TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE
BY LARRY KANIUT
I can't get out. I don't want to stay here in this water. I don't want to drown.
The GI struggled in the waist-deep muck of upper Cook Inlet not many miles north of Anchorage, Alaska. He had ventured too near the mudflats while duck hunting with friends and now expended energy in a desperate effort to free himself from the gluelike glacial silt that held him tightly in its grasp. He knew that the tide was due to change; if he failed, the inlet's cold, glacial waters would cover him within a few hours.
A short time later an airboat roared to the GI's aid. Three rescuers helped him break down his shotgun to use as a "straw" should the tide come in sooner than they could extricate him. Their efforts were futile.
The GI panicked and begged them to shoot him so that he would not suffer the death of drowning. They refused and left him in the mud as the gray-brown waters washed over his head, another victim claimed through carelessness.
That's the story the newcomer heard in 1966. He was a gung ho outdoors kid fresh from Oregon. Buoyed by visions of adventure, he gobbled up anything he could about the Last Frontier. I know because I was that kid.
After thirty-two years' embellishment it's time to chronicle the facts. In November 1988 I drove to Palmer, Alaska, to interview one of the key players in that tragic story. Lynn Puddicombe warmly welcomed me into his home and told me about his experience.
It is a sad story that serves as a warning to prospective hunters. Steer clear of the forbidden banks of the inlet; practice caution before entering that land of death.
For decades duck hunters have frequented the flats on Knik Arm north of Anchorage. A common bond connects those waterfowlers--get up early, savor the hot coffee, down some food, put on the hip waders, head for the blind, bag some birds, and go home. September 17, 1961, started out as such a day. However, it ended much differently.
A father and his sons enjoyed the day, hunting geese from their Coffee Point cabin near the hay flats. Forty-four-year-old Merle "Doc" Puddicombe enjoyedthe outing with his teenaged sons Larry, Lynn, and Joe. Because there is often little water to run and an airboat has a shallow draft, the men were using the family airboat. It was a dry-run Banks Maxwell drive, fourteen-foot wood-and-fiberglass hull, with a sixty-five-horse Continental power plant.
In the midst of the hunt they heard an airplane, looked up, and saw it coming in just over the blind. The men figured it was one of many pilots they knew and didn't think much of it.
The pilot swung around, opened his door, and hollered at the men. Something about "stuck in the mud." They couldn't understand it. He made another pass. He shut down power and came in at idle. He pointed down the inlet and shouted, "Man stuck in the mud!"
Doc and the two older boys burst into action.
The low tide required some effort to work the boat free and into the water. By the time they freed the boat, the tide had started coming in. A foot bore tide was racing up the inlet, and Doc shouted over the roar of the engine, "It doesn't look good, but I still think we can save him."
The hunter was standing dead center in Wasilla Creek on the lower end of Palmer Slough, 150 to 250 yards from either shore. He was surrounded by mudflats.
They couldn't tell how deep the water was but assumed it was ankle- to knee-deep. They pulled up to him and Doc stuck a pole in. Larry and Lynn jumped out of the boat, landing in ankle-deep water. The hunter was mired crotch deep in muck, water lapping at his waist. The rescuers knew then that it was pretty bad.
The mud is soft when the tide is out. When the tide comes in and moving water hits the mud, it hardens up like cement. As long as a person keeps moving, there is no danger of getting stuck.
Larry and Lynn thought their stoutness was an advantage. Larry was twenty-one years old, six feet, and 180 pounds; Lynn was seventeen, six feet three, and approaching 200 pounds.
They learned the trapped hunter was Sp5 Roger J. Cashin, a thirty-three-year-old soldier stationed at Fort Richardson in Anchorage. He had been hunting with three fellow soldiers. At first they'd laughed at him because he was stuck. They were sitting on the shore thinking it was pretty funny.
Once they saw the water coming in and realized the seriousness of the situation, they went into action. One took off to phone the Rescue Coordination Center at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage. He had to go all the way across the hay flats at least one and a half miles.
His other two friends shouted encouragement from the bank but were afraid to venture out into the mud. A large quantity of driftwood covered the beach. If they'd known what they were doing, they could have built a trail to him and gotten him out.
Doc gave Cashin's two friends a gas can and told them to build a signal fire on the bank. One of them lit a match and dropped it onto the brush, thenpoured gas onto the flame! Although it blew him up the bank, at least they got a fire going.
