Coast Guard rescues stranded boaters
April 4, 2019
By Jenna Kunze
Stranded 10 miles up the Chilkat River Saturday evening with wet clothes, little food and the inky black of night rolling in, seven Haines residents used a heat-insulated sleeping bag, glow sticks and GPS device to alert recue crews and avoid a night of freezing temperatures.
Earlier that day, friends Vincent Simkin and Gary Hinkle motored their skiffs up the Chilkat River with passengers Sierra Hinkle, Brittany Miller, Caullen Taylor, Katie Torguson, Joliena Wilson and her black lab, Keta, in tow.
They leisurely boated about 17 miles upriver before turning back. “We were just taking our time and moseying through side channels, no big deal,” Simkin told the CVN this week.
Hinkle was running the boat ahead of Simkin in a lighter boat. “I went down one (channel) and Vin went down the other,” Hinkle said. “I went down to about 10 mile and when I didn’t hear his motor, I thought ‘that’s not good.’”
Simkin, Taylor and Torguson were scraping bottom in a shallow channel they couldn’t escape while dusk crept in.
“You know that the sun going down on the river is a bad deal,” Simkin said. “The best thing I could have done was to go and meet up with the other boat.”
Simkin abandoned his skiff on the sandbar and planned to retrieve it the next day. Simkin and the others piled into Hinkle’s skiff.
Hinkle’s boat hit bottom in about 10 inches of water, weighed down by the additional passengers. By this time, darkness had set in. Everyone was wet and some people were shivering, Hinkle said.
The boat lacked a headlight, and the group decided not to risk going further and potentially capsizing on a log. The friends crossed the river to a larger sandbar where they made a fire from scattered drift wood.
Hinkle contacted State Wildlife Trooper Trent Chwialkowski on his GPS inReach phone at 10 p.m.
“Look man, we need help,” Hinkle texted. Chwialkowski called the Coast Guard.
Simkin had an emergency medical bag with a heat-insulator survival sleeping bag and glow sticks. Everybody stripped their wet clothes and huddled together while they waited for the Coast Guard.
“It was controlled chaos,” Torguson said. “The guys were like ‘This is what we need to do, this is how you can help.’ We would go around in groups and keep each other warm,” Torguson said. “I cried a few times just thinking ‘What the hell, where I am right now.’”
Taylor busied himself collecting firewood with Hinkle and Keta, who loves sticks. Sierra shared her peanut butter and jelly sandwich and monster cookie from Sarah J’s Espresso Shoppe, the only food between the seven of them. “It was total survival,” Torguson said.
Hinkle and Simkin used glow stick to form a green X in the sand to act as a helicopter landing pad. With blue glow sticks, they formed circles around all seven people so air crews could see them.
Simkin had taken an emergency medical technician (EMT) class, and Hinkle said he learned the glow stick method from working at remote mining sites.
U.S. Coast Guard rescuers flew from Sitka to the scene just before 1 a.m.
Air craft Lt. Commander Joseph Plunkett told the CVN that the glow sticks and inReach satellite location made it easy to locate the group. “We recognized the area right away from fire and marked glow sticks,” he said. The survivors were flown to the Haines airport were volunteer EMS performed medical checkups. All seven people where uninjured. The men retrieved the boats the next day.
“With air temperatures in the low 30s, this (inReach) device likely saved their lives,” Plunkett said. “This is a great example of how a sunny day in Alaska can quickly turn into a survival situation.”