Rob Kehrer was only 44 years old but had already competed 10 times in what many consider the toughest wilderness challenge in the world. On Saturday, during the 2014 Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic, Kehrer died while trying to packraft across the Tana River in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. He is the challenge's first fatality.
The challenge involves navigating more than 100 miles through some of Alaska's wildest land, and there is no route—the handful who can even consider competing must find the best way to the finish line while battling the elements. A post on the Classic Report, a blog for the event, quotes a prior race winner and Vietnam veteran who said, "The stress and intensity of the Wilderness Classic is as close as a civilian can come to experiencing actual combat."
Kehrer was among five participants who finished the 2013 Classic. This year's challenge followed the same course (it changes every three years). Kehrer decided use the Tana River as a way to avoid the nearly impassable vegetation he'd encountered the year before. Volunteer coordinator Luc Mehl said he believes Kehrer's inflatable packraft flipped in a powerful eddy when he was approaching a sharp turn in the river. Exactly how Kehrer died is still unclear; his body was found on a gravel bar Sunday.
Kehrer's death comes as another blow to the few who can step up to the Wilderness Classic challenge—as Alaska Dispatch News points out, nobody would have expected the race's first death to be someone as experienced as Kehrer. In fact, last year, when he saw fellow competitor Steve Duby flip his raft and lose it in the Tasnuna River, Kehrer tied up the raft on a visible gravel bar. Duby, who was about to abandon the challenge because of the lost raft, ended up becoming the first-place finisher thanks to Kehrer's help. "Everybody who describes him talks about his big heart," Mehl said. "He really embodied the spirit of Alaska."