Gene Shumar  7/2/97 Eagle River Kayaker Drown

Sweeper-Choked River A Killer: Exhausted Kayaker Escapes Icy Water, Only To Slip Back In
By Natalie Phillips, ADN 7/4/97

On Monday, experienced white-water kayaker Gene Shumar advised his fiancee not to go rafting down Sixmile Creek because another rafter had died on the river a couple days earlier.  The couple had just bought rings for their November wedding and he feared for her safety.

Two days later, Shumar was dead.  The 32-year-old drowned in Eagle River.  His fiancee refused to see his body after he was pulled from the river.

''The last time I saw him he was alive,'' said Maria Vargas, 23.  ''He said goodbye.  That's how I want to remember him.''

The stretch of Eagle River that took Shumar - between Eagle River Loop Road Bridge and Glenn Highway Bridge - has become increasingly dangerous since floods overran the river in the fall of 1995, said Roger Pollard, an owner of Alaska Kayak and Shumar's friend.

Last year was a low-water season, so much of the debris deposited by the floods still sits on the river's banks.  That includes sweepers, or strainers, which are branches and trees that are lodged on the river bank and have the powerful force of water flowing through them.

Sweepers are a kayaker's enemy.  They grab boaters and pull them underwater and hold onto them, said George Beirne, another of Shumar's kayaking friends.

''Strainers are definitely our worst nightmare,'' he said.

That's what got Shumar.  An autopsy was conducted Thursday, but results were not available.

''Someone needs to go in there, like a rescue group or somebody, with chainsaws and get some of that stuff out of there,'' Pollard said.

That particular stretch of water is just upstream from what is known as ''campground rapids'' at the Eagle River Campground.  The stretch is rated Class II, which is considered fairly easy white-water paddling on a scale that puts Class V as the most difficult.  Because it is Class II, it draws a lot of beginning boaters who are not aware how many dangerous sweepers lurk, Pollard said.

Shumar was well known in the kayaking, downhill skiing, mountain bicycling and running communities.  His family moved from Los Angeles to Alaska when he was 8. His father worked as a Baptist minister.  Shumar graduated from high school in Glennallen. He went on to run competitively for the University of Eastern Washington in Spokane. After college, he worked in Anchorage sports stores and most recently as a car salesman.

He had taken up white-water kayaking three years ago and had advanced to paddling Class V water.  Shumar paddled Eagle River many times a week because he could get there after he got off work at Nye Frontier Toyota.  He had paddled it four times in the past week.''Everything he did, he excelled at,'' said his brother, Sean Shumar, 31.  ''But I have never seen anything take over his life like kayaking.  He loved it. He knew it was a very intense, dangerous sport.''

Around 6 p.m. Wednesday, Shumar and a friend were between the two bridges playing, or what kayakers call surfing, on a wave in the river.  The wave flipped Shumar, Bierne said.  Shumar tried several times to roll the boat upright but couldn't.

Finally, he slipped out of the boat and swam for shore, Bierne said.  ''He got himself to shore and got out, but was beat tired,'' he said. ''He was wasted.''

His partner had paddled behind him, following him to shore, Bierne said.  The spot where Shumar got out was a steep, clay bank.  The paddling partner looked away for a moment, and Shumar apparently slipped back into the icy river.

The river carried him about a half-mile downstream where he became pinned on a sweeper, Bierne said.  That's where rescuers pulled his body from the water.

Shumar was wearing appropriate protective gear, including a helmet and drysuit top, Bierne said.

Pollard said that when boaters end up in the water, they should try to work their way to shore and at the same time keep their feet out in front of them to bounce off boulders.