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Sam Cook column: Gauging risk is highly personal issue

Sam Cook

A friend with whom I’ve traveled hundreds of miles in the wilderness sent me a story from Outside online magazine this week. It was about a highly experienced wilderness traveler who drowned while trying to packraft a canyon on Alaska’s Tana River.

With the story was a photo of the Tana Glacier, where the cold, swift Tana River is born.

“Look familiar?” my friend wrote.

We had camped just downstream from that glacier and rafted the remote Tana River in 1995 on an exploratory trip with the University of Minnesota Duluth’s Recreational Sports Outdoor Program. Our group made the two-week trip successfully, though not without formidable challenges. The school has not offered the trip again.

Both that trip and the recent drowning rekindled the long-standing discussion of risk-taking. It’s a practice that all of us engage in, whether on a glacial Alaskan river or driving up the North Shore to view fall colors.

The man who drowned on the Tana a few days ago, Rob Kehrer, clearly had assessed the risks he was taking. He was participating in the 2014 Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic, a multiday foot race through wilderness, over glacial ice and across cold, swift rivers such as the Tana. Kehrer was a veteran of previous Wilderness Classics.

Race officials reported that he died in a canyon below a Class IV rapids when he was thrown from his packable raft in a powerful eddy. I’ve seen those eddies. I can believe it.

Most of us wouldn’t choose to put ourselves in such a challenging situation where the risks are inherently high.

“Extreme caution is warranted for the packrafting options in this region,” the event’s website warned participants.

So, how much risk is enough? That’s a question that all of us have to answer for ourselves. I recall standing on the shores of the Tana River trying to scout those Class IV rapids. We were using big 14-foot rafts, not smaller packrafts. And still, we made the decision, after looking at the long, gray wave train, to portage all of our gear around. We had found our limit, though some in the group would have run the set.

Would you ride a zip-line through forest canopy in Costa Rica? Would you skydive? Would you fish a little longer with lightning in the vicinity? Would you attempt to climb Alaska’s Mount McKinley? On your own? In a guided group?

We stand on the brink of such decisions, weighing the thrill of success against the consequences of failure. Would I shatter a collarbone? Suffer a concussion? Die?

Is it worth that? Only you can decide.

Taking calculated risks is a heady thing. When you tackle something you’re not quite sure you can handle and you succeed, it’s exhilarating. You feel completely alive. Every fiber of your being tingles. For some, it’s addicting.

I’ve been close to my limit a few times. In an igloo on ocean ice not far from the open sea. In a tent in a three-day whiteout at the edge of the tundra. Rock-climbing on a cliff over Lake Superior.

But statistically, I’m probably taking a great risk hurtling along the North Shore at 55 mph.

Sam Cook is a Duluth News Tribune columnist and outdoors writer. Reach him at (218) 723-5332 or