FAIRBANKS — I’ve done it, and I’m sure a lot of you have, too.
I’ve dip netted at Chitina without wearing a life jacket or being tied off to a rock or tree. I don’t do it anymore, but I’ve done it before and I see other dip-netters doing it all the time when I’m at Chitina.
That’s what Lance Jorgensen was doing last Thursday when he fell into the Copper River and drowned. The 27-year-old from North Pole was dip netting with his father, Randy, when he slipped on a rock, fell into the water and was swept down the river. Searchers never found his body.
It’s a tragic and heart-wrenching story. Jorgensen was married with a young daughter.
The sad thing is Jorgensen isn’t the first Chitina dip-netter to fall into the Copper River and drown, and he probably won’t be the last.
“The most surprising thing to me is it doesn’t happen more often,” said charter operator Mark Hem, who has been ferrying dip-netters to fishing spots up and down the Copper River for the past 28 years. “It’s unbelievable how many people don’t tie off.”
Dip-netters flock to Chitina each year and don’t take safety precautions like wearing a life jacket or tying themselves to a rock or tree while trying to wrestle salmon out of the gray torrent that is the Copper River.
“If he’d had a life jacket on he’d be with us today,” Hem said of Jorgensen. “There was a boat almost to him when he went under the final time.”
It was the first time in 28 years one of Hem’s customers has drowned. The Jorgensens had been dropped off at their fishing spot by Hem’s partner, Sam McCallister. They didn’t have rope to tie off with so McCallister gave them some, but they evidently chose not to use it, Hem said.
“We recommend to everybody that they tie off,” Hem said, “but we can’t make anybody do it.”
The spot Jorgensen was dip netting was a typical Chitina fishing hole, Hem said.
“It was a precarious spot,” he said. “It was solid rock to the edge of the water and at the edge of the water there was no bank. It just dropped and it was deep.”
Of course, anybody who has ever been dip netting at Chitina knows — or should — that there is no such thing as a safe dip netting spot along the Copper River, which is one of the swiftest rivers in Alaska.
“No matter where you are it’s dangerous,” Hem said. “Anytime you’re standing next to a river averaging 12 or 13 mph that’s full of glacial silt and the water temperature is 42 or 43 degrees, that’s a recipe for disaster.”
The fact that you’re usually standing on a jumble of jagged rocks covered with water, fish slime and blood just adds to the danger factor. All it takes is one misstep or one slip and you’re in big trouble. That is something I have come to learn after more than 15 years of dip netting at Chitina, which is why I always wear a life jacket and usually tie myself to a tree or rock, depending on where I am.
But I also know why a lot of people don’t wear a life jacket or tie themselves off. Life jackets are uncomfortable and bulky when you’re wielding a giant net with a 10- or 20-foot handle. Ropes get tangled around your feet or net handle and get snagged on rocks.
Or maybe you get a case of salmon fever. You stick your net in the water when you get to your fishing spot just to check it out and immediately pull up a fish. Instead of taking the time to put a life jacket on or tie yourself off because, well, who knows how long the fishing is going to continue to be this hot, you stick your net in the water again and catch another fish.
And, of course, there’s always the “It won’t happen to me syndrome” that is so prevalent in Alaska when it comes to the inherent dangers that come with living in the Last Frontier.
It’s not just dip-netters perched on the rocky banks of the Copper River who I’m talking about, either. There are a lot of dip-netters fishing from boats who are as much at risk, if not more, as people fishing from the bank. Some of those boats, as well as the people driving them, have no place on the Copper River, Hem said.
“It utterly amazes me they get by with what they do,” he said of fishermen dipping from boats. “You see these little jon boats with four or five guys in them hanging over the edge with no life jackets on.”
Just last weekend, only two days after Jorgensen drowned, three dip-netters in a 16-foot jon boat floated into one of the concrete pillars of the Chitina-McCarthy Bridge. The strong current pushed the boat up sideways, pinning it against the pillar. The three men were in the water, clinging to the boat, when Fairbanks boater Paul Smith, who was just downstream from the bridge with five friends aboard his boat, noticed coolers and other gear floating down the river. When he saw what had happened, Smith raced up to the bridge.
“The current had them pinned up against the boat and they were hanging on for dear life,” he said.
The three men were wearing life jackets, and Smith’s friends were able to pull them safely aboard his boat. The men told Smith they had deflected off the pillar the first time they floated down the river. The odor of alcohol was evident on their breath, he said. The small boat had only one outboard motor, with no spare in the event something went wrong.
That the three men should not have been on the Copper River in that boat was obvious, whether they were drunk or sober, said Smith, who called me Tuesday to relate the story.
If there is anything positive that can be extracted from Jorgensen’s tragic death it is that it opens peoples’ eyes to the dangers of dip netting at Chitina and the precautions you need to take against them.
“With the way they make life jackets today there is no reason not to wear one,” Hem said, noting how much smaller and lighter they have become.
When you do tie off, do it right. Just because you have a rope tied around your waist that is attached to a tree behind you doesn’t mean you won’t drown if you fall in, especially if you’re not wearing a life jacket. Use only enough rope so that you can reach the edge of the river where you’re dip netting, not a 100-foot piece that will allow the current to pull you to the middle of the river if you do fall in.
“If you get pulled out to the middle of the river you’re not going to pull yourself back in against that current,” Hem said.
Tie the rope around your chest or under your arms, not around your waist, so the current won’t hold your body under the water in the unfortunate event you find yourself in it.
A freezer full of salmon, even the best-tasting salmon in the world, is not worth dying for.
Contact outdoors editor Tim Mowry at 459-7587.