Thomas Aho

Man feared dead after sons see river sweep him under
by S.J. Komarnitsky, ADN 9/3/97

PALMER - An Anchorage father of four is missing and possibly drowned after being swept away in the rain-swollen Sheep River near Talkeetna while his two teenage sons watched from shore, Alaska State Troopers said.

Thomas Aho, 41, an experienced back-country hiker and avid runner, and his two sons, Brian, 18, and Sven, 14, were reported missing Sunday after they failed to return from a 10-day hiking trip in the Talkeetna Mountains, troopers said.

The two teens were found about 4 p.m. Monday near Sheep River, about 25 miles east of Talkeetna.  They told troopers that their father had been ferrying gear across the river in a raft Friday afternoon when the current swamped the boat and knocked him into the water.  They spent the next three days without food, watching an already swollen river rise and sweep away what remained of their gear.

Searches Monday and Tuesday failed to turn up any sign of Aho.  A ground search, including dogs, is scheduled for today, Sgt. Chuck Feller said.

The three started their trip Aug. 20 at the Independence Mine near Hatcher Pass.  They planned to be picked up by boat Aug. 29 at the confluence of Iron Creek and the Talkeetna River.  Sheep River was their last river crossing, although several miles of hiking remained before they reached their destination.

Sgt. Feller said he believes Aho knew the river, swollen by recent heavy rains, was dangerous.  He had his sons wait while he ferried their equipment across in a small, one-man raft.

Three times, he started from a point upstream and paddled to a gravel bar in the middle of the river about 100 yards from shore, then paddled back, Feller said.  The accident happened as he crossed the fourth time with the last of the gear.

He had tied off the raft to a tree on shore, planning to have the teens pull the boat back after he reached the gravel bar, Feller said.

But the rope ran out before he got to the bar and pulled the back end of the boat underwater.  Aho yelled at his sons to cut the boat free, which they did by rubbing the rope against the tree and fraying it with rocks, but their father disappeared in the current, Feller said.

The teens spent the next three days without food as the river rose even more until it covered the gravel bar and swept the two remaining backpacks from it.  They built a shelter out of driftwood and stayed warm by huddling together inside, Feller said.

They were in good condition despite having had nothing to eat for three days.  Troopers took them to Talkeetna, where they are staying with grandparents.

Feller said Aho was well prepared.

"He had very good equipment.  He was experienced.  He was in good shape and well organized;" he said. "It was a very good plan.  Unfortunately, the weather didn't cooperate, and there was a problem with the raft and not enough rope."

Aho's mother, Vivian, said her son loves the outdoors and frequently goes on extended hikes.

In 1992, he ran the grueling Crow Pass Crossing and placed 22nd.  That same year, he also placed fifth in the Lost Lake run on the Kenai Peninsula, completing the nearly 16-mile course in just over two hours.  He also finished a grueling 130-mile race in the Brooks Range as a competitor in the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic.

The three were not hiking on any trail, but Aho had left behind a map with the Global Positioning System coordinates of where the three would be at certain. times.  They also carried a cellular phone but were unable to get it to work in the area they were in, Feller said.

This was the first time Aho had hiked this particular route, his mother said.

Vivian Aho said friends and relatives began to search for the three Friday after they failed to show up.  Aho's wife called troopers Sunday.

She said the family hopes Aho made it to shore and is hiking out.  Troopers are holding out hope as well.

"He's an experienced outdoorsman," Feller said.  "Hopefully, he got out of the water and made it to the opposite shore and possibly is walking out."

On Monday, troopers found his raft snagged on a tree downstream and two of the three packs.

Troopers locate body of missing hiker

ADN, 9/14/97

Alaska State Troopers have recovered the body of a 41-year-old hiker lost in Sheep River two weeks ago.  Thomas Aho of Anchorage was hiking Aug. 29 with his two sons in the Talkeetna Mountains when he attempted to ford the river in raft.  Troopers say Aho became separated from his sons, age 14 and 16, and was swept downstream in fast- moving current.  His body was located by a trooper helicopter Friday about one-quarter mile downstream from a spot where the two boys were rescued.  The body was recovered by divers, troopers said.