Cashin had been stuck long enough to fire all his ammunition. He had used the three-shot signal to attract attention. Hunters in the area didn't hear his shots, and even if they had, it's not likely that they would have paid any attention because evenly spaced shotgun reports are common.
Freeing Cashin would have been easier if he'd been wearing hip boots. His choice of footgear would be a major factor in his chances of rescue. Unfortunately he wore regular army boots that lace up about halfway to the knee. Veteran hunters fear wearing ankle-tight hip waders that can't be removed.
Initially the rescuers tried to free Cashin with the boat. Doc revved the airboat while Cashin held on, but the boat pulled straight up. Next they used the boat's lift for leverage. Cashin held on to the side of the boat while Doc fired the motor a couple of times, but that also failed.
Then Larry and Lynn hung on to him, hoping to get some leverage from inside the boat to pull him out. That effort met with failure also.
Their tools were limited, consisting of a machete and two pry bars. The rescuers tried to scoop the mud from around his legs.
There was no way to break the suction on him. They slid the machete down his leg hoping to get hold of the laces and cut them. He was stuck too deep to allow the machete to reach his laces.
Larry and Lynn took turns using the machete and keeping the boat close while Doc manned the boat. The tide increased in volume.
Recalling other experiences motivated the rescuers to work frantically. They remembered shooting and wounding ducks that fell into the soft mud. The birds beat their wings and disappeared into the muck. They'd seen several moose stuck in that same area. Although moose appear strong enough to get out of anything, they couldn't escape that inlet goo.
Doc had always told his sons, "Never go out in that mud. If a moose can't get out of there, you should think about what you're going to do."
Time flashed by as the men worked feverishly. The teenagers were near convulsions from the paralyzing ice-cold, glacial water. Because the water was getting deeper, they abandoned digging.
They tried to get leverage by running an oar through Cashin's belt and over the gunwale then lifting up, trying to pry him loose. It was hopeless, but they refused to give up.
Larry and Lynn put an oar across their shoulders and Cashin held on to it. They tried to lift him out. It didn't work.
Doc stayed in the boat. He reminded the boys to keep moving, sometimes yelling at them. He'd shut down the engine. The boys kept one arm on the boat whenever they could. They kept working, trying to keep from sinking.
Larry got hung up in the mud a couple of times, and Lynn pulled him loose. They kept their hip boots on, moving enough to pop them out of the mud if they started sinking.
Cashin had a tough time standing. He'd been there so long that he must have been numb.
Next the boys bent down and put one of Cashin's arms over each of their shoulders. They bowed their necks underneath his shoulder in his armpits and tried to stand up. They could see it hurt him too badly. Their efforts were futile.
They exhausted every idea they had. There was nothing more they could do.
The water rose higher and higher. Before long the water was approaching Cashin's chest as the boys bent over him in knee-deep water.
When the Puddicombes hunted the flats, they always knew the exact size of the tides. That day they expected a small tide. Soon the water started running out.
Lynn told Larry, "This guy's gonna make it." Doc watched the tide and the boys held Cashin up.
They were overjoyed for a second as the water started receding. But all of a sudden the wind shifted, and they felt a strong wind in their faces. That's common on the mudflats. The wind picked up hard and came across the inlet. When the wind does that, it takes the tide.
The tides on upper Cook Inlet are run by the wind. Where a normal twenty-five-foot tide stops without a wind, the wind piles the water up another five or six feet, resulting in a thirty-foot tide! The wind can also bring the tide in an hour earlier. Tricky thing.
By then water was underneath Cashin's chin. The rescuers were desperate. They took apart a shotgun and told Roger, "If the tide comes over your head, pinch your nose and breathe through this barrel." But he never used the shotgun for breathing. He didn't want any part of it. It seemed he didn't think he could survive anyway.
Meanwhile a big Hercules flew up and down the river. The military was looking for Roger. When the emergency message finally reached Elmendorf, somehow the location of the stuck hunter was given as the Knik River. Two planes and two helicopters were searching the wrong area--they were flying over the Knik River instead of the duck flats!
Pandemonium reigned with the incoming tide. The ice-cold water kept surging into the area. There was a lot of noise and commotion.
One pilot flew over to the Knik trying to motion the military to come over to the duck-flat side. Another pilot flew down the inlet and found Roy Knapp. Roy arrived, parked his boat nearby, and built a huge fire.
