Former UAS student president drowns while fishing

Coate dies while attempting to swim across Thorne River

Posted: Thursday, June 22, 2006

A 28-year-old former Juneau man drowned Tuesday evening while attempting to stretch a fishing net across the Thorne River on Prince of Wales Island.

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Toby Coate, the student body president at the University of Alaska Southeast for the 2004-2005 school year, was pronounced dead at 6:45 p.m. after attempts at resuscitation failed.

Coate, a 1996 graduate of Juneau-Douglas High School, had been living in Thorne Bay. He and his wife, Emily Bell Coate, had teamed with Thorne Bay Wood Products, a local mill, to start Goose Creek Log Cabins. The company builds three sizes of log cabin kits, using kiln-dried logs.

"He was a great addition to the community on Prince of Wales Island," said UAS Chancellor John Pugh, whose son also lives on the island. "They'll miss somebody like that, who was already making great contributions to the community and the businesses on the island."

Coate was attempting to swim across the Thorne River with a net Tuesday night. Witnesses said he went under the surface once, came back up for air, went under again and never resurfaced, said Greg Wilkinson, a spokesman for the Alaska State Troopers.

"He succumbed to the cold temperature of the water, got tired and released the net," Wilkinson said.

His friends entered the river, found his body and pulled him back to shore. Alaska State Troopers were notified at 6:07 p.m. Coate was pronounced dead at 6:45 p.m. by Dr. Alyce Garrity, a staff physician at the SouthEast Alaska Regional Health Consortium's Alicia Roberts Medical Center in Klawock.

Coate was born and raised in Juneau. He's the son of Ken and Barb Coate. His two sisters, Amanda and Katy, also live in town.

Coate married Bell, a UAS education student from Paris, Ill., on Jan. 8 in Coffman Cove. They met at the university and celebrated their wedding reception April 30 in Juneau.

"They were such a vibrant couple," said Tish Griffin-Sartre, UAS director of student services. Griffin-Sartre has been working on a square for the couple's marriage quilt. "He's just an Alaska spirit-of-adventure kind of guy. I was so excited for him to find a woman who wanted to share his enthusiasm with him in remote Alaska."

He started commercial fishing when he was 13 and began working in construction when he was 15. He graduated from Juneau-Douglas High School in 1996.

Coate enrolled at UAS in 2002 and started working toward his bachelor's degree in marine biology with a minor in business. He served as a student senator for three semesters and was a teaching assistant for the school's humanities 120 course. He was the organizer of Baptist Christian Ministry, a bible study club at UAS.

"His first love was being out fishing at 3 in the morning, so he tended to be out there doing that a lot," said Ben Shier, one of Coate's friends. "Then he had to juggle school and student government and our campus Bible study. I don't think he got a lot of sleep. He had a lot of passion for leading the college kids on campus."

Shier met Coate four years ago, when Baptist Campus Ministry was formed. The group has ranged from an average of 20 members to 40 or 60 on some evenings.

Shier served as the group's worship leader, and he and Coate later decided to run together for student government. Coate was elected the student body president for the 2004-2005 school year. Shier was elected vice president.

"(Toby) was one of the best student body presidents in the 19 years that I've been there," Pugh said. "He always looked for the best in people and worked through tough problems with them. He always seemed to come out with good outcomes because of that."

"He was definitely a charismatic leader that made it exciting to follow," Shier said. "A lot of us would look at a situation and say, we don't see the possibilities. That's all he was - possibilities."

Coate went to Thorne Bay and Coffman Cove to help build a church last year and was recruited by the U.S. Forest Service to work in facilities management for the Thorne Bay Ranger District. He worked there during the 2005 season.

Coate continued to study construction management through UAS, but ended that last winter to get married and relocate permanently to Thorne Bay. A licensed contractor, Coate opened Goose Creek Log Cabins with his wife.

• Korry Keeker can be reached at

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