‘I had to get out of there’: Fairbanks man’s remote rafting trip turns into wilderness COVID ordeal

a helicopter in front of mountains
A North Slope Borough Search and Rescue helicopter landed along the Canning River to pick up David Hamilton. (Photo courtesy of David Hamilton)

A Fairbanks man is recovering from COVID-19 after getting seriously ill during a 12-day wilderness rafting trip on the North Slope.

David Hamilton, 77, is an experienced backcountry traveler and was part of a group floating the Canning River earlier in July. Hamilton says another member of the party had COVID but didn’t know it until they were out on the remote river.

“He was pretty miserable there for a few days, and we did everything as far as following protocol, masking and distancing and so on,” he said. “But I got COVID out there.”

Hamilton said he’s fully vaccinated and boosted, but he also has asthma, and he quickly became very sick.

“Pretty tired, wiped out, achy, had a bad headache, a really bad cough, couldn’t stop coughing,” he said. “And my blood pressure went off the top too, so I knew… I had to get out of there.”

a river near mountains
The Canning River, seen here in 2018, flows from the Brooks Range into the Beaufort Sea along the western edge of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (Lisa Hupp/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Hamilton used a satellite phone to call 911 and began communicating with an operator.

“She asked, ‘What’s the nearest town?’ And I said, ‘Kaktovik.’ And she says, ‘How do you spell that?’” he said. “Then she said, ‘Is there any roads, or can an ambulance get to you?’ and I said, ‘No, Kaktovik is about 150 miles away and there’s no roads at all out here. I’m in the middle of nowhere Alaska, on the North Slope on a gravel bar on the Canning River.’”

Hamilton said the operator gave him the number for North Slope Borough Search and Rescue, which sent a helicopter out of Utqiaġvik that picked him up and flew him to Deadhorse.

He said that a medevac plane landed about 10 minutes after he got to Deadhorse, and within an hour and a half he was at the hospital in Fairbanks.

“It was just slick,” Hamilton said. “It was just really highly professionally done.”

He emphasized the value of his $125 per year medevac insurance.

“If you ever had to pay for one of those, it would just bankrupt you I’m sure,” he said.

Hamilton said he’s testing negative now and has largely recovered. He said he’s been doing wilderness trips his entire life and plans to continue.

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Dan Bross is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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