Sunday, August 14, 2005

A Big Stick In The Mud

My hometown of Anchorage, Alaska is a coastal community, its western borders defined by bluffs overlooking Cook Inlet. Instead of beaches we have mud flats made of fine glacial silt. During low tide the mud flats can be hundreds of yards wide yet during high tide they are completely underwater. One year the telephone directories had a beautiful picture of Bootlegger’s Cove during low tide with the mud flats and tree stumps digitally painted to look as if they were beautiful blue water and white-capped waves crashing onto shore. Blue water? Cook Inlet is muddy under the best of circumstances.

Besides being decidedly unpicturesque, the mud sucks. Literally. I have heard many cautionary tales of people getting stuck in the mud and drowning when the tide came in. The most dramatic of these stories goes like this:

Many years ago a man walking along the mud flats found himself sinking. His struggling only caused him to become stuck further until he was waist deep in the mud and the tide started to come in. He managed to yell for help but rescuers were unable to pull him out manually. As the tide rushed in, a helicopter came to assist. They tied a rope around his waist or under his arms and the helicopter pulled. The rope pulled taut and it looked like the man was going to finally be free of the mud when – pop- he was ripped in half, leaving this hips and legs in the mud and his upper body swinging wildly from the helicopter’s rope.

I’ve heard this story my whole life.

The question is this: is it true?
The answer is: yes and no.

Yes, the mud kills folks. Or more precisely, people get themselves killed by getting stuck in the mud; it’s like quicksand. Your feet will get stuck and struggling will make you sink deeper until you can quickly be up to your knees, by which time you will need assistance to get out. Quick assistance.

The other interesting thing about the Turnagain Arm area of Cook Inlet is that it’s long and shallow which is the perfect condition for a bore tide. The Turnagain Arm bore tide comes when the tide starts coming in. The bore comes fast and large: a six to ten foot tall wave which travels at up to 15 miles per hour. You can go from being stuck in an inch or two of standing water on top of mud to being completely underwater in the time it takes to scream for help.

The urban legend about the helicopter likely stems from a true incident in 1961. A soldier from Ft. Richardson, Roger Cashin, got stuck in the mud while hunting along the bank of Wasilla Creek, north of Anchorage. Rescuers did tie a rope from him to a helicopter but the mud had such a grip on him that the rope snapped, not his body. Less gruesome but equally horrifying his rescuers ended up using the barrel of Mr. Cashin’s rifle as a breathing tube for him when the water reached over his head but they could do little but watch as he succumbed to hypothermia and drowned.

In September 1988, a newlywed husband and wife on four-wheelers took off across the mud flats bound for “the other side of the inlet” on a mining expedition (they were clearly not the sharpest cheese in the chandelier to begin with). One of the ATVs became stuck in the mud less than two hundred yards from the beginning of their adventure. The wife hopped off the ATV and onto the mud to try and push the machine loose. She quickly became stuck. The husband worked for two hours by himself trying to free her, then called for help. Emergency response from the Anchorage Fire Department and the Alaska State Troopers came quickly but they could not dig her out in time. When the tide rushed in they could do little but watch her drown.

Since then the Anchorage Fire Department developed special procedures for handling the mud flats and have a whole range of tools to extract people from the mud including hovercraft, high pressure hoses, and special “moon boots” which distribute the weight of the rescuers so they will not be sucked into the mud themselves.

The flats are dotted with signs warning people of the dangers of walking on them. This does not deter people. When locals see tourists walking out on the flats, they usually yell at them to get the heck back to firm ground. People don’t listen. Last week a woman had to be rescued by the fire department. Just today the fire department had to go out and tell someone to move it on back to shore.

Perhaps this is the valuable thing about urban legends: true or not, the helicopter-ripping-a-guy-in-half story stuck with me (pardon the pun) and kept me off of the flats.

Maybe that’s why the Bible has been such a best-seller. It contains lots of stories, some of them completely absurd but most teaching us lessons worth learning.

From Sodom and Gomorrah to the hook-armed maniac terrorizing Lovers Lane, legends are a good thing. They remind us to watch our step.

Monsterous Mysteries by Lynne Snifka, Alaska Magazine


Dorene Lorenz said...