About that time another pilot in his new Super Cub flew over. He attempted to land in the grassy, shallow water near the scene and flipped his plane over.
Roger was still alive. Doc was worried Cashin might panic and grab one of the boys. But Roger wasn't panicked.
Roger remained calm. He never got tripped up. He never panicked. He never cried. He didn't scream and ask to be shot. The boys were amazed at his reserve. He looked at Lynn and said, "I don't want to stay here. I don't want to stay in this water."
Lynn replied, "Well, I hope you don't have to either."
When it became apparent that the Puddicombes couldn't help him, Roger took his wallet out and said, "Give that to my wife. Please tell her I love her."
Reluctantly the men realized there was nothing they could do.
When the tide went over his nose, Roger tipped his head way back.
Lynn held the back of his neck. Roger didn't yell; he didn't scream. He just went limp.
He died before the water went over his nose. Maybe it was shock. The boys held Roger for a minute. They noticed his hair floating at the surface. No bubbles came up. One minute he was breathing with them; the next minute he was gone.
Doc told his boys the soldier knew there wasn't anything they could do. In spite of their failure, the rescuers felt good because they had done the best they could.
The rescuers did so much in so short a time, it seemed as though they had all day to save Roger. But when it was all said and done, they'd worked with Cashin no more than thirty minutes ... possibly as little as fifteen.
Since Lynn had been in the water the longest and was on the verge of hypothermia, a pilot flew him to Palmer. He was met by his mother and younger brother Craig.
On the next shallow tide, officials set out to recover Cashin's body. They put ropes around him and tried to pull him out. They thought they would put a belt around him and take pressure up in the helicopter; however, the nylon rope broke when the helicopter attempted to hoist his body from the mud.
Doc Puddicombe received a letter from the U.S. Army, Alaska, a few days after the incident, commending him and his sons for their very determined effort to rescue Sp5 Roger J. Cashin.
It didn't have to happen. It was a senseless death. Had Roger Cashin's hunting buddies responded early on instead of taking the situation as a joke, Cashin would be alive. Doc Puddicombe was disturbed about that until the day he died.
People said the Puddicombes could have saved Cashin. Each skeptic had his reasons. People said, "Why didn't you remove his legs with a chain saw?" If the army was there with a doctor, the Puddicombes could probably have removed his legs and pulled him out. (How many people could survive having their legs cut off? Would a doctor ever let someone do that? Probably not.) Most people hunting geese do not carry a shovel or a chain saw!
One rumor stated that Cashin asked his rescuers to shoot him. That never happened.
Under the circumstances the military couldn't have done any more than the Puddicombes had done, even if they had arrived immediately. Their equipment was inadequate. The only thing that will get someone out of the mud is high-pressure water, and that process wasn't in use at that time.
Now rescue groups are equipped with portable compressors to deal with the problem. Helicopters can set down even if the water is deep or hover above the water.
The fire department and rescue units flush them out. The jet pump effectively blows away the muck.
Roger Cashin's death saved a lot of lives through the years. He didn't die in vain. A lot of people woke up to the dangers that mudflat country presents.
It was much worse before the 1964 earthquake. The cut banks were thirty feet high. Bore tides with six-foot heads sloshed up the slough. They rumbled into the hunting area sounding like a train in your living room. Locals joked about it: "The train's coming."
When it roared in, big slabs of mud fell from those mud banks and smacked the water. All night or all day long it sounded like cannon fire echoing up the slough.
Now water comes in and fills the whole area up, even on a small tide. A thirty-three-foot tide will sneak up on you and steal your boat. It's quiet because there are no banks anymore--just tapered, shallow shoulders. (Many people who hunt the mouth of the Little Susitna don't realize that its conditions are similar to upper Knik Arm's ... under the right conditions a twenty-eight-foot tide will fill the area in ten minutes, completely covering the numerous tide guts.) .
During the terrible ordeal and up to the very end Roger Cashin's attitude was remarkable. A rescuer stated, "It was a privilege to have known him. I wish we could have saved him."
For Roger Cashin to die, everything had to happen perfectly. And it did.
Though his situation was impossible, Roger Cashin never gave up. Another man who refused to quit was Randy Cazac.
DANGER STALKS THE LAND. Copyright © 1999 by Larry Kaniut. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.