Seventy-one-year-old Russ Bevans from Eagles Landing along the Yentna River has a special reason to be thankful this holiday season. He is alive, and he owes it to the hard-headed persistence of a friend who would not allow the Alaska wilderness to kill Bevans.
On Monday, Bevans was snowmachining with 65-year-old neighbor Dave Luce when both sunk their snowmachines in a slough along the river. What followed was a grim ordeal to survive.
Long in the country and expert in the ways of winter travel, Luce knew that with the snowmachines sunk, and the survival gear they carried gone with them, the men had to keep moving until they found shelter. They were both soaked to their armpits. The temperature was 33 degrees fahrenheit. Snow mixed with rain was pouring out of the sky.
Luce was wishing he'd never left the popular lodge he runs about eight miles up the Yentna from the Susitna River confluence. It is a warm, comfortable place with a nice bar popular with snowmachiners, fat-tire winter bicyclists and the occasional dog musher.
"I feel foolish," Luce said from there by telephone Wednesday night. "I got talked into going downriver with a neighbor."
Luce had reservations about the trip. Winter was young and the ice on the Yentna was questionable, as it always is this time of year. On top of that, a massive push of warm air had swept across the state, bringing a thaw and rain to the Yentna and Susitna river valleys. But Luce figured that if he didn't go along with Bevans, the older man might go by himself.
So they hopped on their Skidoos and made the seven and a half mile run to Scary Tree, a snag on an island in the delta where the Yentna and Susitna join, to check trail conditions. The trail was fine to that point, Luce said. And that led the men to make a fateful decision to head west and check out what Luce calls the "cutoff trail." It was a bad move.
"I fell through the drink," Luce said.
When Bevans circled around to try to get to Luce to help him, his snowmachine also broke through the ice.
"You don't know what a sinking feeling it is to sit on a snowmachine going down," Luce said. Both quickly slipped out of sight beneath the water. The men themselves were lucky to be able to haul out onto firm ice.
"Then we had to hoof it about seven and a half miles to fish camp," Luce said, "and Russ is not in good shape. It took us 15 hours to go seven and a half miles."
'Keep moving to stay warm'
The snowmachines went in the water at 1 p.m. The two men reached the nearest cabin at 3 a.m. For Luce, the hike was painfully slow. For Bevans, it was just painful.
But there was no choice.
With their survival gear sunk, with no way to start a fire in the cold, and their clothes wet, the men could walk to shelter or they could wait to die of hypothermia.
"I kept telling (Bevans) we had to keep moving to stay warm," Luce said. He would walk 100 feet, stop, turn and urge Bevans on. Luce remembers repeating over and "c'mon, c'mon, let's go. Russ c'mon. We gotta keep going."
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