Back to Jim's
May 2002 - Alaska's Knik River
Mark Whatley describes the recovery of Jack Mantz' 1973 FJ40 Land Cruiser from Alaska's Knik River.
Photos by Gina Bringman.
This story actually got started while most of the Alaska Cruiser Crew
was sitting around having a BBQ down at the shop on Sunday afternoon.
One of our regulars wasn't there. Jack Mantz was out enjoying the
beautiful day with some other friends. When I swung by the store for
some sundry parts and supplies on Monday morning I found out just how
little fun he wound up having. There were a couple of mistakes made the
previous day. Most accidents and misadventures have that in common. The
end result involved a couple of rigs afloat, overturned and sunk in the
main current channel of the Knik River. People in the (35 degree F)
water. Rescue by the pilots of overflying aircraft. Everyone involved
came out of it all okay, but Jack's very nice FJ40 was left with only
the top of the roll bar and tip of the snorkle showing above the rushing
water. The full size Ford with him was rolled and tumbled down the river
a bit to wind up on its top.

We made a few phone calls, and that evening we made our first run out to retrieve the rig. However there was some basic misunderstanding about just where the rigs were, and how difficult the extraction would be. We were initially under the impression that they could be reached from the side of the river where they entered. This would have allowed us to reach them just a couple of miles from road access. When we reached that point however we realized that it would not be that easy. They had made it almost all the way across the main channel of the river. There was no safe way to get a cable to it. By the time we made it back to the road, it was far too late to even make it in to the other side of the river where the vehicles were. Much less attempt any removal of the rigs from the water. The next day I got to the shop early and finished up everything that couldn't be put off. Gina Bringman was there early and rounded up a few things we realized we would need after seeing the situation on the ground (so to speak). John Pavlicek and Darrell Wayman made it there by noon (Darrell bringing the two band new drysuits that would make this a reasonable undertaking). Jack showed up in his newly repaired '80 (it's been a bad stretch of Cruiser luck for Jack lately), towing John's flatbed trailer. We wrapped up some last minute adjustments and such on the rigs (which we really hadn't expected to be taking out on the trails for another couple weeks or so), and set out to bring the Cruiser home. We were taking three fairly stout FJ40s in for the attempt. John's rig is a pure function type rig. 1978 model with Saginaw PS conversion, 5 inch suspension lift, locked front and rear, 35 inch MTs an 8274-50 on the front, and a rust ravaged body. Gina's rig is approaching it's final evolution. It's a '68 with a '74 F engine, four speed, FJ60 PS, locked rear axle, SO conversion with extended wheelbase, PTO winch, 33 inch MTs, custom iron at each end, cage, buckets and other function oriented modifications. I was driving my mongrel FJ40. Hand built coil spring suspension (104 inch wheel base) Very modified 2F, FJ60 axles with 40x17 inch Ground Hawgs, lockers and 4.88s, Scout PS conversion, PTO winch and a laundry list of other mods. All in all we were confident of having the rigs to do the job. In addition to the rigs and the afore mentioned drysuits we also had some life vests, 300 feet of 3/8s cable (which we didn't really expect to need, but it was already loaded from the trip out the previous day), tow straps and chains, extra dry clothes, plenty of food, and first aid supplies. To reach the spot where we would attempt to recover the vehicles, we would have to travel in through our stomping grounds of the Knik Valley. About a 20-25 mile run from the trailhead. Other than a very sticky slop hole right before the beaver ponds we had no trouble getting in. This slop hole required all three rigs to winch their way through. I even had one of my 40 inch tires sink below the surface of the cement like quicksand/silt that comprised this nastiness. Other than that it was the usual variety of sand dune, mud flats, stream crossings, winding trails through the woods ponds to cross and desert like gravel barrens to wander through. The place we needed to be was a bit off of our normal routes so it took a little bit of casting about for the most direct route to the river at that point, but we found the abandoned rigs in short order. The trip in took us about 3 hours from the trailhead.
