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Doctor Recounds Alaskan Rafting Ordeal

June 14, 2003

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) _ Rushing down an Arctic river in a raft with his father, Dr. Blake Stanfield could do nothing but watch when he rounded a bend in the river and saw a 2-foot-high wall of ice in their path.

``All you see is that you’re going under this sheet of ice and you have no idea where it ends,″ Stanfield said Friday. ``It was sheer panic.″

It’s all a chaotic memory for the men now, the raft flipping upside down, flashes of tumbling in bone-chilling water, heads knocking against the ice bottom, gasping at a thin pocket of air.

After passing under about 30 yards of ice they resurfaced and gulped air before the swift current swept them under again at least 100 yards, this time with no air between the ice and water.

``I thought I was one or two seconds from death,″ Stanfield said. ``I was thinking, ‘Boy, this is it. What an awful way to go.’ I thought of my family and how sad it would be for them.″

Stanfield, 38, of Seward, wept several times during a telephone interview as he recalled the ordeal that began June 6. He and 65-year-old father, Neil Stanfield of Oklahoma City, survived the icy river plunge, only to be stranded five days in the wilderness without food or supplies.

They were rescued early Wednesday by an Army helicopter, hours after a bush pilot on a sightseeing flight spotted the younger Stanfield. They were bruised, scratched, exhausted and famished, but otherwise in good condition.

The trip was to have been Stanfield’s birthday gift to his father, a real estate consultant. Stanfield’s pregnant wife, Shelly, stayed home with their 14-month old son, Heath.

The men were dropped off at the north fork of the Koyukuk River, north of the Arctic Circle and about 200 miles northwest of Fairbanks in Alaska’s Interior.

They were to spend a week floating 90 miles of winding river, eventually taking the middle fork to the town of Bettles. They planned to take their time, hike the rugged terrain and relax around campfires every night.

The Stanfields set off under clear skies and temperatures in the 70s. It was so warm under Alaska’s intense summer sun that Blake Stanfield went barefoot in shorts and a T-shirt. His father wore a T-shirt, long johns, waist-high waders and boots. Both wore lifejackets.

A few hours after setting off, their raft slammed into the ice and the men were plunged underneath. They popped up in open water just as Blake Stanfield thought death was certain.

The family practitioner at Providence Seward Medical Center, an avid mountain climber and outdoor enthusiast, quickly made his way to the bank of the 50-foot-wide river. But his father, clutching an oar, was carried downstream.

Stanfield sprinted barefoot along the bank until he got ahead of his father, who had stopped on an icy ridge in the river. Stanfield grabbed a dead spruce pole and held it out until the older man caught it.

Neil Stanfield was shivering uncontrollably by the time he reached shore. His son built a fire with a windproof, water-resistant lighter in his pocket, then hiked up a hill to scan the river for the raft.

He spotted the raft, upside down, on the other side of the river. There was no way they could reach it. Blake Stanfield built a small shelter, using rocks, spruce branches and moss to make a wall against a V-shaped gravel drainage.

There was no shortage of dry wood or water, but all their food was lost.

The next morning, Stanfield told his father he had to go for help before he got too weak. He wore his father’s long johns and boots, leaving the elder Stanfield with the waders and neoprene socks.

After at least 20 miles of hiking, during which he passed a grizzly bear and ``the biggest black bear I’ve ever seen,″ he ran up against the confluence of the Koyukuk and Tinayguk rivers and had to stop.

He didn’t bother erecting a shelter, focusing his energy on building fires for warmth and to try to draw pilots’ attention. Occasionally he ate spiders and ants.

``There was nothing else to eat,″ he said. ``There were tons of cranberry bushes that maybe in August would be loaded. I didn’t feel hunger, though, and that surprised me.″

Meanwhile, his father had developed his own routine: keeping the embers going and catching brief naps before collecting more firewood.

``There was no food, but I had a lot of water and, of course, I ate a lot of smoke,″ Neil Stanfield said. ``Then you spend a lot of time trying to figure different ways to study your navel.″

Bush pilot Dirk Nikisch spotted the younger Stanfield on Tuesday evening, while flying sightseers over the area. He returned with a neighbor, Bernie Hicker, to drop a radio and food to Stanfield, who radioed back.

``He sounded very happy he had someone to talk to,″ Hicker said. ``Then he told us about his father.″

The men dropped food, a tent and a sleeping bag to the elder Stanfield. Nikisch also supplied the coordinates that enabled the Army helicopter to retrieve the Stanfields early the next morning.

At home Friday with his wife, son and father, Blake Stanfield said he might take another trip _ but would have a pilot make a safety check next time.

``I wouldn’t hesitate to do it again,″ he said. ``Only probably not this summer.″

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