ANCHORAGE — All Larry Dowling did was try to save a ski pole from the cold, rushing waters of Eagle River, and for that he paid the ultimate price.
There was none of the drama of slow death by starvation that made poor, lost Chris McCandless of “Into the Wild” fame the subject for a Hollywood movie due out this month.
No, one simple mistake killed the 38-year-old Dowling — or maybe two mistakes.
As those who have survived decades in the Alaska wilderness can testify, it’s rarely the first mistake that proves deadly. Most often, there is a cascade of errors.
For the 38-year-old Dowling, an accountant from Limerick, Ireland, transplanted to San Francisco, the second mistake was the simple failure to unfasten the waist belt and loosen the shoulder straps on his backpack before crossing the river.
This is a standard safety precaution undertaken by those who know the inherent dangers of river crossings.
On vacation in the north, he had undertaken a relatively easy backpacking trip. He wasn’t doing anything extreme. He was merely hiking the historic Iditarod Trail through Crow Pass from Girdwood to Eagle River.
Hundreds of people do it every summer. All of them wade a marked ford to get across Eagle River not far downstream from the face of Eagle Glacier. Chugach State Park officials say no one has ever died there before.
At high water, of course, the ford can be dangerous. Some people have hiked up from the Eagle River Visitor Center or down from the Crow Pass trail head, judged the water too high to be safely crossed, and turned around.
Alaska State Trooper spokeswoman Megan Peters said, however, that the flow on the river wasn’t particularly worrisome when Dowling and a hiking companion reached it early last month. It was reportedly around knee deep, about the depth it was earlier in the year when dozens of racers in the Crow Pass Crossing splashed across without incident.
It is unknown if any of the racers slipped and fell into the cold, turbid water this year, but they have in the past. And then they’ve gotten up, soaking wet, and jogged on.
Dowling might have gotten up too but for that pack.
Peters wasn’t sure how big it was, but it doesn’t take all that much weight on your back to change the dynamic with the current rushing fast and the rocks slippery beneath.
Peters doesn’t know for sure, either, whether Dowling dove in after the pole he dropped, or merely bent down to pick it up and slipped. Whichever, he might be alive today if he’d just wished the pole goodbye and continued across the river.
Many of us, in fact, would have to confess to doing things far dumber than reaching for a ski pole in Eagle River, and yet we are still here and Dowling is dead.
That is what makes his death especially hard to believe.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.