On August 12, 2016, father and son, Ed and Elias Stratton, were making a normal trip to the local lodge to get some groceries that were being delivered to the area with a friend. Traveling down the Skwentna River was a trip they had made countless times in their airboat. This particular day, they decided to visit with friends at the lodge after picking up their supplies before heading home.
Elias Stratton, a college student and avid outdoorsman, recalls it being a pretty foggy and a rather chilly evening.
Having navigated this river before, the trio knew that it was best to stay to the left but recognized the river was high due to flooding that had occurred earlier in the year.
Elias' father Ed, owner of Alaska Big Game Guides, was piloting the airboat when he noticed a deadhead and quickly turned the boat to avoid it but clipped the sand bar in the process.
That is when the trip was no longer an ordinary grocery run.
The boat flipped and quickly began filling with water. Elias recalls pulling his dad out of the boat by his collar while their friend kicked out a window to escape the quickly capsizing vessel. As the cold, fast moving water pierced their bodies, the men began to make their way to a sand bar that was about 30 yards away.
Shock was setting in and they couldn't believe what had just happened. It was dark, raining, the men were drenched, and their survival kit was on the boat that was now submerged.
Suddenly a boat comes by. The men jumped up and down screaming to get their attention but it was just too dark, too rainy and would have been too good to be true.
It was at that point that Elias remembered he had a SPOT GEN3 Tracking device in his pocket.
"If there was ever an appropriate time to activate the S.O.S on our SPOT GEN3, it was right then," recalls Elias. "I removed the device from my wet pant pocket and pressed the S.O.S. button. When I saw the device light up it ensured me the message was going through and we were hopeful that help was on the way."
Even though they activated the S.O.S. on their SPOT GEN3, they had no idea how long they would be out there. They knew that they needed to move to a different location where they could get some cover to protect them from the elements. They were looking at a 400 yard swim, in fast moving and nearly freezing water. No one was excited about this.
Ed jumped in first and everyone held their breath as he fought the current and made it to the mile wide island down river. Next their friend jumped in. Elias and Ed remember yelling loudly and cheering him on as he pushed through. Now it was Elias' turn.
When he jumped in, he was reminded of just how cold the water was. It felt as though he was being stabbed with thousands of pins and could feel his body becoming paralyzed by the ice water. He walked along the bottom of the riverbed as long as he could and then realized he would have to swim.
"You have to have a really strong mind when you are in situation like this," said Elias. "The water is so cold, and you feel like you cannot move. If for one minute you second guess yourself or give up, that's it. It's over."
All three men finally made it safely to the mile-wide island that had nothing but small trees. They seriously contemplated swimming again to reach the mainland where they would be able to walk to the post office and at least make a fire to get them through the night. But there was no way they could swim through that water again.
Freezing, cold and in the dark rain, the men huddled together for warmth and used tree branches to create a little bit of insulation. They strategically positioned themselves on the island in the event that a boat would come by the often traveled route and rescue them.
Back at home, Ed's wife Lisa had been notified about the S.O.S. activation on the SPOT GEN3 device.
"My son knows to only activate the device in the event of a real emergency," said Lisa. "My husband and son our outdoor enthusiasts and guide groups through Alaska all the time through Ed's business so I knew something serious must have happened."
The S.O.S. button notified GEOS International Emergency Response Coordination Center of the emergency and worked with local agents to attempt a rescue however conditions did not permit a helicopter to deploy.
"Later we found out that the weather was so bad that no one was going to be able to get to us safely until morning," said Elias. "We were so relieved when the Alaska National Guard showed up around sunrise and we got to take a ride in a black hawk. That was definitely the highlight of the entire thing for me."
"We have been carrying the SPOT GEN3 with us on a number of outings for a little over two years, just in case, "said Ed Stratton. "We were very fortunate to have had the technology handy when things took a turn for the worse and recommend it to many of our family and friends."