FAIRBANKS — Nobody expected to find Cutie alive, that much is certain.
But there the little, black-and-white dog was, trapped under the bow of the overturned boat she had been riding in four days earlier when it flipped in the upper Chena River and was swept downstream by the strong current.
“It was crazy,” said Jeremy McDonald, the boat owner. “I get to the side of the boat, look in there and she barks and growls at me.”
It was all McDonald could do to contain himself.
“I said, ‘Guys, she’s alive. Let’s get this boat turned over,’” he said almost two weeks later.
Adrenaline pumping, McDonald and two friends hooked a rope to the 17-foot boat and were able to pull it over.
“As soon as we did, she comes walking out shaking and scared,” McDonald said. “I was pretty sure we were going to go there and find a dead dog.
“It was pretty much a miracle,” he said.
So, too, for that matter was the fact that McDonald and his two friends, brothers John and Billy Minerva, still were alive.
It all started May 26, the day before Memorial Day.
McDonald, 34, and the Minerva brothers, John, 35, and Billy, 25, were tooling around on the upper Chena River in McDonald’s Woolridge jet boat, taking advantage of the high water that allowed them to travel much farther up the river than normal. John Minerva brought Cutie, his girlfriend’s 30-pound Labrador/terrier mix, along for the ride.
They put the boat in at the Granite Tors campground at 39 Mile Chena Hot Springs Road, the “second bridge” as it is called by boaters and floaters, and were heading upriver to see how far they could make it.
“It was bank to bank,” McDonald said. “Every corner, there was a log jam.”
It didn’t take them long to make it to the third bridge at 44 Mile of the road, a popular put-in for floaters in rafts, canoes and kayaks. There was an empty raft stuck on a log jam at the bridge, just below the put in.
“We noticed a raft up against the bridge with a bunch of people standing on the bridge,” McDonald said.
McDonald, 34, decided to see if he could help. He drove his boat upstream of the raft and was surveying the situation, contemplating how he could hook up to the raft to pull it out, when he noticed a dry bag floating down the river.
“I had the boat steady with the current and saw a float bag going by,” McDonald said. “I went to put the boat up against the log so John could reach out and grab the bag, and the back end of the boat jumped up on the log.”
What happened next happened so fast nobody had time to react. Water started to pour into the side and back of the boat.
“I tried to give it some throttle to get it off (the log), but it was too late,” McDonald said. “It flipped just like a clam shell; it just closed in on me.”
McDonald grabbed for the windshield to climb out of the boat right before it flipped, but the door that opens to the bow slammed shut on his right index finger, nearly severing it.
The boat flipped over on top of McDonald, who found himself under water, underneath the boat.
“I was face flat on the ground,” he said.
McDonald felt something hit him in the head, possibly one of the seats, and worried that he would be crushed by the boat. He couldn’t see anything in the turbid water. After what seemed like an eternity, McDonald found a gap between the railing of the boat and the gravel and was able to wiggle out from under the boat and kick to the surface. He climbed up on some rocks to check for his friends and the dog.
They were nowhere in sight.
The Minerva brothers were having problems of their own.
After getting thrown off the boat, John got stuck on a log under the sweeper. The force of the current had him pinned up against a log at his waist. He was under water and couldn’t move or breathe.
“I could see light four feet up, but I was stuck on my waist,” he said. “I gave up. I started to inhale water. All I could see was my family looking down at my casket.”
That’s when he felt his younger brother, Billy, kick him in the head. It wasn’t intentional, but it turned out to be a good thing.
“He kicked my head down and the current smashed me down and I popped up under some sticks,” John Minerva, said.
Billy, too, popped up to the surface and the brothers floated downstream a short ways, where they got hung up on another log jam. This time, though, some soldiers who were watching the drama unfold ran downstream and pulled the brothers to safety.
When McDonald saw they were safe, he emptied the water that had filled his hip waders so he could chase his boat, which was floating downstream, and look for the dog, which nobody had seen surface, even though she was wearing a doggy life jacket. He held his badly cut finger up in the air as he ran through the woods yelling Cutie’s name.