It is not mud, it is silt from the glacier.

And I heard the helicopter story as well, and firmly believe that it is true.


Eric said...

Dorene, thanks for dropping by.

I'd suggest that: silt + water = mud, but that would sound defensive.

Believe it all: pillar of salt and the helicopter torso thing; it can't really hurt!

MOM IS NUTZ said...

Thanks for visiting me...and complimenting my fine singing voice! I think that you too can carry a helluva tune!!

Anonymous said...

Hey Eric, fellow Alaskan here, how the hell are ya?

Anonymous said...

Here in Florida we have sand pits than make beautiful beach photos when the tide is high, but death traps when some idiot of a fisherman tries to walk across one at low tide... but it was ok, my brother helped me finally get unstuck.

smussyolay said...

i've heard that in quicksand.. don't panic (well, first of all, this is a good rule of thumb in any crisis sitch...did you know i should stop saying 'rule of thumb?' that comes from a law saying a man could beat his wife with anything as long as the thickness was less than his thumb.), and roll yourself sideways off the quicksand.

i have a fear...not so much of quicksand per se...but of the idea of sinkholes.

Lois Lane said...

Man, if I grew up hearing that story, I would never go anywhere near the mud. Not even for rasslin'.
Lois Lane

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Becky said...

the man roger cashin is my uncle. he was the greatest man around except for Jesus the Christ,which he believe in.

Anonymous said...

To anyone who recalls this incident, my name is Randy Crase and I am the son of Roger Cashin, I am looking for individuals who would recall anything about my father as I was unborn when this incident ocurred, please contact me at

Anonymous said...


I enjoyed your blog on the mudflats of Anchorage. It not only helped me to answer a question in my Emergency Management class but also proved to be an entertaining read. Thanks for setting me straight on the legend of the pulled in half victim, I too thought it was real until I read your blog.

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Anonymous said...

As an Alaskan, and a previous teenager, I've been out on the mudflats quite a few times. It's actually relatively safe if you know what you're doing, excluding a few problem areas in the mud. I wrote a blog post on it a while back if you're interested in learning more on the subject.

billy bumber said...

mudflats, shmudflats, its all a bunch of house caca, I've gotten stuck there, and tide comes nowhere close to the levels in article, maybe 6 inches at most, i moved cuz Alaskans are whiners and wimps, TRY BUFFALO NY FELLAS, THE REAL LAST FRONTIER. MORE GOLD HERE ALSO!

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

One summer I jumped off a trestle into the Trinity river (for fun, we all did as kids), but this time I decided to let myself go all the way down to see how deep the water was. When my feet hit the bottom I went to push off, but instead I became immediately stuck almost to my knees in silt. Two things saved my life that day-the scuba moves my father had taught me, and the huge breath I took before I jumped. I'm relatively certain without those two things, I'd have drowned before FINALLY freeing myself-one very pointed foot at a time-from that sticky muck.

Ron Hinchley said...

I Britain they use a simple effective tool for mud extraction. It's a tank of compressed air with a tube connecting to a rod. They press the rod into the mud next to the stuck foot and pump air in. The foot comes right out.

Anonymous said...

"Maybe that’s why the Bible has been such a best-seller. It contains lots of stories, some of them completely absurd";
Interesting in that the author writes this story and ends by bringing up the Bible, citing it as a best seller but writing it off as mere bunk? Could it be the "stories" are fact?

Unknown said...

I wonder if situations like this are where the legend of quicksand came from? I often read that quicksand as portrayed in the movies doesn't exist, yet it doesn't seem too hard, based on some of these accounts, to get inextricably stuck in short order in a very similar manner.

As far as the Bible thing goes, the author was completely justified in stating that we can learn lessons from it despite some of the stories being absurd. While a lot of the stories have merit, some are a bit wide of the mark: for instance, Abraham preparing to sacrifice Isaac, Balaam and the talking donkey, and the three guys going into the fiery furnace without injury. These stories have some entertainment/shock value, and some have lessons the faithful can use, but only the most fervent Christians would accept every incredible story in the Bible as factual history.

Anonymous said...

Hi Doren my Uncle Roger Cashin was never ripped on half.