Location: Valdez, Alaska
Date: July 3, 1990
Nurse Kris Walker and five girlfriends from Valdez, Alaska, were excited as they suited up in rain gear, boots, and life vests. It was July 3, 1990, and the six nurses were preparing for what was supposed to be an hour of fun; white water rafting down the turbulent, rocky, freezing cold Lowe River.
The rafting guide had warned the women that the hard part of the ride would be to avoid hitting the pillars of the bridges they would pass under. As the group set out, their excitement built as they quickly encountered rough water. The raft was moving fast as it rounded a bend and approached a bridge.
"Dig in!" shouted the guide, urging the women to paddle hard. But the current swept them straight toward a pillar. The raft struck it broadside and flipped over. The group was thrown into the 38-degree water and carried away in the rapids. Kris held onto the raft until the current pulled her under. "The water was just sucking me down," she recalls, "and then it would spit me up just enough to get a breath of air. The river was totally in control."
Suddenly, Kris found herself in a calm spot and climbed onto the rocky shore. The guide and two others were also swept into shallow areas at the river's edge. Exhausted, they pulled themselves onto the bank. But Mary Lee Hayes, Joan Tate, and Kristin Ellingson were still lost in the rapids.
Mike Buck, an expert kayaker, and owner of the rafting company, happened to be driving along the river on his way out of town when he saw a scary sight--three rafters floating downstream without their raft. "It was just unbelievable to me," recalls Mike. "We'd had only one flip in nine years."
The guide had grabbed a rope from the raft and stood on shore. He threw the line to Kristin as she floated past, but she missed. Mike yelled to the guide to drive downstream with him. He had to rescue the women quickly, before they succumbed to hypothermia. In water that icy, it would be a matter of minutes before their core temperature would drop, causing incoherence, loss of use of their limbs, unconsciousness, and ultimately, death.
Mike got his kayak from the van's roof and threw on his water gear, while the guide threw a rope to Kristin, who was approaching. This time, Kristin grabbed the rope and the guide reeled her to shore. Mike set his kayak on the water and jumped into it. There was no time to put on a helmet or life vest because Joan and Mary Lee had already floated past. Mike paddled furiously through swirling rapids to catch up to them.
Mike reached Joan first. She wrapped her arms around the front of the kayak and hung on while Mike paddled to the bank. Joan, exhausted and mildly hypothermic, climbed the bank and joined her friends in Mike's van on the side of the road. "The bottom dropped out of me," recalls Kristin, "when I didn't see Mary Lee's face. She's a real dear person to me, and I felt like she might be dead."
Mike scanned the river for Mary Lee and soon saw her floating in the distance, her head barely above water. He raced to close the gap before she lost consciousness. When he reached her, Mary Lee flung her arms around the kayak and managed to hang on until they reached the bank.
In the van, the women warmed Mary Lee, whose body temperature had dropped well below normal. She was confused and unable to see. "She looked terrible," says Kristin, "but she was alive! And I knew we were going to have one hell of a story to tell."
Mary Lee was treated for hypothermia at a local hospital and released the same day. Her eyesight gradually returned, and she suffered no permanent ill-effects as a result of having spent fifteen minutes in the icy water. The women, especially Mary Lee, feel incredibly lucky that Mike spotted them that day.
"I wasn't thinking there was a way out of it," recalls Mary Lee. "At that point, I saw an angel come. He was very bright and had blonde hair and a big smile. I remember the smile. Mike Buck is a very special person to me. He saved my life." "It was really a miracle," says Mike, "that I was there at the right place with all the right equipment. The angels were definitely with us that day. There's no question about it."