Seward physician recounts ordeal on the Koyukuk

Posted: Monday, June 16, 2003

ANCHORAGE - Rounding a bend on the river, Blake Stanfield saw a solid sheet of ice ahead. There was no way to turn the cataraft around in the rushing current that thrust the Seward doctor and his father toward the 2-foot-high white wall.

The right pontoon slammed against the ice, flipping the raft upside down and under the slab.

It's all a chaotic memory for the men now, flashes of tumbling in bone-chilling water, knocking their heads against the ice bottom, gasping at a thin pocket of air.

Most of all, Stanfield said, was the certainty of approaching death.

"It was sheer panic," he said Friday of the harrowing experience on the north fork of the Koyukuk River north of the Arctic Circle. "All you see is that you're going under this sheet of ice, and you have no idea where it ends. We were sucked under immediately."

The ordeal that began June 6 during a rafting expedition with his 65-year-old father, Neil Stanfield of Oklahoma City. The pair survived the icy river plunge, only to be stranded five days in the wilderness without food or supplies.

Father and son were rescued early Wednesday by a U.S. Army helicopter, hours after the younger Stanfield was spotted by a bush pilot making a sightseeing flight. They were bruised and scratched, exhausted and famished, but otherwise in good condition.

The trip was to have been Stanfield's birthday gift to his father, a real estate consultant. It would be just the two of them as Stanfield's pregnant wife, Shelly, stayed home with their 14-month old son, Heath.

The plan was to be dropped off at the north fork of the Koyukuk, about 200 miles northwest of Fairbanks. They would spend a week floating 90 miles of winding river, eventually taking the middle fork to the town of Bettles.

The Stanfields set off that Friday under clear skies and temperatures in the 70s. It was so warm under Alaska's intense summer sun that Blake Stanfield wore only shorts and a T-shirt, no shoes. His father wore a T-shirt, long-johns, waist-high waders and boots. Both wore lifejackets.

A few hours after launching their gear and raft, they encountered the sheet of ice, which stretched about 30 yards. After being plunged below, they resurfaced through a break in the ice, gulping air, before the swift current swept them under again at least 100 yards, by Stanfield's estimation.

This time there was no air space between ice and water.

"I thought I was one or two seconds from death," Stanfield said. "I was thinking, 'Boy, this is it. What an awful way to go.' I thought of my family and how sad it would be for them. Then I popped out into open air and open water."

Stanfield quickly made his way to the bank of the 50-foot-wide river. But his father, clutching an oar, was carried downstream.

Stanfield sprinted barefoot along the bank until he got ahead of his father, who had stopped on an icy ridge in the river. Stanfield grabbed a dead spruce pole and held it out until the older man caught it.

By the time he reached shore, Neil Stanfield was shivering uncontrollably from the cold. His son urged him to keep moving and led him from the marshy shore to drier ground.

Blake Stanfield built a fire with a windproof, water-resistant lighter in his pocket, which also held a small folding knife, lip balm and two family photos. As his father warmed himself, Stanfield hiked up a hill to scan the river below for the raft. There it was, upside down at the far side of the river, surrounded by icy patches and a raging current.

The next morning, Stanfield told his father he had to go for help before he got too weak. He wore his father's long johns and boots, leaving his father with the waders and neoprene socks.

Ideally, he would have hiked to Bettles. He got a good start, passing a grizzly bear and "the biggest black bear I've ever seen." But by Sunday morning, he had hiked at least 20 miles before he ran up against the confluence of the Koyukuk and Tinayguk rivers.

"That was as far as I could go," Stanfield said. "It was just uncrossable."

Thus began several days of waiting and worrying about his father.

Tuesday evening, local bush pilot Dirk Nikisch spotted the younger Stanfield while flying sightseers over the area. He returned with a neighbor, Bernie Hicker, to help drop a radio and food to Stanfield, who radioed back.

"He sounded very happy he had someone to talk to," Hicker said. "Then he told us about his father. We looked for him for quite a long time before we found him."

The men dropped food, a tent and a sleeping bag to the elder Stanfield. Nikisch also supplied the coordinates that enabled the Army helicopter to retrieve the Stanfields early the next morning.

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