Once we reached the site, we were looking at the top of Jack's FJ40 about 30 feet out from the ledge like "shore". He had made it all the way from the other shore before the deeper channel sucked him in. This rig sits on 35 inch tires and an SO conversion. The water was reaching within a couple of inches of the top of the windshield frame as the current broke up against it. The Ford was about 50 yards downstream where it had drifted before getting rolled upside down and getting pushed aground only a few feet from the dry rocks. After a little leg stretching and obligatory picture snapping we got started on the recovery. Darrell Wayman and myself donned drysuits and life vests. You don't go into a river like this without them. Fairly swift flowing, silty and extremely cold, it is not water that you enter by choice. We spent a little bit discussing the job ahead of us and agreeing on how to execute the first few steps. This is more important than a lot of people seem to realize. You really need to have everyone on the same sheet of music. And it helps a lot to hear everyone's suggestions and ideas at this stage too, while you can still incorporate the best ones, rather than halfway through when you are committed to a course of action.
With a medium weight line in hand I waded into the river a little ways upstream from the '40 and let the water carry me to it. I had forgotten to "burp" the excess air from the suit and so found myself floating on my back kinda like a human shaped air mattress. It was only a minor irritation however and I managed to grab the roll bar on my first pass and climb into the rig. Once there, I secured the line, and John and Darrell passed a winch cable over on it. Due to the current and the depth, getting a line on the front of the rig was out of the question, so we attached the cable to the pintle hook in the rear, even though that would give us far from the ideal location to pull the rig from. It went smoothly and quickly, and I climbed back into the current and let the line to shore swing me over to the rocks. Then I remembered that I had left the Cruiser in gear... Back into the water (after burping the suit this time).
Now it was time to try to bring the rig out. Because we had to attach to the rear of the rig, which was the downstream end, there was little doubt about this going smoothly. As soon as we started moving it, we expected the '40 to begin to slip downstream with the current, and our cable would not act to control this at all. The plan was for the single rig (John's) that we had rigged to quickly back up and reposition as soon as this happened, so that the pulling against the cable would still be straight on as the floating load shifted down the river. We didn't want to start with the winching rig positioned that way, on the off chance that we could keep Jack's waterlogged rig from rolling. We were not real hopeful about this anyway. Gina's rig was positioned with cable spooled out so as to quickly attach either to John's vehicle as an extra anchor weight if needed.
As we suspected it would, as soon as we pulled, the rig in the water began to drift downstream. The 8274 could just barely keep up with it. Jack was behind the wheel of John's rig as John ran the winch. They quickly backed and repositioned while running the winch at the same time, and the drifting '40 was regrounded a few yards downstream and just a long leap from the edge. It also did a slow roll onto it's side as it stopped. Any further pulling with this cable would now just slide the rigs around a little and start it tumbling in the current some more.
Darrell went into the river this time to attach another cable. Using the PTO on my '40 we slowly rolled the rig upright against the current. With it held at about a 45 degree angle (if we brought it all the way over on the steep underwater section of the bank it would have rolled further, and pivoted in the current) Darrell rigged a third cable from Gina's winch and as we held the rig in place, she drug it up onto dry rock and fully onto its tires. Other than a slightly tweaked mount for the Kayline top there was no damage visible to the rig. But the brand new 350, the Ranger overdrive and all the rest of the drivetrain was of course full of glacier water with it's attendant abrasive silt. As were all of the electronics for the fuel injection, and all of the switches. And the gas tank. And everything else you could think of. It will not be moving under its own power for while.
