The Deadly Copper Continues To Take The Lives Of Dipnetters

  In the early 20th century, commercial paid dipnetters worked the Copper for canning factories. (Wikipedia) A 68-year old Wasilla ma...

In the early 20th century, commercial paid dipnetters worked the Copper for canning factories. (Wikipedia)

A 68-year old Wasilla man who tried to cross O'Brien Creek on an amphibious vehicle known as an Argo was swept away into the Copper River south of Chitina. The incident took place on Wednesday, July 8th, 2020 at 7 pm.

Barry Yocom was driving his Argo over O'Brien Creek and disappeared into the raging Copper River when the vehicle lost its traction on the creek bed. Alaska State Troopers went out into the Copper  River in a boat, and also searched by air. They found items that belonged to Yocom, but could not locate his body, Troopers said.

The Copper River is a wild and dangerous river. Over the years, many people have lost their lives in the Copper, including dip netters.

At Chitina, where dipnetters from Fairbanks and other cities rush with their five-foot wide dipnets to fill their freezers, a surprising number of fishermen get swept down. the Copper River – and never come out. 

The Ahtna used to construct platforms out into the water to stand on while dipnetting. But modern day urban fishermen at Chitina wade out into the torrent – in chest waders that can fill with ice-cold silty water at a moment's notice and drag them under the rapid current of muddy water, never to emerge. There are no towns, or roads or settlements south of Chitina – just far-away Cordova and the delta of the Copper, leading to mud flats and the open ocean. Everybody knows this. But urban fishermen often refuse to tie themselves to a tree on shore, and they sometimes refuse to wear life vests while wading into the water, maneuvering their nets up near the bridge.

Twenty-five years ago, as unaware of the danger and the impact on the community surrounding them as the Gold Rush miners were a century ago, modern day dipnetters left the people of Chitina to pick up after them – just as the Ahtna did for the early miners. The people of of the Copper Valley were there for them to ignore,  and local people had to rescue them, look for their bodies, put out their smoldering forest fires, deal with their waste -–  and wonder about them and their deadly means of taking what they feel they deserve from the Copper River Valley.

In June, 1994,  the Copper River Country Journal had a story about the problem:


Chitina -- Dipnetting is a dangerous sport. Once again, a dip netter has been swept away by the silty, turbulent Copper River, and his body has not been found. Michael Mark, a 45-year old from Healy, who is said to have come to Chitina since he was young,  fell into the Copper and was not recovered. 
His fate is not unusual; over the years, many dipnetters have been swept away. EMT Art Koeninger of Chitina told the Journal, "I think we really need to start raising people's consciousness about the dangers."

Koeninger said that the practice of dipnetting has caused many "dipnetter-related concerns." Koeninger said dipnetters cause long-burning fires by placing campfires on flammable peat.  When they have a problem, the person reporting the incident often leaves for home -- and volunteer rescuers frequently have trouble finding the accident site. Koeninger said that all dipnetters should use life savers, a "buddy system" and should tie themselves to the shore.

But local EMS Coordinator Lilly Muir-Delaney told the Journal that part of the problem is the Alaskan mentality. "They think it's wimpy to wear a life vest -- it's a weenie thing to do," she said.

"But it isn't the smartest thing to do. You don't look like a macho tough guy when you're gone. They think, 'I've done it every year.' They don't want to look like Joe Tourist... they don't respect the fact that water is so cold and so fast and so silty," she said. "It just takes one slip. One loss of balance, and you're gone. It takes your breath away. The water is so cold, it doesn't take long."

A few years later, the dangers of all of the Copper Valley's many large and tumultuous rivers was made clearer when Chuck Zimbicki, a 45 year old local outdoorsman, drowned on his horse while crossing the Maclaren River on the Denali Highway. The more recent story of the Argo is only a variant of age-old disasters going back to the Gold Rush involving river crossings on whatever form of transportation that were in vogue at the time, whether a horse, a mule, a spruce-tree homemade boat – or an Argo.

In spite of repeated deaths at the Copper River during dipnetting season, it's a never-ending tale of unexpected disaster. In June, 2000, Aisa Aumoeualogo, the 50 year old popular assistant principal at West High School in Anchorage, lost his footing while dipnetting at Chitina without a life jacket and died.



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