“I ran a quarter mile through the woods trying to catch the boat and look for the dog,” McDonald said. “I went as far as I could.”
When he returned, he found John and Billy Minerva shaken up.
“They’re like, ‘Man, Cutie’s dead; we almost died,’” McDonald said.
With the boat swept down river and no sign of Cutie, the trio hitched a ride back to town in hopes of finding another boat to look for their boat and the dog.
They borrowed a boat from McDonald’s boss, Charlie Chausse, and McDonald and John Minerva went back to see if they could find any sign of the dog or boat. The boat had flipped about 2 p.m., and it was about 10 p.m. when they got back on the river. McDonald still hadn’t gone to the hospital to get his finger stitched up, though it would later require four stitches to close the wound.
“My first priority was to get back up there and find the dog,” McDonald said. “I put my dog down last winter, and I could imagine how bad everybody was feeling.
“I knew the boat was gone,” he said.
As it turned out, McDonald and Minerva found the boat two or three miles downstream from where it flipped. The boat was on its side, hung up on a gravel bar. With the water so high, there was no way to get to it, McDonald said.
They saw no sign of Cutie, in the boat, in the river or anywhere on shore, so they went back to camp, packed up and went back to town, thinking the dog had perished.
Even so, they called Alaska State Troopers to report the dog missing and talked to every camper they saw to tell them to keep an eye out for a black-and-white dog wearing a yellow life jacket, giving them a phone number to call if they found her. John Minerva put something about the missing dog on Craigslist.
On Monday, McDonald contacted Mike Kardanoff from The Boat Shop, where he bought the boat, and asked for his advice in retrieving his boat. Kardanoff called another Boat Shop employee, Don Fitzwater, and they went to check things out in Kardanoff’s boat. They found McDonald’s boat was in the same spot it had been but now was turned upside down.
“We rocked it around and tried to get it upright,” Kardanoff said. “We never saw the dog and it never barked or made a whimper.”
Without enough equipment to right the boat, the men tied it off to a stump to keep it there and headed back to town.
The next day, McDonald returned to work at FS&G Aggregate, where he works as a loader operator, and told his story to friend and co-worker Josef Castle, who immediately began rounding up a crew to retrieve the boat. He contacted four friends — Kerry Knoll, Brian and Mike McManus, and Don Lowden — who it turns out were pals of McDonald’s when he went to elementary school in Two Rivers. They made plans to retrieve the boat the next day.
When they arrived on scene Wednesday, they were equipped with ropes, come-alongs and a chain saw winch to extract the boat.
But the water had gone down considerably since Monday, and McDonald was able to look under the boat. That’s when he heard Cutie barking and growling and realized she was still alive. She was stuck up under the dash in the boat’s bow, where she had evidently found an air pocket.
McDonald and two other rescuers hooked a rope onto the boat and flipped it over. Cutie came running out. She wasn’t her usual friendly self but she was happy to see them, McDonald said. She also was hungry.
“As soon as we got back to the truck we gave her a chicken leg,” McDonald said.
He also called John Minerva and his girlfriend, Grace Sommer, to tell them the news.
“He said, ‘We found Cutie’ and (Grace) started to cry and said, ‘Great, now we have to bury her,’” Minerva said. “Then he said, ‘Nope, she’s alive.’”
Sommer started screaming and crying hysterically, Minerva said.
Other than being a little sore and a lot hungry, Cutie was none the worse for wear, Minerva said. As soon as McDonald dropped her off, she was ready to start chasing her favorite ball again.
“She was sore for a couple of days, but other than that she was fine,” Minerva said.
McDonald’s boat is not fine. The windshield was broken and mangled from being swept down the river upside down. It will cost at least a few thousand dollars to fix, but insurance should cover that, McDonald said.
Finding Cutie alive made up for any damage to the boat, he said.
“That was a good day, even though the boat was all busted up,” McDonald said.
Contact staff writer Tim Mowry at 459-7587.