Clarence Michael Savage

First-time rafter on guided trip dies in Sixmile Creek
WHITE WATER: Tourist from Chicago was thrown from raft.

Anchorage Daily News

A tourist from Chicago died Thursday night during a white-water trip on Sixmile Creek near Hope when he was thrown from his raft and sucked underwater beneath a log.

Witnesses told Alaska State Troopers that Clarence Michael Savage, 52, wasn't breathing when he surfaced about 20 seconds later. No autopsy is planned. Savage may have drowned or died from the effects of rapid cold water immersion, which can cause breathing or heart problems as the body reacts to frigid water, said Greg Wilkinson, a troopers spokesman.

Savage's death was the latest in a string of recent water-related deaths in Alaska. It was the first white-water rafting death this year but not the first for Sixmile Creek, the site of several drownings this past decade and one of Alaska's most popular and accessible rafting destinations. The river flows past Sunrise and empties near Hope into Turnagain Arm. It includes three canyons with rapids that present increasingly technical challenges.

"Like all rivers, it has inherent risks," said Chuck Spaulding, owner of Nova, the oldest rafting company in Alaska. Guides can be well-trained and clients outfitted in life jackets and dry suits, "but things just happen," he said. "It's not Disneyland."

Savage was a client of Class V Whitewater, a Girdwood-based outdoor recreation company that offers frequent trips on Sixmile Creek. A brief statement about Savage's death released Friday by Class V's attorney said, "While this type of event is an inherent risk of white-water rafting, Class V has offered its sincere condolences to this gentleman's partner and family."

Class V staff members referred all questions to the company's attorney, Tracey Knutson, who released the written statement.

Wilkinson said Savage was traveling with his partner of 14 years but had no additional information.

The 25 rafters on the Class V trip Thursday split up among four rafts. Each raft had a guide, Wilkinson said. The raft tours put into the river above the first of the three canyons, after guides give their clients rafting instructions.

Savage was a first-time rafter, Wilkinson said.

This first canyon's rapids are ranked as Class IV on a scale with Class VI being most difficult, said Spaulding, whose company also runs trips on Sixmile.

Class IV rapids are generally considered difficult, sometimes with long stretches of rapids, dangerous rocks and powerful and irregular waves. On its Web page, Class V Whitewater advises that the rivers it operates on are fed by snowmelt and alpine glaciers, which "makes for extremely cold waters."

Wilkinson said the raft Savage was in hit rough water where the canyon squeezes down to a narrow passage. The raft struck the rocky canyon wall at a spot known as "the Predator," hurling the guide and passengers into the water.

Savage was wearing a dry suit, a helmet and a life vest.

As the other clients and guide pulled themselves back into the raft, they saw Savage clinging to a log, witnesses told troopers.

Wilkinson did not know how long Savage stayed above the river's surface before the fast water swept him under.

About 8 p.m., troopers in Girdwood got a report that a person had fallen off a raft in Sixmile Creek. Trooper Jorge Santiago was dispatched from Girdwood, and emergency medical personnel from Providence Alaska Medical Center responded.

Santiago, on the road, heard that a guide and some tourists had pulled Savage out of the water and into a raft and had started CPR.

Efforts to revive Savage continued until he was pronounced dead by medics at 9:26 p.m.

The State Medical Examiner has released the body to Savage's partner.

Cold water kills an average of 20 to 30 Alaskans each year, said Jeff Johnson, Alaska's boating law administrator. There were 305 recreational boating fatalities in Alaska between 1991 and 2003, compared with 221 commercial boating fatalities in the same period, he said.

Ninety-one percent of the 305 fatalities involved boats 26 feet long or less, and 89 percent of the victims were adult males, Johnson said. Most were not wearing life jackets.

It's estimated that almost three-quarters of boating deaths are from cold water immersion, not hypothermia, he said.

Hypothermia -- when the body's core temperature drops -- takes at least 30 minutes to set in. Cold water immersion kicks in as soon as frigid water soaks the skin, leaving the victim gasping and hyperventilating, Johnson said. That can result in immediate drowning.

Other reactions, depending on how long someone is in the water, include heart failure, Johnson said. Muscle strength and dexterity drop too, making it harder to stay afloat and grip safety devices. This increases the chance of drowning, he said.

Wearing proper equipment, as Savage was, improves the odds when someone goes into the water, he said.

"It sounds like he was doing everything right," Johnson said. "But he ended up in the water and things got out of control."

A client of Spaulding's company, well-known Anchorage cardiologist Gary Archer, died while on a Nova white-water outing on Sixmile in 1997.

"It's a tough thing to take," said Spaulding, whose company is based in Chickaloon. "But I think it's an inevitable thing that we'll all be faced with in our operations as the years go by."

Daily News reporter Katie Pesznecker can be reached at