over food and prayed," Weyhrauch said. "It's humbling."

• Ken Lewis can be reached at ken.lewis@juneauempire.com.

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