It was when the river level hadn’t dropped in three weeks and they were running low on medication that Reinhard Bruengger realized that he and his wife Christin might be in trouble soon.
The Marsh Lake couple, along with their dog, Yuk, had gone out to their mining site just outside of Haines Junction, where the Jarvis and Telluride rivers meet, at the end of June, a trip they’d made over a dozen times with no issues since Bruennger bought the site in 2013.
But this time was different, and a series of unfortunate events ended with the couple stranded at their cabin, eventually getting rescued by the RCMP via helicopter.
The original plan, Bruengger said, was to cross the river and get to the cabin in one of his pickup trucks, but it got stuck on the muddy road about four kilometres away. The couple didn’t have a shovel in the truck — a mistake Bruengger said he won’t be repeating — and the winch they had wasn’t enough to pull it out, so Bruengger decided to walk to the cabin and return with a quad and trailer to pick up his wife, dog and supplies.
Crossing the Jarvis River by foot was doable, Bruengger recalled, but was “not that easy” when he came back with the quad and empty trailer. After packing the trailer with a few weeks’ worth of food and securing Yuk to a front basket on the quad, the couple started back to their cabin, crossing a small creek along the way with no problems.
But then came the Jarvis, and as soon as both the quad and trailer were in the water, chaos took over.
“(We) got washed down and the trailer unhooked…. My wife tried to grab it and she had it for a short while but then it was going crazy in the current and she had to let it go,” Bruengger said. At the same moment, the quad hit a rock on the riverbed. Bruengger said his wife was “catapulted” into the water and started tumbling downstream as he tried to keep the quad from tipping over. He managed to get the quad on to a small gravel bank and looked up to see Christin kneeling in the water, holding on to some rocks to keep herself from being swept down even farther.
Christin had hit her head several times as she tumbled and was disoriented. When he told her to swim to shore, she began heading the wrong way, so he swam down to her and brought her back to the gravel bank.
“At this moment, when she was in a safe place, I saw that trailer coming down (the river) again,” Bruengger said, “so I jumped out, grabbed the trailer by the tongue, and then I got caught by the current.”
Bruengger was swept downstream again and was almost crushed by the trailer as he tried to get it back to the riverbank. Eventually, he gave up and headed back to the quad, then rode back to the cabin.
“We were soaking wet and the water was not that warm in the Jarvis River, so I unload my wife and the dog,” he said. Their backpacks holding their satellite phone, cameras, binoculars and Christin’s medication had been swept down the Jarvis along with the trailer. The only valuable thing that wasn’t swept away was Bruengger’s wallet, which had happened to be in Christin’s coat pocket.
After warming up for a bit inside the cabin, Bruengger went back out on the quad, this time to the Telluride, to see if he could salvage anything. After a few minutes, he saw his trailer, upside down on the opposite side of the river.
“(I thought), ‘Okay, I need that trailer,’ then got in the water again,” he said. “Just crazy, just crazy.”
Bruengger made his way across and flipped the trailer over, losing a cooler full of bread in the process, but got the trailer hooked up to his quad. It was when he tried to cross back to the cabin side that chaos took over again.
“Probably my brain was only halfway working or so, I just ran into the water where I used to go when the water was low last year and the year before,” Bruengger said. “And I got in there, that’s an ATV… not a submarine. I got in there, the water got over the fuel tanks and boom, it quit on me in the middle of the current again.”
Somehow, Bruengger said he managed to get the quad and trailer on to the same gravel bank as before, parked them there, and finally went back to the cabin.
“My wife, she was pretty confused,” he recalled. “She said, ‘I already saw me dying.’ She said, ‘That was the last waltz I’ve been dancing, down that river, rolling down.’”
The next day, Bruengger said he managed to find another cooler in the river — one full of frozen meat — and the water level was low enough that he crossed over and drove to Haines Junction to get more groceries. He returned to the cabin without trouble, and he and Christin began doing work around the site. They had enough food to last weeks and there was plenty of water around.
And then it started raining, and it didn’t stop. The Jarvis River swelled even higher, making crossing safely impossible.
Bruengger said it was around July 16 that he started thinking about finding a way out. He’d been sharing his medication with his wife but didn’t know how sustainable that was, and the supply was running low. He’d heard from locals that there was some kind of road north of their site that led back to the Alaska Highway, so he went out on his quad to scout.
According to his GPS, Bruengger said he made it exactly three miles before hitting a dead end.
Bruengger went back to the cabin and checked the height of the river. It needed to drop about 30 centimetres before they could cross back safely — in 24 hours, it had dropped about one.
“I knew we didn’t have enough food and we didn’t have enough medications for that long,” Bruengger said. And so, around noon on July 21, Bruengger used a can of bright orange spray paint to scrawl a giant “SOS” in the bank of the Telluride.
Five hours later, a large helicopter flew over but showed no signs of having seen the SOS, Bruengger said. He would later learn that it was an American aircraft that didn’t have clearance to land in Canada, but the pilot had seen the message and reported it to Whitehorse Flight Services. Three hours after that, Bruengger said, another helicopter passed over — this time, it circled back, landed in front of the cabin and two RCMP officers and a pilot got out. After making sure they were okay, the officers arranged to come pick up the couple the next day.
The rescue went smoothly, Bruengger said, except for one thing — Yuk, scared by the sound of the helicopter blades spinning, took off just as they were about to board. The couple spent half an hour trying to find him before giving up.
“I said, ‘No, we better go. The pilot is not here to wait, to see how we play around with that dog until we catch him,’” Bruengger said. He dumped a bag of dog food under the porch for Yuk, and then got into the helicopter with Christin. It dropped them back at the highway where their truck was, and after checking in with the RCMP, the couple drove back home to Marsh Lake.
Four days later, Bruengger paid for a helicopter to fly him back to the cabin to search for Yuk, who had a face full of porcupine quills but was otherwise okay.
Bruengger said he and his wife, who declined to speak directly to the News, are thankful that in the end, they came out not just alive, but mostly unharmed, save a few bruises and bumps from the first tumble down the river.
“I would say, four, five thousand dollars went down the river. But that’s nothing compared to life….”
Since then, Bruengger said, he’s been keeping a close eye on Environment Canada reports coming out of Haines Junction, which have been showing relatively dry weather. If it keeps up, he plans to return to his mine site next week — but this time, more prepared and with more respect for the land.
“If the water’s too high, I’ll turn around and come back, I don’t want to risk my life anymore,” he said. “I think no ground is that rich that it’s worth to risk your life to go there … It’s beautiful country, but sometimes it’s rough.”
Contact Jackie Hong at firstname.lastname@example.org