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Two men and two women were rescued from Herbert River early this morning after their raft overturned and stranded them on an island.
The women were 19 and 18 years old; both men were 21.
"I talked to one of the women. They were pretty quiet, pretty happy to be alive," said Bruce Bowler of Southeast Alaska Dogs Organized for Ground Search, who went to the scene with another handler to help. "It's a tossup whether it was a handler, the dog or the handler's wife who actually spotted them first."
The four hikers walked in Sunday almost to the face of Herbert Glacier, about five miles east of Eagle Beach, Bowler said.
"Heavy rain had raised Herbert River until there wasn't any trail any more," he said. "They had to fight their way through Devil's club working strictly with headlamps. It was pretty ugly out there."
At the end of their hike, they inflated a raft they had carried in and began floating down the river. However, the raft dumped them about 7 p.m. when they were halfway down the river.
"They ended up washing ashore on a heavily wooded island. After they warmed up, they realized there was no way out, because the river was flowing so fast," Bowler said.
One of the men, Mark Griffith, a member of Juneau's amateur radio club, had his portable radio with him and called for help.
"We have a repeater at Lena Point, so Griffith was able to get into the phone system," said Bob Simpson of the club.
Meanwhile, the foursome tore apart their life jackets and used what was left of their raft to insulate themselves from the ground, Bowler said. They cuddled up for warmth on the shore of the heavily wooded island, only 3 feet above the river water rushing past.
A call for help came into Capital City Fire & Rescue at 3:54 a.m. Two vehicles - one rescue truck and one pickup truck with a boat - were dispatched to the nearby Windfall Lake trailhead.
"The fire department had to carry their boat in two and a half miles until they could see the people," Bowler said.
"It was a lot of work; we hammered," said Erik Goldsberry, water rescue coordinator for Capital City, "but just as we were assembling our boat, the Coast Guard showed up and took over."
State troopers, TEMSCO helicopters, five members of the Juneau Mountain Rescue team and the U.S. Coast Guard joined the rescue effort, said Petty Officer Roger Wetherell. A helicopter dropped survival suits about 5 a.m. to keep the waiting four warm.
The Coast Guard could not find a place to land a helicopter on the island, so just after daybreak they picked up the survivors one at a time by lowering a basket, Bowler said.
Medics checked out the four and they were brought to the Glacier Fire Station just before 8 a.m. and released. They could not be reached for comment this morning.
Goldsberry warned local residents of the hazards of rafting: "Water conditions are extremely high right now, and Herbert River should only be attempted by someone who knows what they are doing."
Ann Chandonnet can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.