Derek Snyder 6/24/98 Turnagain Arm, Bird Creek Boating Drown

Arm's waters deadly - Survivor: Tide rolled canoe
By Craig Medred, ADN 6/27/98

The last time Carl R. Snyder saw his son alive, 24-year-old Derek was wading onto a Turnagain Arm sandbar.

Seconds before, a tidal rip boiling with brown rapids 4 to 5 feet high had rolled the 17-foot, outboard-powered Coleman canoe the two Anchorage men were using to cross Turnagain Arm from Bird Creek to the Kenai Peninsula shore about midday Wednesday.

Snyder, 52, was trying to maneuver the square-stand canoe across the rapids toward the mouth of an unnamed creek a few miles west of Hope.

"We got into water that was too rough to handle," he said Friday, "and the canoe overturned. ... We just barely missed some rocks, and shortly thereafter the canoe flipped. ... It just happened all at once."

As the fast current of the outgoing tide tumbled the canoe, the two men bobbed to the surface in their life jackets.

"The current was just so strong," Snyder said.  "It just swept us way.  Derek managed to stay on a sandbar, and I was swept away by the current with the canoe.

"I was swept out (toward Cook Inlet) about four miles, I guess."

The elder Snyder thought his son would remain safe on the sandbar as the tide dropped.  But now he wonders if Derek Snyder jumped back into the deadly waters of the Arm in an effort to reach him.

Searchers in helicopters found Derek's body Thursday night near Hope.  He was still wearing his life jacket.  An autopsy is scheduled to determine how he died; hypothermia is suspected.

"We're lucky we got the father (alive)," said Sgt. Paul Burke, search and rescue supervisor for the Alaska State Troopers.  "There have been so many drownings this year where people have not been wearing life jackets. ... That's probably what saved this guy."

Tumbling toward Cook Inlet on a tide running up to 10 mph, the elder Snyder said he lost sight of the canoe and his son.  He tried to maneuver toward shore, eventually grounding on a sandbar between Hope and Gull Rock.

"I was extremely hypothermic at that point," he said.  "I couldn't walk. I couldn't stand up.

"The last time I saw him (Derek), he was on the sandbar and standing up."

The elder Snyder crawled up the dark, sun-baked rocks along the Kenai Peninsula shore.

"If it hadn't been for the sun," he said, "I probably wouldn't have managed.  I was extremely hypothermic."

Carl Snyder spent Wednesday nestled on the sun-warmed rock, restoring his body heat.  By evening, he could walk.

"I was extremely dehydrated," he said.  "I found a stream I could drink out of, and I managed to build a little fire.  I had a lighter, but it didn't work immediately."

He spent the night by the fire.  Thursday, he hiked east along the shoreline looking for Derek, but found nothing.  He returned to the site of his fire, and stamped out a message for help in the sand.

Burke said a friend of Derek Snyder notified authorities on Thursday that the two men were overdue.

The elder Snyder was found shortly after a search was launched late Thursday afternoon; his son's body was located northeast of Hope later in the day, Burke said.

In the past, Derek and Carl Snyder had paddled safely across the Arm from Bird Creek to Hope.  This time they made a deadly miscalculation.

"We should have never tried it at low tide," he said.  "I honestly don't know why (we did that)."

The speed with which the water rushes along the north shore of the Kenai Peninsula can be deadly.  As the Arm's 18- to 20-foot tides rush back to sea, the tidal gut becomes a marine river boiling with rapids.

"In some places," Snyder said, the standing waves "were as much as 4 to 5 feet high."

Against such a powerful flow, the Snyders' 4-horsepower outboard motor was overmatched.

Anchorage canoeing expert Doug Pope said the men would have had a better chance if they had turned their canoe toward Point Possession on the tip of the Kenai and tried to motor along with the flow, as if shooting rapids.

"You just have to ride it out," he said.  "This is a real tragedy."

Both Pope and Burke said they've been stunned by the number of canoe deaths in Alaska recently.

"You need a boat that can handle it, and you need to know how to handle it," said Pope, who recommended canoeists wear life jackets at all times and start their paddling lessons on small, sheltered lakes.

"It's just crazy to be out there" on Turnagain Arm, he said, unless you are highly experienced and well equipped.

"How many have to die before people get the point?"