By Melinda Munson

Will Harbison, river guide for Skagway Float Tours, was getting gear ready for the day at the put-in on Taiya River the afternoon of June 5 when he heard an emergency call on his colleague’s radio.

A guest on a Chilkat Guides, Ltd. boat had a minor accident and was returned to shore to await the medics. The boat continued on with seven people, including the guide.

“Seems good,” Harbison said and started driving downriver to the take-out, a raft in the trailer behind him. But shortly after the injured passenger disembarked, the Chilkat boat was in distress.

According to Chilkat Guides, the craft collided with a log.

“I come around the corner and I see a flipped boat,” Harbison said. He launched his raft, and rowed, and rowed.

“I was picking up all these people off the water,” he said. In all, Harbison pulled five people from the river. Three were able to self-rescue and climb the river bank.

The Skagway Fire Department was on the shore, ready to provide medical treatment. Having answered a call for an injury, they arrived in Dyea without water rescue equipment. Police Chief Jerry Reddick said he received a request at 12:30 p.m. to bring the rescue unit and assist the fire department. When Reddick arrived on scene, all of the boaters were out of the water and the Chilkat guide had been transported for medical attention.

Reddick said that police and fire personnel aren’t prepared to battle the Taiya River.

“We’re not highly trained in swiftwater rescue. I think there is a misconception that we are trained for that. We’re not going to put people’s lives in jeopardy … we’re gonna throw ropes, we’re gonna try to get PFDs to people. But we’re going to rely on the companies to self-rescue. They’re the ones that have the training, and they’re the ones that have the knowledge of the river, not us,” he said.

Cris Siegel, owner of Skagway Float Tours, described the Taiya River.

“It’s a flat-water river, but it’s quite dangerous,” he said. The frigid temperature, trees and debris all make it difficult to navigate. Siegel said on June 5, the river had “a little bit of a push due to surging water.”

Siegel’s company invested in a handheld radio communication system which makes it possible to communicate clearly between Dyea and town, a connection that cell phones often drop.

Reddick said that while in Dyea, department radios “do work, it’s kind of spotty service.” He’s in the process of getting an evaluation of communications.

The department is also crafting plans for when private boaters have emergencies on the Taiya. That might include calling the Coast Guard, but a quicker answer could be guides like Harbison.

“We’re trying to develop an MOU with the rafting companies … If we can deploy the rafting companies to assist, we’re going to try to do that. We all want to work together. We all want to keep the river safe…” Reddick said.

According to Borough Manager Brad Ryan, the rafting companies recently agreed to always stage a raft on the Taiya River in case of emergencies.

Chilkat Guides outlined their response to the accident in a press release. 

“Immediately following the incident on June 5, we halted all operations on the Taiya River to assess the viability of safely operating on the river. That afternoon, we sent our emergency response coordinator from Haines to debrief with the staff and evaluate our response to the incident. We held a mandatory safety day on the river for all guides and office staff on June 8. Upon completion of the additional safety training and full audit of our emergency response, we resumed operations on June 9 with full confidence in our team, policies and procedures.”

View the complete press release here. Chilkat Guides Press Release