Over the weekend, two boaters died in the glacier-fed Tustumena Lake near Kenai when winds picked up and swamped their 18-foot boat. What started out as a calm evening, quickly turned into a nightmare. The father, Ashley Udulhoven, his two teenage daughters and their two friends set out along the 25 mile lake for a public use cabin at the north end of the lake. Partway into the trip, the winds rose, creating waves as high as 9 feet. All six passengers were wearing life jackets and were thrown into the 40 degree lake. One of the girls struggled with her ill-fitting life jacket, and Ashley tried to save her by using a rescue stroke as they all headed for shore, two miles away. But the effort was too much, and soon the father and the girl slipped away.
The other three girls, aged 12, 13 and 15 continued on, swimming to shore, then scrambling over the rugged terrain without shoes to another cabin, where the girls started a fire and waited for rescue. Miranda Udulhoven, the eldest of the surviving girls, urged on the others, acting with a responsibility and resolve hard to imagine.
This story was covered in the Anchorage Daily News, and the comments there are supportive and complimentary. Reading the comments on the same story over at CNN.com simply made me sad. A few commenters, not all, blame the father for the tragedy without understanding the circumstances.
This is far too easy to do.
Public discourse too often mirrors the polarizing left-wing vs. right-wing formula meant to sell commercial spots and increase ratings rather than promote discussion. In fact, it seems that public discourse itself has become taboo. Too often, we shy away from it in fear of vitriol and unsupported rhetoric. When the norm for open discussion is simply spewing out one’s own beliefs without stopping to listen to the other side, it’s no wonder debate has become such an ugly word.
A few months ago I wrote about the tragic avalanche accident that killed Kip Garre and Allison Kreutzen. One reader claimed that I used their deaths as a lesson for others, admonishing me for my article. In my response to him I explained that while I hated to see yet another avalanche fatality, in my experience slides are predictably relentless, I was not trying to assign blame. Instead I was trying to engage in some discourse about our chosen risks. Is it okay to die doing what we love? I’m just not sure. Regardless, the death of these two is tragic and awful and there’s no other way to look at it. I, too, engage in the very same risks, and I’m questioning myself as much as the ski culture at large.
In the case of Ashley and the four teen girls, they set out innocently and prepared. He tried heroically to save the struggling girl. Ashley could have left her and saved himself. Instead he strove to the end. The other girls, with strength and resolve barely seen in most adults let alone teenagers, stuck together and survived.
It’s the kind of story only ever seen on Disney movies or old after-school specials. It fills my heart with sadness and also a surge of pride for those brave girls that survived.
Go and read the comments at cnn.com and come back here and add to this discussion. What is the proper way to engage in public discourse? Can we talk about tragedy without getting nasty? Is there any value in it at all? What about in politics or news? If we don’t like the kinds of polarizing debates going on elsewhere, should we all change the way we have discussions? Can we simply start to listen?