Bystander Jumps in to Save Kayaker’s Life at Perilous Six Mile Creek in Alaska

Bowen Xiao
By Bowen Xiao
August 18, 2017US News
Bystander Jumps in to Save Kayaker’s Life at Perilous Six Mile Creek in Alaska
(Screenshot via Alaska Dispatch News)

Kayaking expert Obadiah Jenkins was celebrating his Birthday at the 10th edition of the Six Mile Creek Whitewater and Bluegrass Festival on Saturday, Aug. 12, and had no plans to participate in his hobby this time around.

“I didn’t bring a kayak, paddle or spray deck and I haven’t done much boating lately,” he told Alaska Dispatch News. “It was my 33rd birthday, and I had planned to just watch the events.”

But his friends then suggested he celebrate by doing what he loves—kayaking—and soon enough, others got him the gear.

Flanked by 6 other experts, Jenkins did a practice run down the first canyon, rated Class IV. Class I is the least dangerous—moving water with small waves—while Class VI is the opposite—extreme “un-runnable” rivers or waterfalls which only the most experienced should attempt.

The Class IV whitewater route Jenkins was on include strong rapids, narrow passages, and turbulent waters, that require precision and skill to maneuver.

The paddlers, however, did not know someone else was only a few minutes behind them—64-year-old Daniel Hartung from Indian Valley. Hartung was in a recreational kayak, designed for calm water such as lakes. He was also wearing a bicycle helmet and chest waders, with were both not suited for the rapids, although he did have a personal flotation device.

It wasn’t long before Hartung got into trouble as he passed through the Six Mile, which has cost several boaters their lives over the years. His kayak hit a partially submerged rock and the boat flipped, dumping him in the water.

After being swept toward a canyon wall and over a drop he plunged feet-first into a slot and became stuck by a submerged log across the top of his legs. The wood held him as the river’s water pounded him from behind, flowing over his head, often bending him at the waist.

James Bennett, who managed to record the ordeal, said he was on a cliff watching the scene when he saw Hartung floating downriver. He shouted to the group that there was a swimmer in danger.

That was the moment when Jenkins grabbed a throw bag (a floating sack used in rescue situations) and ran over the canyon wall and down to a ledge directly above where Hartung was stuck. He dropped a rope down to Hartung, who was able to hang on and keep his body in a vertical position.

“I was draped over the log like a C,” Hartung told Alaska Dispatch News. “It was encouraging to see the rope and know that people were there responding.”

Others soon gathered to help Jenkins pull Harting out but his leg was tightly wedged underwater. Hartung had been stuck for more than 5 minutes and the torrent of cold water was making his body weak.

“The more I struggled, the more my head went lower. At first, I could keep my head up and breathe, but then it became difficult to catch a breath,” Hartung told Alaska Dispatch.

Jenkins, entrusting the rope to others grabbed another rope and jumped down the ledge to the Kayaker. He planned to try and free his leg. Hartung, with all his strength sapped, then let go of the rope, his body doubled over, facedown in the water and remaining stuck.

Knowing that Hartung was now fully submerged, Jenkins jumped into the river while still wearing his dry suit.

“My brain went into automatic mode, and I knew that if I didn’t act immediately, we would be recovering a body,” Jenkins said.

Seconds later Jenkins and Hartung emerged from the water, floating freely, the log floated up behind them.

“As others helped pull us from the river,” Jenkins recounted, “Daniel was not breathing and had no pulse.”

A crew of kayakers took turns resuscitating him where his pulse eventually came back and started breathing.

On Monday Hartung was safely back in time at Indian Valley. Jenkins also returned to his farm in Homer. To thank his rescuer for saving his life, Hartung invited him to dinner.

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