During this operation to this point we had several aircraft make low passes overhead. We were right under a commonly flown flightseeing route and this, in addition to the aviation assistance during the original stranding, had made us a impromptu feature of the tours. A little extra part of the story for the tourist to take home with them. Just as the rig came out of the water, one plane made a particularly low circle, and we looked up to see a note fluttering down. It turned out that one of Gina's coworkers had decided to take advantage of the beautiful day, and had played hooky from work to go out flying. Of course he had to swing by and drop a note to say "hi". Retrieving the pickup was simpler, but not pretty. It was upside down, just a few feet out. We ran the cables from the PTOs to the far side of each axle, and used this to roll the rig upright without letting it slip in the current. Once it was held tires down on the steep sloping bank, John pulled it out of the water with the 8274. The owner of the Ford runs a body shop and the rig was his rolling billboard. Not any more. The roof was crushed down to the dash board, all the glass was of course gone, and the only undamaged part of the body was the grill. While the rest of us picked up gear and prepared for the long trip out, John used a highlift to pull the roof up enough for a driver to sit in the wreck. Darrell and myself had been discussing whether or not it might be possible to actually ford the river just a little ways upstream from where this whole adventure had transpired. It would have been very nice if we could have. That would give us a two to three mile run across had packed gravel with a few scrubs to reach the end of a pavd road. Our other option was going back the way we had come in. It was doubtful that it was doable, but since we still had the drysuits on, it was worth investigating. Neither of us had a walking staff (I have a couple of collapsible ones for just this duty, but had forgotten them), so we tried to steady ourselves against the current with a rope between us. It helped a bit. We made it about halfway across a shallower section a little ways upstream. It was probably about 200 yards wide at that point and about hip deep on my 6 foot frame. Doable for my very lifted rig. A little daunting though for that kind of distance and more importantly that current. The other rigs were much lower and it would have been more uncomfortable for them. Plus we were dragging a lot of dead weight behind two of our three vehicles. Any loss of traction due to the extra power being fed through the tires to the wet rocks of the river bed would result in the tow vehicle slipping downstream. We decided that discretion was definitely the better part of valor this day. If we could have waited there 'til the early hours of the morning, when the water levels were at their lowest, it might have been worth considering, but otherwise it just wasn't worth the risks We set off towing the disabled vehicles with less difficulty that I expected. I thought that dragging the Ford was going to be problematic, but my "rather heavy in its own right" '40 didn't seem to hardly notice the load. We headed downstream in search of a safe fording spot. We didn't expect to find one (and we didn't) but we really would have liked to avoid the lengthy run back out of the valley, the deep beaver ponds with the muddy bottoms, and the hole full of glacial silt pudding that we knew would be a big job even to winch through. Once we accepted that crossing the river wasn't going to happen we headed for the far side of the valley. Rumbling across the dry barrens the filing light was kinda neat. A cloud of dust marked our passage so it was easy to keep track of each other even when we spread out in the scrub brush. Anytime a vehicle crossed one of he pockets of powdery ground a cloud rose high enough to be seen for miles.We made a last attempt to avoid the ponds and the worst of the mud, be sending Darrell and Gina ahead in her '40 to try and find a couple of trails that I had last used several years ago. They did locate one of them, but when we walked in to look it over, it was definitely impassable. Maybe in another month or so it would be suitable for a Cruiser, but on this night it was still pudding. Quite literally. The ground through the alders there is comprised almost totally of glacial silt. It was saturated with water that could not escape yet due to the still frozen subsurface layers. You can walk across the top if you are careful. The ground around you will shake, shiver and flex like the skin on a pot of cooked pudding. You can bounce up and down on it like a great big waterbed. But as you do so, it steadily and quickly begins to liquify as you loosen up the interlocking silt particles. Once this happens you break through and sink into some of the stickiest and gooiest mud known to man. No exaggeration. People have died in this stuff. The suction is incredible. I have had to be pulled out of it a couple of times. In fact later this same night, it took several increasingly worrisome minutes for me to get a single foot free from just ankle deep suction. [NOTE: Checkout the ACT 2001 Knik Glacier Run photos. You'll see the beaver ponds, water crossings and gravel barrens that Mark is talking about. Look close and you'll see Jack's green '73 FJ40 successfully crossing a 3-4 foot deep beaver pond.] After wasting some time trying to avoid them, we were back to the beaver ponds. The ponds themselves turned out to be no big deal. I churned and dug a little bit getting the Ford drug through, but the dead rigs were not a major problem. We all knew that the actual water depth (right at 3 and a half feet this night) would not be a real concern for us. The sloppy silt bog just past them was a real pain. Once again, every rig had to be winched through. The Ford required Gina to rig her '40 to mine for anchoring weight, and I was expecting to snap a shear pin on the PTO at any moment. I think that may have twisted the PTO driveshaft getting him pulled through, but I haven't had a chance to check yet. John's rig was running on only 5 cylinders by the time we were done with this section. But since it was after midnight, the remaining trail was lengthy but unchallenging, we were tired and very muddy, and he was only towing another '40... we ignored it once a quick check for loose sparkplug wires revealed nothing, and continued to the road. From here on out it was just a twisty ride through the woods, and a long dusty run across the sand flats. We reached the trailhead a little after 2:00 AM. Just about 12 hours after we headed in. Tired and muddy, but mission accomplished. All in all, this ended a lot better than most stories of rigs that get caught in the Knik. Mark...
-- Mark Whatley Owner, Cruisers Only, Wasilla Alaska
Back to Jim's